In more easygoing times, we adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the omnipresent fish sauce in Thai restaurants. Now that we are more rigorous in our avoidance of animal products—and consequently do ask—we’ve had the experience of Thai dishes stripped not only of fish sauce (and oyster sauce, too) but also of flavor. Thai Vegan on Main Street in Santa Monica brilliantly solves the flavor problem but is not an entirely nice place to eat (table cleanups are DIY, and the parking-lot bathroom is best reserved for emergencies). Satdha (2218 Lincoln Blvd.) offers an appealing alternative, a bright, clean space, with an all-vegan menu full of color, crispiness, creaminess, and punch—and it happens to be a walkable, though uphill, hike from Main Street. We loved both the yellow and green curries: the former with fried tofu, carrots, potatoes, and onions; the latter with chickpeas, baby bamboo shoots, eggplant, bell pepper, and green beans. We were also impressed by the “catfish” eggplant, battered with rice and wheat flour, fried, and soaked in a red curry paste—clearly a customer favorite. But we found ourselves scarfing with particular relish the vermicelli with curry sauce, a toss-your-own platter of rice noodles, beans sprouts, chopped green beans, and pickled mustard greens. After three visits, we can now recommend Satdha without reservation. Will we be going back again soon? You hardly need to ask.
Veggie Grill may well have the leading edge. This rapidly expanding chain has managed the impressive feat of formulating an uncompromisingly dairy-, egg-, and meat-free menu that nonetheless packs them in day and night at our local branch (2025 Wilshire, at 20th St.). Even allowing for Santa Monica’s hypertrophic health consciousness, we are continually gratified by the size and diversity of the crowds, which range from the tattooed young to the most senior of citizens. What’s more, the testimony of friends and neighbors indicates that many of the customers are in fact meat eaters. But how is the food? If we put team loyalty aside, our candid assessment is that a number of items are delicious, particularly the sandwiches, though some of the side dishes, at least, could use more work. Tonight we ordered our favorite entrées, carne asada and the All-American Stack, both centered on strips of Veggie Grill’s proprietary meat substitute, a combination of proteins derived from soy, wheat, and peas. Though the fake meat does not entirely escape the stereotypical rubberiness, it comes close thanks to a deep, savory marinade. More important, the protein strips have a lot of help from the other ingredients. Indeed, the real triumph of the Veggie Grill sandwich is its meticulous layering of flavors. The carne asada, for example, employs a spiced vegan mayo; caramelized onions; raw red onion; lettuce; tomato; cilantro; and a salty, spicy relish of finely chopped carrots, all piled up on a soft whole wheat roll. The All-American Stack boasts thousand island dressing; sweet pickle slices; lettuce; tomato; the aforementioned relish; and, best of all, crisp fried onion rings. In addition to the chorus of flavors, a Veggie Grill sandwich offers the unexpected sensual pleasure of juicy messiness. (You may well need a stack of napkins.) Still, we fear that the same people who wolf down their sandwiches are liable to leave their ostentatiously healthy side dishes on their trays. The chili has an odd, harsh taste. The kale is merely steamed; the only flavors are pungent ginger and a dash of a salty sesame-based condiment. The sweet potato fries are fine, but be sure to ask for them without seasoning to avoid the weird, funky nutritional yeast with which they will otherwise be sprinkled. Finally, beware of the mac-and-cheese, which pairs a nutritional yeasty sauce with quinoa pasta, another alien dish from Planet Vegan. The desserts and some of the soups are better; we particularly like the carrot cake, a moist, chewy square with a sweet, creamy frosting made from margarine and Tofutti cream cheese. All in all, Veggie Grill promises a great leap forward for the vegan cause, and though we ourselves might prefer to be in Little Ethiopia mopping up a spicy lentil stew with injera, we’ll keep cheering it on.In the race to bring veganism to the masses,
Update: As of May 2014, Veggie Grill is up to 24 restaurants (16 in Southern California, the rest in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State).
Rahel (1047 S. Fairfax Ave.), a vegan but still largely traditional eatery that offers the added enticement of an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet every day from 11 to 3. We began with fresh mango juice, a thick, creamy, refreshing drink, with a natural sweetness cut by a subtle acidity. Then it was on to the cabbage stews, one pink and slightly sweet from tomatoes, the other yellow and savory, with carrots. For more yellow on the plate, there was a split pea stew, hearty like a dense, delicious soup. For a splash of green, we had simple, savory kale, with a pleasingly mild bitterness; wonderful whole green lentils; and tender string beans mixed with spiced-up carrots for a little heat. To add a burst of bright red to our plates, there was a mashed lentil stew powered by berbere, a classic Ethiopian spice mixture. Though this was the hottest item, it was far from incendiary; we could still taste the lentils under the chili powder. Among the cold items was a creamy sweet potato salad mixed with small strips of red onion for a little extra bite. All of these simple but elegant delicacies could be picked up with injera, a tangy teff-based sourdough flatbread that traditional Ethiopian cuisine uses in lieu of utensils (forks are also available). For dessert we had a raw blueberry cheesecake made with coconut, almonds, and cashews, with a nutty crust, a creamy center, and a blueberry-sorbet frosting—not exactly traditional, we admit, but tasty nonetheless. We washed this down with a bracing shot of Ethiopian coffee and left with an energized afterglow, pondering how much healthier and happier vegetarians (and non-vegetarians) would be eating food that is more like this and less like made-over McDonald’s.To those whose approach to vegetarianism presupposes the endless re-creation of flesh foods through tofu, tempeh, textured soy protein, and gluten, we would like to propose an alternative: the time-tested recipes of traditional cuisines. Consider, for example, the stellar example of Ethiopian restaurants, where vegan options, far from being concessions to virtue, are typically a riot of color and flavor, and highly nutritious to boot. Los Angeles is especially fortunate to have its own Little Ethiopia, a block-long strip of restaurants wedged between San Vicente and Olympic, and though we suspect you can do well at any of the dozen or so establishments, your best bet may be