November 26, 2022

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I’ve spent more than a little time trying to figure out where the long list of National Something or Other Days came from.
My deep-seeded sense of conspiracy makes me wonder about a secret group meeting in a secure facility, perhaps a culinary offshoot of the Illuminati. Why, in recent weeks, they named Sept. 5 National Cheese Pizza Day and Sept. 15 National Cheese Toast Day leaves me boggled. But not nearly as confused as the dubbing of Sept. 23 as Hug a Vegetarian Day — oddly the same day that’s also National Snack Stick Day.
Unlike the other culinary days, Hug a Vegetarian Day has a somewhat condescending ring to it — as if vegetarians were somehow in need of a special request for both love and respect. That may have been the way things were a long time ago, when vegetarians were Birkenstock wearers with beards and loose cotton meditation pants. Back in the day, there was a vegan restaurant in San Francisco called Communion run by a religious group who walked to farmers market every day, did not permit conversation over meals, and had a cigar box in which you were asked to contribute whatever you wanted for your meal.
That’s how we thought of vegetarians back then. And the disparagement was general.
In his book “Kitchen Confidential,” Anthony Bourdain wrote, “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living.” (And certainly his anti-veg attitude matches well with the current Cracker Barrel folderol involving their plant-based sausage. You’d think they were serving human body parts! Heck, if you don’t want the sausage, don’t order it.)
But for the most part, vegetarians don’t need a hug these days. There’s a long and illustrious history of serious, non-glib humans hailing the wonders of the meatless life. Albert Einstein, who was a lot smarter than most of us, said, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
George Bernard Shaw informed us that, “The average longevity of a meat eater is 63. I am on the verge of 85 and still work as hard as ever. I have lived quite long enough and am trying to die, but I simply cannot do it. A single beef-steak would finish me; I cannot bring myself to swallow it. I am oppressed with a dread of living forever. That is the only disadvantage of vegetarianism.”
And George Orwell, who saw the future with 20/20 clarity in “1984” and “Animal Farm,” was deeply hostile to vegetarianism, even though one critic condemned him as being part of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking to the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.”
(Should you want to study the history of hostility to vegetarians, I refer you to the large chapter in Wikipedia headed “Vegaphobia,” which is a new word to me. We discover, somewhat amazingly, that Britain’s National Health Service posted a job ad that said, “Occupational Therapists with vegan diets cannot be considered.” A primary school in England expelled a 5-year-old for drinking soy milk during lunch. Which seems excessive, and then some. Like I said, if you don’t want it, don’t eat it!)
So, I guess the bottomline is…vegetarians could use a hug. At least in England.
Here in SoCal, we love our veggies. We probably eat more fruit and vegetables than anyone else in America. And we do it with terrific creativity and style. Vegetables are our friends. Even if you don’t hug a vegetarian, hug a carrot. And not just on Sept. 23. Every day would be just fine — at great meatless places like these!
709 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach; 310-379-5035
This is a vegetarian Vietnamese café, a style of cooking that works very nicely for those of us who proudly insist on holding onto our omnivore membership cards, thanks to the strong spices, dominant herbs and powerful sauces of Vietnamese cooking.
I actually think that vegetarian Thai cooking works even better. But it’s hard to complain about a meal at Happy Veggie — every dish makes you happy that you’re eating your veggies. This is truth in advertising.
I dropped by Happy Veggie with a closet vegetarian who observed that if all vegetarian restaurants were this pleasant and tasty, he’d have no problem at all leaving the world of meat behind. The menu is easy to navigate, and filled with numerous temptations, as long as you recognize that the chicken, shrimp and beef dishes are made with soy chicken, soy shrimp and soy beef — which don’t taste as much like chicken, shrimp and beef as they do like soy. And that’s fine, though for me, soy will never replace a nicely grilled chicken thigh. Still, accommodations must be made.
You don’t really have to go much beyond the handful of appetizers to create a happy meal at Happy Veggie. The Golden Tofu, a dish of fried tofu cubes, flavored with tiger mint, with a lemon dipping sauce, is much more subtle than you might expect a deep-fried dish to be — and it doesn’t lay as heavy on the mid-section as might be expected.
The veggie dumplings are pretty much essential — a plate of snappy little dough wrappers packed with cabbage, mushrooms and carrots, with pickled cabbage and carrots on the side, and a vinegar dipping sauce. They like their vinegar here, and so do I.
The chicken drumsticks are faux chicken, but not faux tasty, especially if you use lots of the teriyaki sauce, which would make my Reeboks taste pretty good. And, of course, there are two types of spring rolls — one with lettuce, mint, soba noodles and soy shrimp; the other with jicama and tofu, both served with peanut sauce. Refer back to my comment on teriyaki sauce when it comes to peanut sauce, and double it.
Is there pho? Of course there is, at pretty much every table. Only instead of being made with hard-to-identify chunks of beef, it’s made with easier to recognize tofu and soy chicken, plus ginger and what the menu tells us is “over 10 healthy herbs.”
There are four other soups, including a curry, potato and carrot creation that’s pretty amazing. There are two soy chicken salads, and half a dozen soy chicken entrees. But as ever, it’s a vegetable, served as a vegetable, that I’ll be sure to order next time around — the eggplant with tofu in a brownish sauce that made it impossible to stop grabbing random tastes.
The stir-fried mixed veggies are a hit as well. A very happy mix of veggies, stir-fried with tofu. A happy dish in a happy room, with a happy coconut cake for dessert.
320 S. Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach; 424-304-2247, www.puravitalosangeles.com
Vegan Italian cuisine is…Italian cuisine, pretty much flat out. A browse through most Italian menus are proof that though meat is present, it’s not overwhelming. Cheese has a greater presence, but there are tasty workarounds these days. (My lactose-intolerant daughter has introduced me to the wonderful world of plant-based cheeses. I’m definitely impressed, especially when they’re used as a cooking ingredient.)
The 100-percent meatless menu at Pura Vita offers full disclosure of the alternatives offered. The meatballs are mushroom-lentil. The mozzarella and the ricotta are cashew, the parmigiano is macadamia, as is the Romano cream sauce. The pepperoni is “BE-Hive,” a vegan line out of Nashville that uses seitan (wheat protein). Pretty much every dish offers a gluten-free option.
Most of the wines are produced using methods that are organic, biodynamic and sustainable — words I toss around without a lot of understanding of their meaning. The food is pretty wonderful. Delicious insalata caprese (cashew mozzarella). A Cesare made with massage Tuscan kale (tasty, and relaxed!). A fine bucatini pesto, and snappy spaghetti carbonara (shiitake bacon). A bunch of good, crispy pizzas — both red and white — one topped with fennel pollen, another with micro basil. The Mushroom-lentil meatballs in a sandwich and as a polpettine antipasto.
I was happy to also get the broccoli rabe — because that’s all it was, just broccoli, with garlic, chili flakes and sea salt. So simple, so good — and vegan without announcing it. Vegetables are our friends.
Plaza El Segundo, 720 Allied Way, El Segundo, 310-535-0025; Rolling Hills Plaza, 2533 Pacific Coast Hwy., Torrance, 310-325-6689; veggiegrill.com
There are numerous Veggie Grill branches here in Southern California, with more scattered between here and Seattle. The popularity of the chain is undeniable; on a Saturday night, the El Segundo outlet is pretty much packed, not with the wheat juice crowd, but with families who appear to enjoy a hamburger with fries during the rest of the week.
Veggie Grill has managed to position itself as a destination for both vegetarians, and non-vegetarians. It’s a tasty alternative for those who want recognizable dishes, even if those recognizable dishes aren’t made of the animal protein they’re usually made of. I’m talking about classic bits of tasty Americana like Buffalo wings (veggie chicken), mac and cheese (vegan cheese), beefless steaks, crabless crab cakes, fishless Baja fish tacos.
In my humble experience, no one local does meatless meat better than the Chinese vegetarian restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley, where they offer a crazy panoply of “guilt-free” proteins — pork, chicken, beef, goose, shrimp … the list goes on and on. Out there, I’m never quite sure if I’m eating something made from tofu or from grains. But whatever the mix, the taste is surprisingly like the original.
As a rule, it’s the texture that screams different. At Veggie Grill, they do an admirable job of replicating flavors. The “chickin’” — made from “organic or non-GMO soybeans, wheat and peas” — is chicken-like enough. It tastes good in the Thai Chickin’ Salad, the All Hail Kale Salad with blackened chickin’, and the crispy chickin’ plate.
But for those of us who derive much pleasure picking chicken pieces apart, knowing where the juiciest little nuggets hide, this isn’t so much chicken as veggies playing at being chicken. It’s a good alternative, a fine alternative. And anyway, my point is to drop some avoirdupois. Which even on a vegetarian diet, can be a bit of a task.
This food may be meatless, but it’s not without calories. I ordered a Papa’s Portobello Burger, and found myself facing down a considerable pile of food. The mushroom, with its meat-surrogate taste and texture, is grilled a bit too much, and served on a dullish wheat bun with lettuce, red onions, grilled onions, tomato and garlic sauce, pesto sauce and a chipotle ranch dressing.
The Santa Fe crispy chickin’ burger is battered and fried. The sandwiches come with Yukon Gold fries, chili or coleslaw. The fries are, well, fries.
If you don’t want bread, the sandwiches can be served on kale, which is just a passable substitute. I prefer kale when it’s served as a salad — there’s a quinoa and kale salad on the menu that’s quite good, made with cukes, peppers and onions. You can get a bigger version of the salad, called Quinoa Power, with avocados, fennel, cannellini beans, carrots, hemp seeds and such added for goodness.
Nine24 Kitchen, 924 N Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach, 310-921-8505, nine24kitchen.com; Source Café, 509 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach, 310-318-1600, www.thesourcecafe.com
The original Source Café sits on Pier Avenue in the midst of mellow, healthy lifestyle Hermosa Beach. No big surprise. The newer branch — Nine24 Kitchen — is a mellow healthy lifestyle restaurant on far from mellow, definitely frenetic Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach — an urban racetrack where cars rush north and south as fast as they semi-legally can.
But then, Source Café is awash with surprises. Where the casual outdoor patio sits on the street in Hermosa, it’s hidden in the back on Sepulveda. You pull into the parking lot, and the world changes. There isn’t much people watching; just car spotting. But the controlled chaos of Sepulveda seems far, far away.
The staff, bubbly and good humored, have much to say about the occasional odd term on the menu — who knew that maca is Peruvian ginseng? For food that would seem to be grounded in simplifying our lives and our world, this can be pretty complicated stuff. Though, of course, it doesn’t have to be.
Order the tasty 3 Way Beets, and you get beets raw, pickled and roasted, with vegan almond ricotta and dukkah — an Egyptian/Middle Eastern mix of many herbs and spices that smells just great; a very good light lunch and dinner dish.
Show up for breakfast, and the food is pretty much what you’d expect to get at a healthy eatery. There are no eggs Benedict on the menu. Instead, there are scrambled eggs served with a green herb salad and sourdough bread; and brother avocado (with cashew cream sauce) and banana bread French toast. There’s cured salmon on a bagel. And a biscuit sando of a fried egg, spicy aioli, arugula and avocado.
There’s also porridge — a 19th-century word that smacks of chilly nights on the moors. In this case, it’s made with buckwheat, amaranth (an herby plant ground into grain), coconut milk, jam, cinnamon and pecans; the laddies in Scotland wouldn’t know what to make of it.
There are actually two menus here, which overlap, one on the front and one on the back of a single sheet, one designated as “Day” (10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), the other not designated at all, but clearly a bit more serious.
“Day” is where you’ll find the eggs and the toasts. Later on, there’s a snack plate of olives, spiced nuts and pickles, along with pappardelle pasta with anchovies and garlic. There are entrées of bison meatballs, sea bass with salsa verde, salmon with black rice and carrot turmeric curry, fries with spicy aioli. (The bison burger overlaps from Day to Night, as does the fried chicken sando. But dinner comes with fries with spicy aioli, which are always welcome.)
What I do like about Source Café, aside from the tasty food — often very tasty food — is that this is a healthy restaurant that doesn’t beat you about the head and body telling you it’s healthy. There’s wine. There’s beer. There are desserts, under the heading, “Sweets.” There are “Mocktails” and “soft” cocktails, made without the hard stuff.
I’m reminded of the militantly healthy restaurant I went to years ago at 7 p.m. — only to be lectured by my server that I was eating too late, and wouldn’t sleep well. That’s not the vibe at Source. Here, you can do whatever. Though a taste for almond ricotta doesn’t hurt.
The Point, 860 S. Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo; 310-469-7725, www.truefoodkitchen.com
True Food Kitchen is the creation of healthy living guru Dr. Andrew Weil, along with Arizona restaurateur Sam Fox. But it’s not Sam Fox’s face that’s on books for sale at the entrance. It’s the Santa Claus-like visage of Dr. Weil, and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona — a major spokes-doctor for holistic health, and a proponent of the anti-inflammatory diet, which the menu describes as, “a blueprint for a lifetime of optimal nutrition.”
His food is a combination of Mediterranean, Asian and Californian, with plenty of dishes on the menu marked with “V” for Vegan, “VEG” for Vegetarian and “GF” for Gluten Free. There’s no beef or pork on the menu. But there is bison and seafood, cheese and alcohol — the last of which is found in a selection of quirky “Libations, Presses & Punches,” with names like “Spontaneous Happiness” and “Thai Grapefruit Martini.”
Terms like “organic,” “bio-dynamic,” “responsibly source” and “The Environmental Working Group” pepper the menu, making us all feel as if we’re in the presence of righteousness, goodness and holiness. Even if we just dropped by for a pilsner and some edamame dumplings.
The notion of kale and avocado dip with spiced pita chips while watching Dodger baseball is an odd one. But hey, any food works with Dodger baseball. (The night I was there, one of the big screens was showing a poker tournament. That was very strange with shiitake and organic tofu lettuce cups.)
The servers, so relentlessly upbeat you wonder if they’re drinking too much matcha green tea and honey lemonade (a Green Arnie), is dressed in t-shirts that read, variously, “Spiritual Gangster,” “Grateful” and “Warrior.” The place is mellow — but so noisy; all that “organicness” doesn’t quiet the echoes and the bounce. Which means you may have to shout to be heard over your “inside out” quinoa burger with hummus, tzatziki and feta cheese. Laidback and high volume are more than a little contradictory. But no one seems to be complaining.
And then there’s the food, which is certainly a step up from most of the V, VEG and GF chow around town. It’s good, even better than good. But it isn’t great. What they do best are salads — no surprise there, for this is Salad Cuisine.
The organic Tuscan kale salad, with a dressing of lemon and parmesan, could almost make me like kale again. And I probably will, when it stops appearing on every cool restaurant menu in the known world. (I suffer from a serious kale overdose.) There’s an heirloom tomato and watermelon salad with goat cheese and cashews. A worthwhile Mediterranean chopped salad (though for the record, quinoa ain’t Med, not even close), a chopped chicken salad with jicama and manchego cheese.
Even better was the plate of “street tacos,” with a topping of avocado and cotija cheese. And the Moroccan chicken was good, though it consisted of a pretty small piece of chicken.
I let the server (a Spiritual Gangster) talk me into the Super Berry Tart, made with blueberry and sea buckthorn, which was okay. But next time, I’ll hold out for the low-fat lemon-ginger frozen yogurt. It’s gluten-free and vegetarian. Stop the presses!
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email mreats@aol.com.
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