VEGAN GETS DECADENT

A strange thing has been happening in San Diego recently. Vegan has become a legitimate dining option. Plant-based cuisine has risen to the quality of “regular food” — gotten so good, in fact, even dedicated carnivores are eating it. On purpose.

Okay, I’m speaking from the perspective of a beef eater — I like cheese on my pizza, chicken with my waffles and tuna on my melt. I still haven’t grown out of the pork belly trend and, when it comes to eating exotic, I’m game for game. Going back to my teen years, letting my vegan friends choose a restaurant meant submitting myself to slimy mock meat products, thinly dressed salads and dense, crumbly baked goods.

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But times have changed. I’m learning to shed myself of these prejudices, and I’m not alone. I talked to Beau Broughton, the local grassroots coordinator for the Humane League, a ten year organization dedicated to reducing the suffering of farm animals. “I think we’re reaching a tipping point where vegan food is no longer seen as inferior,” Broughton says, “From craft cocktail bars to fast food, San Diego is seeing a surge in vegan options… from veggie dogs at Petco Park to mind-blowing vegan flavors at Donut Bar and Nomad Donuts.”

Callie Coker and Nichole Dinato host a local podcast Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack! During a recent episode, they discussed the many reasons people choose a vegan lifestyle, including ethical (treatment of animals), health-based (reducing fat and cholesterol), and environmental — because cattle ranches are literally as bad for the planet as cars. Dinato says 2015 “was a huge year for awareness and acceptance of veganism,” in part due to younger generations factoring all of the above into their eating decisions. “The generation coming up behind mine is very aware of all of these issues and they are passionate about making a change,” she says, “They are eating vegan food alongside non-vegan food and loving both.”

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More amazing is a new breed of vegan restaurants elevating the cuisine with quality ingredients and technique. Take Café Gratitude in Little Italy. The LA restaurant group product looks every bit the contemporary restaurant, with interior design slick and beautiful enough to invite anything from a first date to a fourth anniversary dinner. A long list of menu options range from a faux pastrami sandwich to a macrobiotic quinoa bowl. Conceptually, these aren’t too different from my retired vegan misperceptions, but in practice these dishes are excellent. Eating one of these quinoa bowls I literally felt like I was getting healthier with each bite. More importantly, my meal tasted great, and filling.

But there’s one other hurdle to getting meat-eaters to knowingly walk into a vegan lair, and that’s the attitude. Café Gratitude is all about the affirmation — “I am love” is literally written all over the restaurant. The plates ask, “What are you grateful for?” For a cynical bacon fetishist like myself, the self-congratulatory idealism of vegan culture can be a major turnoff, wherein I set my intention to get-the-hell-out.

Which brings me to Kindred, where the writing on the wall says, “Hardcore will never die. But you will.”

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“We really wanted to break that stereotype,” says Kory Stetina, who cofounded the South Park restaurant as “Not necessarily this holy place where vegans come together to celebrate each other for being vegan.” Stetina has been vegan 14 years, but fell into the restaurant game by way of beer. Namely, beer pairing dinners were happening all over town, but none of them vegan. He realized, if he wanted to participate, he’d have to organize one himself.

So in 2011, he launched the first Love Like Beer pop up dinner, expecting he could draw a crowd of up to 80 people. 400 showed up. The kicker? “Most of the people that came,” he says, “weren’t vegetarian or vegan.” They weren’t drawn to the vegan menu so much as the decadent feel to the night, the fun-loving atmosphere.

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So Kindred pulls out all the stops — killer design, awesome cocktail list, a raucous soundtrack — and with a sense of humor that belies its animal-free ethos. Its menu offers saucy, tasty dishes like beet risotto, a BBQ jackfruit sandwich or a stack of pancakes for weekend brunch. Stetina says the food isn’t designed to appeal to health-conscious counter-culturalists, rather to foodies on a mission to devour San Diego’s best. “That’s how non vegan food is being served right now,” he says, “a lot of bold flavors, a lot areas of the palate getting hit by different flavors and textures.”

Bold and tasty used to be the domain of animal flesh, but those days are gone. Eating vegan is better now than it’s been at any time in my life, and choosing a vegan restaurant is no longer a game of diminishing returns. Sometimes… I even crave it.

Photos by Erin Jackson