Going Vegan for a Change
Four new vegan outlets convince an omnivore that meatless might be doable.
The setting may be funky at Hella Vegan Eats at Classic Cars West Beer Garden, but the food is great.
I've never casually considered going vegetarian, let alone vegan. There are some excuses I can offer, including that it's essentially career sabotage for someone in my line of work, but the truth is more selfish: I just love meat too much.
I've always been impressed by those with the conviction to eat animal-free. So it was with them in mind that I decided to take a closer look at four recently opened vegan restaurants.
Did my trip down the meatless side paths tempt me toward veganism? Not really, but it did show me that such a decision is being made progressively easier. Would I want to eat Core Kitchen's ultra-healthy fare every day? No. Would I want to eat the crazy comfort food of Hella Vegan Eats every day? No, again. But I wouldn't have to, and that's kind of the point. There are so many more diverse options out there now for vegans. If they want sophistication, they can go to Millennium. If they feel like a guilty, near-meat experience they can hit up The Butcher's Son. And, hey, I might even do the same. In a world that would undoubtedly benefit from less meat consumption, that's nothing but a good thing.
Core Kitchen has one of the most impressive displays of pepper I've ever seen. I soon realized why. The downtown Oakland lunch spot's organic, gluten-free fare is made strictly from whole fresh fruits and vegetables with no added sugar, salt, or oil. So that leaves pepper.
It's clear that owner Corey Rennell who founded Oakland's Core Foods, which makes similar prepackaged meals, is spreading the word about this healthy mode of eating. Vivid posters of the food and where the ingredients are sourced adorn the walls, along with encouraging words like, "By eating at the Core Kitchen, you are changing the lives of these farmers and making the world a better place."
The in-your-face messaging and hyper-bright and clean interior turned me off a bit. But the food won me over. I could see how this place would be a godsend for folks with any sort of diet limitations or who are simply looking for a quick, super-healthy lunch.
I found the menu surprisingly inventive and accessible—lemon baked potato skins, blanched zucchini noodles, collard wraps—without trying too hard to imitate meat dishes. And the ingredients were fresh, obviously well sourced, and, yes, even to my meat-dulled senses, quite flavorful. I also found items, like The Yucatan, a wrap with roasted sweet potatoes mixed with sautéed veggies and a cumin tahini sauce, quite filling.
Core Kitchen: 499 14th St., No. 119, Oakland, 510-350-8406, www.CoreFoods.com.
The Butcher's Son has a fascinating backstory. The father of sibling co-owners Christina Stobing and Peter Fikaris was a spiritual leader who also ran a vegan restaurant in Oakland in the '90s, where the two worked as teens. C'mon: That's an HBO series waiting to happen.
The idea behind The Butcher's Son, a vegan deli and sandwich shop, was to offer a place where former meat eaters could get facsimiles of the pre-vegan dishes they crave. Thus, the menu is filled with items such as a meatball sandwich, Philly cheesesteak, and spicy chicken B.L.A.T., in which the "meat" is made from plant-based products such as seitan or yuba enhanced with wheat gluten and protein flour.
It's also a gorgeous space inside a beautifully renovated old building filled with natural light, exposed brick walls, and a pitched wood rafter ceiling. There is very little verbiage anywhere that IDs this place and its food as vegan, which felt both intentional and subversive.
Of all the restaurants, I was the most skeptical of this one. Imitation meat will never taste like the real thing, so why even try? But the sandwiches were pretty good. The meatball sub, with meatballs made from a mix of seitan and shiitake mushrooms and fried mozzarella made with cashews, was sloppy and satisfying. The meatballs were flavorful with a backbone of mushrooms and had a familiar bouncy texture, while the fried mozzarella had a comforting gooeyness that bound the whole thing together. Ditto for the B.L.A.T., which featured a spicy "chicken" and smoky "bacon" that melded nicely with the crisp lettuce and fresh avocado.
Butcher's Son also sells its "meats" in bulk. But for me, the sandwiches were the thing, likely because there were other ingredients—the bread, the marinara sauce in the meatball sub, the lettuce and avocado in the B.L.A.T.—to serve as familiar touchstones and make any incongruities seem less jarring. I'd order both again, and that's saying a lot for a guy who loves a good meatball sub.
The Butcher's Son: 1941 University Ave, Berkeley, 510-984-0818, www.TheButchersVeganSon.com.
Millennium is a well-known brand in the Bay Area as one of the first upscale vegan restaurants; it opened in San Francisco more than 20 years ago. Last year, it made the move across the bay to Rockridge. Reflecting the move to the more casual East Bay, chef and co-owner Eric Tucker whittled-down some of the higher-end aspects of his food. But this was easily the most sophisticated dining experience of the places I visited, not only because of the trendy space, but also because it was the only one with full sit-down service.
I loved the setting, but the dining experience was a bit disappointing. The menu has an international theme and some interesting items. But ultimately, what you'd expect to be a point of emphasis at a fine dining vegan restaurant—the vegetables—felt curiously overlooked.
A brunch menu in April, when farmers markets are budding with lovely spring produce, was packed with heavy, all-season veggies such as cauliflower, carrots, celery, and mushrooms. I expected to love the sesame and Arborio crusted king trumpet mushrooms, but the main ingredient was so thin that deep-frying them obliterated any of the original taste, leaving only the crisp batter. A side of grilled broccoli-bell pepper salad did nothing to highlight the freshness of either vegetable. And the whole-wheat "Dancakes" came slathered in a saccharine coconut crème, while skimping on the delicious macerated strawberries.
Regardless, the place was packed and I can see why. It's a great spot for vegans to enjoy an adult night out (including vegan cocktails!). And the food was certainly good enough to make the experience worthwhile, especially if you get a seat in the lovely outdoor back patio.
Millennium: 5912 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 735-9459, www.MillenniumRestaurant.com.
Hella Vegan Eats at Classic Cars West Beer Garden is an environmentally conscientious classic car dealer that has teamed up with a pair of cutting-edge food truck mavens to offer vegan comfort food in an expansive new beer garden next to the showroom. Yup, there's Oakland at its quirky best.
Classic Cars West is in the heart of Uptown, and owner Michael Sarcona has supported the arts scene for years by hosting art exhibits amid his vintage autos. He wanted to do more to bring people to the area, so he opened a bar and beer garden and tapped popular vegan food truck Hella Vegan Eats to provide the food.
This place is such an awesome hidden gem—tucked between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway on 26th Street—that the food is almost beside the point. But I was happy to discover that Hella Vegan dishes out some hella tasty grub. Don't expect a refined meal. Instead, the food is an eclectic mash-up of comfort food, where you can get everything from a seitan-chickpea burger to a fried "chicken" sandwich on English muffins to a potsticker burrito.
This is fun food, and the staff and entire operation put out a wonderfully positive energy that suits the setting to a T. Would I prefer a burrito with real carnitas to one with cola-braised seitanitas? Probably, but the other ingredients in the Hellafornia burrito, including filling hand-cut fries, guacamole, cashew sour cream, and brown rice, were as good if not better than many of the burrito joints I've tried. Ultimately, it was damn tasty and it soaked up the beer just fine.
Hella Vegan Eats at Classic Cars West Beer Garden: 411 26th St., Oakland, 415-626 1135, www.ClassicCarsWest.com, www.HellaVeganEats.com.
Editor's Note: This story appears in the June edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.