Back to Herbivore, Mission District San Fransisco

This is a very quick blog post written purely to recommend three things. Visiting the sutro baths, eating before you get on an internal Delta flight, and eating the quesadillas at Herbivore. I could devour them every day and I don’t think I could get bored of that plate of food.

  

I’d get fat, yes, but aside from Mohawk Bend in LA, I’m not sure there’s another restaurant in the world that turns unhealthy classics vegan as well as Herbivore do. And no, I don’t do PR for them, I’m just hungry for quesadillas.

  

The mission burrito: vegan style at El Casa Mexicana, SF

The mission burrito. It had to happen. It’s a behemoth that puts all other burritos I’ve eaten to shame. It looks more like a brick than a food stuff, and after eating a quarter of it, I feel that the whole pound of burrito that is left could feed a small family for a week.

  

Although everybody says you should go to Mission Street to get the burrito if your dreams, we obviously didn’t do that, and went to a road about five blocks west, closer to Duboce and Castro than Mission. I wanted to go in because I am perennially afraid of beans being cooked in pig lard, and Casa Mexicana had an enormous range of vegetarian options including tofu. This sounded like the worst option, so I opted for that to see if they could make it work.
Like everyone in the world, they couldn’t make the white flaccid tofu work, however marinated it had been in Mexican flavour sauces. But the rest of the burrito was incredible.
First she coated the tortilla bread in a layer of rice, added black beans (with an elaborate wrist-flick) and scattered a few chunks of tofu (regret). Then a generous handful of lettuce, guacamole, hot sauce, and chopped tomatoes before packaging it all up – envelope style – and thwacking it on the plate.
If this sounds bland – thank you for your concern, but don’t panic! There was an enormous station of condiments, sauces, limes, and chopped onions to pour and drizzle over, which made the whole experience far more verdant and tangy.
I’ve been carrying around the amount of burrito I didn’t finish for about an hour and I’m concerned about developing repetitive strain damage. For $5.50, that’s an insane amount of good, tasty food, from not quite in the mission district and a free helping of some of the best tortilla chips of all time.

Buddha Bodai: eating vegan in NYC’s Chinatown

  

Vegan Thai and Chinese restaurants in big American cities are ten-a-penny, but I was keen to revisit a vegan Chinese restaurant in New York after a previous disastrous attempt with my parents.

My dad knows what he likes to eat – tofu carved into the shape of a chicken is not one of these things. We went expecting chow mein and we left slightly startled and still hungry. I fear that experience has put him off Asian eating for life. 

Although I’ve travelled to China since – and really enjoyed the choice and tastes of vegetarian food – I’ve always been a little unnerved by fake meat and things that are meant to resemble chicken feet or intestines but are actually tofu. 

We poked around San Francisco’s Chinatown – at 24 blocks, it’s the largest Chinatown outside of China, but already full and rolling from a hefty brunch at Herbivore we just couldn’t make room for dim sum. 

  

So an opportune day trip to New York arose in the form of a lengthy layover at JFK, and we decided to fully embrace a trip to Chinatown to Buddha Bodai to give vegan Chinese another go.

For $7.50 you get unlimited hot tea, a starter of soup or spring roll, rice, and an enormous plate of main meal (19 options!). These ranged from the weird (chicken nuggets in sauce, to the delicious, normal sounding broccoli and deep fried shiitake mushroom in sauce. 

  

It’s canteen style, with tables relatively close together and a busy, impersonal service, but the food is phenomenal.

I have never eaten such an incredible sweet sour soup in my whole life, and Sam, who eats meat, agrees. It’s a little over-thickened and the texture is a tad gloopy, but who the hell cares? It’s warm, and spicy, and sour without being rich and without any hint of that sticky red sweetness that constitutes a sweet and sour soup in London’s Chinatown. 

  

The spring roll had that pleasing crunch of pastry and slight ooze of oil that you hope for in a spring roll. Even better, you could taste the vegetables inside it – they were crunchy too and hadn’t just been denigrated to a slimy mush. 

The mains were a slightly mixed bag, but that’s only because I wanted to try the plate of bean curd skin, and in reflection, that was a mistake. The mushrooms and broccoli was a dish from another world. I hadn’t quite realised the mushroom would be deep fried and coated in a sticky, gelatinous sauce, so it was crunchy and sticky at the same time. 

  

Too tired after my bumpy-non sleeping night flight to even chew, (#firstworldproblems), Sam polished off most of two mains and the two starters and tea. 

  

It was a noble effort, and we waddled out of Chinatown and towards the subway, where I promptly fell asleep. 

Herbivore: where skinheads and hippies join hands and eat pancakes

“Sitting in the booth next to me is a tattooed man. He is a skinhead. He has a male partner who is looking enviously at the vegan gluten free lasagne that the waitress has just placed in front of him. 

We are sitting in a vegan restaurant, called herbivore. In front of him sits a half drunk spirulina infused pineapple juice. When he talks he has a Yorkshire accent. “I’m from Chesterfield,” he says. We momentarily reminisce about the leaning spire of Chesterfield (google it). He looks hard -tough knuckles kind of hard – and like the sort of man I used to avoid in Sheffield City centre on a Friday night.


Folks, this is San Francisco, where men with tough morals and tough fists eat vegan.”

I wrote this almost a year ago, when I visited San Francisco for the first time. Now I’m back, and I’ve dragged Sam to the Berkeley branch of the same restaurant.

The breakfast menu is staggeringly good for this area, and the price is great compared to other vegan restaurant places we’ve visited. This is my fourth visit to Herbivore, and each time I’m torn between trail mix choc chip pancakes, salsa and corn cakes, the breakfast burrito, or sausage, biscuits and gravy.

Luckily, this time I have an ally, so we split the corn cakes and pancakes, and to alleviate the guilt, get a green juice too.

As ever, it’s perfect. Vegan sour cream, creamy avocado, crunchy corn cakes and piquant tomato salsa. Amazing.

I always forget how little I like pancakes for breakfast, but feel compelled to order them in the U.S. Regardless. These are fine, but I hate having such a sweet, stodgy start to the day. And this day I’ve been up since 4.30am trying to meet a deadline for my book proposal. So my fingers are hungry at the very least.

So here’s to vegan breakfasteries, and the pleasure of shared breakfast meetings. 




Similies: exploring Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto

The last few weeks have provided the writer within me a chance to fumble around with some wordplay, and produce some hugely awful and desperate similes. Even though you’ve barely drunk your morning coffee, I’d be damn surprised if you didn’t want to hear any of these excellent examples. So here goes: As many ____ as ghost tours in New Orleans. As many ____ as animal hospitals in West Hollywood. As many ____ as car angst scenes in the movie Shelter.

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And now I guess I can add: As many ____ as fresh food marketplaces in Berkeley, California.

I’ve been before. I suppose every vegan should one day make the pilgrimage to the home of California cuisine, and the town that kickstarted the vegan revolution (of sorts). Last time I came I was bowled over. London is doing many exciting things in its culinary scene at the moment, but none so thrilling as California’s: vegan cinnamon rolls at Cinnaholic; Cafe Gratitude‘s BLT; chocolate cake at Herbivore. Although probably tame and old news to Californians, from a Londoner’s perspective, where vegan food in comparison to the size of the city is lacking somewhat, Berkeley was mind-blowing to me.

After spending the last eight months actively hunting down vegan food around the world, it’s probably diminished in excitement, but it’s still the shrine; the original.

So, after a long drive down from Yosemite national park, we headed straight to Cinnaholic where I devoured a strawberry and cream cheese cinnamon roll washed down with lemonade. In desperate need of walking off my car fat (and now cake fat), we took a long walk around the UC Berkeley campus and hiked up and down Shattuck Avenue’s Gourmet Ghetto. When we’d worked up enough appetite, we headed to Cafe Gratitude.

Polenta bowl at Cafe Gratitude

Polenta bowl at Cafe Gratitude

We’d been so impressed with the LA location – the menu was enormous. This one was tiny, but had a vibrant selection of items. I picked my fave BLT (the bacon replaced by smoked coconut chips), and Sam chose the polenta bowl with mushrooms and greens. It was awesome, and I found myself picking at his meal the entire time – I can’t resist anything creamy when it’s so tough to make food creamy at home without┬áturning it into a thai dish or a peanut butter flavoured dish! If only we had a surplus of avocados and cashew nuts back in England!

Now properly stuffed with food, we tootled down to the marina and strolled around the headland, watching people bring their boats in off the bay as the sun began to set over San Francisco. I spent far too much time staring in awe at the sky, when Sam reminded me we needed to speed up to be at our friend’s house for 7.30. I needn’t have worried leaving the sunset: their house is on the top of a hill in the bay area and overlooks the city, the Golden Gate bridge, and the ocean. It’s spectacular and is an absolute treat to be staying here. (So if either of them are reading – thank you!)

The view from Oakland hills over the bay

The view from Oakland hills over the bay

Eating vegan at Yosemite National Park

Bears. They’re everywhere if you’ll believe the signs. Every year 16 bears are hit and killed by speeding cars in the park, and the park rangers show vivid films of bears breaking into cars and stealing all the food. 

  

This meant that in the campground we were staying in – unheated tents in Curry Village (error, it dropped to about -3 degrees) – we weren’t able to cook our own food. We had to rely on the canteen and pizza place at the campground, both of which were very much geared towards pleasing children. The camp was probably doing the best it could, but the food was painfully expensive – a large pizza with no cheese and extra olives and tomatoes cost $28. I mean, what the hell? Surely cheese is the most expensive ingredient there – why not give me a handful of mushrooms for free? 

  

At the risk of sounding like a tight-arse miser, this felt expensive, even for the heart of the national park. 

This is a post about vegan food at the park rather than the national park itself, which is of course, incredible. Striking blue skies, powdery grey waterfalls, green trees and slate grey mountains made every vista look like it had been drawn by a child with a limited supply of crayons. But what crayons! What colour!

  

We did lots of hikes (three in one afternoon) – mirror lake, Vernal Falls, and Yosemite falls. They were all, of course spectacular, but we spent our visit desperately wishing we’d packed our hiking gear so we could tackle longer and more strenuous hikes. Sadly, our airline baggage allowance wouldn’t permit it.

  

Away from the mountains and back to the vegan food, which is surely a concern for anyone coming to visit. The grill in Yosemite Village has black bean burgers for 10.95 and there was a sizeable salad offering in Curry Village – bear in mind that each salad is measured by weight. There was also a vegan marinara sauce for the pasta dish which looked pretty good.

All in all, vegans could probably eat one evening meal fine in Curry or Yosemite Village. If you’re concerned at all, I recommend stopping off in Mariposa at the High Country Cafe, which is attached to a whole food shop (not Wholefoods). You can buy vegan trail mix there and the essential Almond Dream ice cream bites. Just remember that everything has to be put in the bear box outside your tent, and no cooking!

Ps. It’s cold at night. Get a sleeping bag at the very least. I wore two pairs of jeans, three jumpers and my coat. Still freezing. 

  

Santa Monica Blues: Real Food Daily

You know those moods you get into when nothing goes well? And even though you’re obviously having the time of your life being in Santa Monica (etc etc), even if somebody from Penguin rocked up and offered you a book contract you’d manage a grimace at best?

Well that was my mood in Santa Monica. Apart from being disastrously difficult to reach by public transport (despite the 704), a woman who had clearly never had a shower sat down in front of me and I couldn’t physically move. While I was trying not to retch (the smell was indescribable) I ran through twenty million things like: this woman has been victimised by the US’s terrible social security system; it’s disgusting that there are no benefits; she might have had a catastrophic medical bill to pay; depression can make even keeping clean challenging. But despite my liberal attempts at justifying this lady’s state, I couldn’t ignore two things: there are free showers down by the beach, and that I would be on a bus with her for an hour. It was tough, but even admitting that felt hard. My one hour of hardship was nothing compared to her life, so I shouldn’t ever complain.

Second strike: We rocked up at a hotel in Santa Monica that I thought I’d organised through a PR for the one free night of my trip, but turns out I was an idiot and hadn’t confirmed it. So we were on the road sooner than we had planned to be.

And here’s where my foul mood started: even though we went to Real Food Daily, I couldn’t shift the black cloud of irritation. So, now we’ve put the meal into perspective, let me give as balanced opinion as I can of the meal.

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1. It didn’t open until 11am. What is with late opening times in LA? It’s not like anything even shuts late…

2. I ordered the veggie burger with all the trimmings (seiten bacon, cashew cheese, and avocado). At 13 dollars this should be included anyway. It pushed the price up to 16 dollars which was a lot.

3. The plate was accompanied by a caeser salad with crouton chunks. These could probably be donated to the local geological society under “lumps of lava”. They were inedibably hard – I was concerned that if I ate more than one chunk I’d be returning to the UK with no teeth. Not ideal.

4. The seiten bacon and cashew cheese were absolutely delicious, and the lentil burger was ok. The best thing about the whole plate? The tangy and creamy caeser salad dressing.

5. No wifi. Do not come here if you need to arrange urgent road trip preparations or book hotels. (From painful experience).

6. The service was amazing. Our server was lovely and cheerful and friendly.

7. The bakery part of RFD looked like something out of this world. Amazing. I only wish I’d had room after the burger to try something, like a slice of pie or slab of chocolate cake. Sigh.

It didn’t manage to turn my bad mood around, but it did fill a sizeable hole in my stomach. And the server was fab – did I mention that?