Best Southern California Vegan Cuisine

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By Kevin RR Williams

Veganniversary

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Vegetarians can eat vegan food, but vegans may not necessarily eat vegetarian food. What’s the difference? Unless they’re lactose intolerant, ovo-lacto vegetarians consume dairy and eggs. I’m a hybrid since I enjoy eggs, real cheese, cashew butters, and oat milk.

During my anniversary month, I typically visit a different vegetarian restaurant each weekend. This year was a special milestone so my wife and I ventured to seven new Southern California plant-forward establishments. Some have casual ambiance. Others—by their pricing—represent formal dining.

Receiving no compensation for reviews, here are my unbiased opinions on what I saw and tasted.

Green Table Cafe

Our first stop was a casual early lunch spot in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Green Table Cafe serves all vegan, mostly raw dairy-free food with important nutrients and amino acids.

The Falafel Quiche has perhaps too much filling. My recommendations are to either add a layer of something else or serve a thinner quiche. It comes with a little marinara sauce. I ordered extra and finished it all.

For dessert, I enjoyed the chocolate cake. As expected, without egg, it’s dense like fudge, but very tasty. I would have preferred the cappuccino Served in a ceramic cup rather than a disposable one. The lack of real cream results in what is pretty much diluted coffee.

Gusto Green

This downtown Los Angeles plant-forward quasi-Italian restaurant opened in January 2022. Serving both meat and cannabis items distinguishes it from competitors. As a relatively new establishment, the menu is subject to change.

This is an upscale restaurant with un-uniformed friendly staff. It was a little off-putting to see people who look like customers placing things on my table. Servers should at least wear name tags.

The Kale Caesar with creamy avocado, spiced chickpea, brazil nut parm, and currants is delightful. My two suggestions are either to chiffonade the fibrous kale or wilt it as a warm salad. We enjoyed the Bigoli with pistachio pesto, sweet peas, fresh mint, and lemon olive oil, though ours was a little sticky from insufficient moisture.

The billowing artisan crust of the Squash Blossom pizza has a thin bottom with cherry tomatoes, cashew béchamel, and fresh garlic. This is best consumed as a New York style slice, with a fold.

The unexpected highlight of the evening—indeed for all time—is the Sweet Potato Fries with Sicilian harissa, green tahini, and fresh cilantro. We both bit into it and exclaimed to each other, “What just happened?” Hands down, if there is one thing to order in Los Angeles, this is it!

Seabirds

Why not head to Long Beach for a casual brunch. With airy indoor or outdoor seating, Seabirds cafe is someplace that appeals to beach goers. My wife had a simple tostada.

The burrito I ordered was far from Mexican. With choices of cilantro sauce or vegan aioli, I missed the traditional red sauce of a wet chimichanga-style burrito. We also made a point to try french fries wherever possible to see how they stack up to Gusto Green.

While I finished my course with the apple crisp, the hands-down favorite is the waffle churro with coconut ice cream.

Au Lac

Based on website photos, with high expectations, we bypassed the newer downtown Los Angeles venue and drove to Fountain Valley for the original Au Lac dining experience. Once there, it became apparent that the decor is decades outdated. But we were there for the gourmet Vietnamese vegan food.

After a medley of faux shrimp and chicken spring rolls, we enjoyed Kung Pao Chicken with black rice. Flavors were on point, though not elevated to the stratosphere of the prices. Next time I will save the gasoline and drive to the more modern downtown LA location.

Joey

This is a rapidly growing restaurant chain that does not specialize in vegan food. But it has a section on the menu for those with such a palate. The staff was exceptionally friendly—especially in light of our anniversary.

Our meal included parmesan fries with truffle oil, tofu lettuce wraps, and cauliflower wings. The airy beignets and apple crisp completed our celebration.

Shojin

This prior anniversary spot was worth a revisit. Last time, the only overlookable flaw at the downtown Japanese location was a lava cake that did not ooze. Now there’s a Culver City offshoot.

Prepare for a greeting by up to half a dozen friendly hostesses and servers. If you have no restrictions, let the chef serve you multiple courses of his choosing.

We opted for à la carte. I would say for sure that you shouldn’t come here to get full. Sharing servings requires restraint. Some sauces were misses, with odd or absent tastes. Servers brought spicy sauces to compensate. My impression is that the copy (this location) is not as good as the original.

Pura Vita

Following the success of the Hollywood venue, a newer location in Redondo Beach serves vegan Italian cuisine. Going for broke, we tried three appetizers, one entree, two beverages, and a dessert. First out were the Mint Lemonade and Lucky Duck Agave Blonde beer. Neither disappointed.

The flurry of appetizers included roasted Garlic Parmigiana Potato Wedges, Bastocini di Mozzarella, and Baked Ricotta with toasted bread. Of all the potatoes tried during this week-long restaurant sampling, these come in second to Gusto Green. The outer layer is encrusted with spices. They are drizzled with cashew crema. But the fault is dusting them with nutritional yeast. The is an option that could be served on the side. In my opinion, it makes the crema taste grainy.

We took no prisoners of toasted bread served with the slightly under seasoned baked ricotta. The breaded vegan mozzarella sticks are crispy on the outside and soft inside. They’re so weak that if you pick one up, it breaks in half. But the flavor is acceptable for a non-dairy counterpart. I can taste the fresh tomatoes in the marinara sauce. What I couldn’t taste was sautéed garlic, oregano, or salt.

Assessment

Los Angeles has many restaurants to satisfy discriminating tastes of vegans and vegetarians. Honorable mention goes to Veggie Grill for its Far East Bowl, which I’ve had dozens of times. Less frequently, I venture to Mendocino Farms for a seasonal vegetarian sandwich. Long gone are the days of settling for a frozen Garden Burger patty on a carnivorous menu.

Urban Plates survived the pandemic by reinventing itself with mostly meat entrees. I miss the made-to-order salads. However, they do offer a satisfying grilled portobello mushroom sandwich. Choose three or four from numerous veggie side dishes as another vegan option. Their mostly quinoa meatless loaf is tolerable, but lacks a firm bite.

It’s difficult to get enough of Urban Plate’s fresh lemonade. A slice of Hummingbird cake has diminished in size from it’s pre-pandemic glory. But the banana nut with pineapple and rum is still tantalizing tastebuds.

The Playa del Rey location sets the standard. A new location in Manhattan Beach deviates from recipes with sometimes unappetizing or too salty results.

Granted, most patrons feel it’s improper to criticize while dining, fearing the chef’s revenge. But with an average price of a meal for two being $70 (some double), restaurant managers could benefit from querying guests for suggestions that will keep them coming back. The excursion was enlightening. But I will not be revisiting some of these locations. Which have you tried?

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