• The History of Vegan Thai in Los Angeles

    April 1st, 2009mr meanervegan stuff

    If you’re lucky enough to be a vegan living in Southern California — particularly Los Angeles – your favorite cuisine will, of course, be vegan Thai. From the Westside to the Southland to the Inland Empire there are over 9,500 vegan Thai restaurants, each with a totally diverse menu (except, of course, for everybody’s favorite “Cowboy Burger” and “Garlic Pepper Seitan”, which are faithfully included on every restaurant’s menu). The unique combination of fine dining, surprising menu options and incredibly attentive servers is offset to the negative by long waits (reservations at the Beverly Hills “Taste of Vegan” restaurant usually need to be made days in advance), and the famous “Vegan Tasty” in Alhambra usually has a 4-5 hour wait for a table.

    vegan tasty in alhambra

    vegan tasty in alhambra

    With an average price per head in excess of $50, and wine selections from the exclusive Franzia cellars (assuming the restaurant allows alcohol – many are run by tea-total Buddhists or don’t have the cashflow to support a beer and wine permit), you’ll be lucky to walk out with a bill for two under $150, but it will be worth every penny.

    Of course, takeout is always an option – you can call ahead with your order, leave a credit card deposit and then pick up your food with a much shorter wait (usually less than an hour after you arrive to collect). Remember, though, when you get home it’s critically important to cover your dining table with a sheet of glass, turn all the lights up and put on a radio station playing “Timeless 80s Oldies” really loud (preferably from a small transistor radio which is also from the 80s – nothing beats that tinny sound!). Also, ask your friends to call your home ‘phone every 2-3 minutes and set it to the loudest ring you can. If you are fortunate enough to have a Thai friend, invite them over and have them answer the call with “Vegan food. Order please?” every time it rings. This, dear readers, will approach the unique atmosphere of vegan Thai.

    One thing that we vegans love is the inventive names of vegan Thai restaurants, so for this story we’ve researched the etymology of some establishments which absolutely deserve historical recognition (after all, some vegan Thai restaurants in LA have been in existence for as long as SIX YEARS, so are formally a part of Los Angelino history). All vegan Thai restaurants are descended from the now-defunct “Vegan Somdej Phra Boromarajininat” restaurant in Toluca Lake, which opened its doors way back in 1999. Sadly, as any Thai person can tell you, most Westerners have difficulty remembering and pronouncing formal Thai names so they are usually shortened for ease of nomenclature. Sadly, this came a little late for the Toluca Lake restaurant (see, even I forgot the name — and I have copy and paste at my fingertips) which closed after only nine weeks because nobody could recall where they’d been for such wonderful food so could not tell their friends about it.

    When the family that owned the restaurant decided to open another outlet in 2004, they called it just “Vegan Food” – a simple yet catchy name that was sure to be a hit (and it was!). Vegan Food (now also closed to to redevelopment of its North Hollywood strip mall) spawned several sister restaurants in and around the Cahuenga Pass area, including Vegan Taste, Fast Vegan, Vegan Dish, Vegan Fork, Vegan Knife and Vegan Spoon. Several copycat restaurants opened in the Echo Park area, the most famous of which is Vegan Blob, followed by Vegan Boy and (of infamous cross-dressing fame) Vegan Girl Boy (Vegan Girl had long since become defunct due to zoning restrictions).

    The exquisite interior of Vegan Fork in Studio City

    The exquisite interior of Vegan Fork in Studio City

    When the vegan Thai phenomena spread south to the beach communities, a rash of outlets opened up within weeks to feed those hungry Southland vegans. First was Vegan Bite in Manhattan beach then Vegan Chew, Vegan Gulp and (finally, and thankfully short lived) Vegan Digest in Long Beach. I’m glad that that plans to open Vegan Poo (Poo is the Thai word for sky) were shelved due to local protests. If you live in San Diego County, you’ll probably not have dined at either Vegan Swallow or Vegan Spit (the latter specializing in oven roasted “Chickin’ Seitan Strips” prepared on a rotating skewer over flames).

    To be clear, the SoCal Thai vegan scene is absolutely unique, with a storied history stretching back for not only weeks but months. In order to dig deeper into this phenomena, we recently paid a visit to the renowned Vegan Face restaurant in West Hollywood, on the site of the former Hyde nightclub, which used to be famous way back in 2007. We were greeted by Chef Rodriguez, who has designed the menu at several of the best vegan Thai restaurants in Southern California, and was a student of Les Intitute Des Artistes d’Artangan in Lyon, France. He arrived at Vegan Face via Vegan Jambour and Vegan Visage — two vegan Thai restaurants in Paris that are among the finest in the world.

    Chef “R” supervises food preparation, while a kitchen helper wipes down the large Seitan Mound (a fixation in every vegan Thai restaurant)

    Chef “R” supervises food preparation, while a kitchen helper wipes down the large Seitan Mound (a fixation in every vegan Thai restaurant)

    Chef “R” (as he prefers to be called) demonstrated for us the deft skill and precision with which he opened a can of “Braised Chinese Delights with Added Salt”, and dropped them into a wok, already sizzling with the juices of the last stir-fry. After a few moments of tossing the Delights and adding several cups of oil he added in some canned carrots, frozen broccoli and Trader Joe’s Thai Paste bringing the entire concoction to a frenzy of spitting and popping akin only to the kitchen in Vegan Kum, the popular eatery in Boyle Heights. Once the dish was served (sprinkled with green onions, chives and grated carrot, on a bed of lettuce of course) we were spellbound. Chef “R”, Trader Joe and Kirkland Signature rice really made us happy that night!

    A plethora of treats from the kitchen of Vegan Kum in Boyle Heights.

    A plethora of treats from the kitchen of Vegan Kum in Boyle Heights.

    Please take a moment away from inferior establishments like Madeleine Bistro, Real Food Daily, Native Foods, Follow Your Heart, Taste of Life and even Locali (shop local!) to spend an afternoon at your a Thai vegan restaurant. Despite the long wait and high prices you seriously won’t be sorry — even though it is April 1st.

    Tags: ,

22 responses to “The History of Vegan Thai in Los Angeles” RSS icon

  • Damn it dude. I was all excited about the title. I thought you’d really delved into the age old question, “What’s with all the vegan thai places in southern california?” You big kidder.

  • oh, how I miss Vegan Girl. that place had the best pad thai.

  • Thanks for your rave review!
    – head chef @ vegan kum

    ps… i think RFD is trying really hard to be on the inferior list year round, not just today. that place has turned into overpriced mediocrity.

  • I found another Beverly Hills “Taste of Vegan” on craigslist and she was $300 for an hour… oh wait…

  • where is “vegan tasty” in alhambra? i’ve never seen it and can’t seem to find an address or anything online? heeelllp!

  • Wish we had vegan thai in Long Beach. We’re so neglected down here.

  • “vegan girl boy” is what people in my high school called me. i should have never told them about my birth “defect!”

  • I always thought they all descended from Vegan Express on Cahuenga pass… I don’t know how long it has been there, but it seemed to have been there for quite a while already by the time I first went there in the late 90s / early 2000s. Pia (the owner, who later sold it to someone else in her family, I think the owner of California Vegan). I believe it was her daughter or niece who opened Vegan Glory on Beverly, and someone else related to her (nephew or sister, I think) who opened California Vegan, then a second location. I think at some point later, Pia opened the ill-fated / short lived “Vegan Star”. Then the former chef of one of these places opened up a new place on Hollywood Blvd. It’s possible that this other place came up independently, but I don’t think a discussion of “vegan” Thai food in LA is complete without a nod to Pia.

    This review seems to agree with me that that’s where it started:

    BTW, I know some of this has already been hashed out ad nausem, but I believe many of these places are still serving vegetarian “meat” that’s not entirely vegan. For anyone who hasn’t already, this article is worth a read in its entirety. I don’t really appreciate the tone of the article, but there’s definitely some interesting (and, to me, unsurprising) information in there.

    The main problem I have with these places (which seem to be springing up like roaches) are 2: 1, the menus are almost identical, 2, the food is often not very good, 3, I worry a little that these places may be the main (or only) exposure some people get to vegan food, and 4, I hope they’re not making it more difficult for vegetarian /vegan restaurants serving more innovative cuisine to survive. My cynical view is that some of the newer ones are operated by people who just realize “hey – our mediocre Thai restaurant isn’t making very much money — but if we go vegetarian, we can charge more, we won’t have to buy meat, and more people will come to our restaurant”.

    Bulan (formerly Busuba) is my personal favorite of the whole bunch.

  • Vegan Kum? Really? I guess the Boyle Heights residents are far more progressive than the Vegan Poo protesters.

    Thanks for making me cry from laughing so hard!

  • What the ‘ell?!?! LOL.

  • ps – I guess that’s what I get for responding to posts before I’m fully awake.

  • Vegan Slaughterhouse was amazing too.

  • oh. my. god. hilarious! i don’t want to admit this at all but you totally got me, although I was puzzled at many points, i pretty much bought this hook, line and sinker. then i saw where lex wrote on vegan LA where is was for april fools. i am such an idiot!!! but very well done!

  • Nobody puts out a fresher bowl of plastic fruit like Vegan Kum.

  • Will.. I don’t think you can lump Bulan in with the rash of vegan thai places. Bulan is in a class of its own.

  • Will, for a minute you totally had me fooled. I thought you read the post completely straight and wrote a long, honest reply. But, you completely flipped the joke upside-down. Sometimes the straight-man is the funny.

  • April fools aside, I was really happy to learn that Pasadena finally got a vegan restaurant recently. Its called My Vegan, its Thai as well. Extremely friendly staff and their menu was a bit more extensive then most the Thai vegan spots I’ve been to. Anyway, the food was really good, and the its gotten overwhelming positive reviews for the most part.


    Pasadena had really been lacking a nice vegan spot. Give it a try, if any of you are ever on the East side. They also deliver within a 3 mile radius.

  • I very much enjoyed reading your incisive assessment of the (thankfully) ubiquitous vegan Thai restaurants in the Los Angeles area. I do not know where people get the idea that your post is some sort of an April Fools joke. Far from it. I found it to be dead-on-accurate and keenly insightful (and I might add: beautifully written). That aside, I am writing this comment to make your readers aware of a possibly disturbing phenomenon which I have observed of late: There are a number of bogus vegan Thai restaurant imitators and wannabes are now doing business in the more run-down sections of town. Infuriatingly, these places are nearly impossible to differentiate from the real thing. Discerning diners such as yourself and Miss Anthrope may be able to detect a greasier texture to the food (which tastes suspiciously like fatback) … and an almost contemptiously cavalier carelessness in the service which one would never experience at an authentic vegan Thai establishment. Many of these places are reputedly merely fronts for the nefarious criminal activities of certain Eastern European immigrants who settled here in Los Angeles after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Other theories hold that they are actually hillbillys. One strategy for ferreting out these bogus bistros is to befriend a Thai person and ask him (or her) to dine with you. It follows that since they speak Thai, they can probably easily detect any trace of an Eastern European or hillbilly accent in your server. They can also detect any counterfeit words in the names of these establishments. I am currently suspicious of the following vegan Thai restaurants for obvious reasons: Thai Won Ahn … Thai Mai Shu … Thai Da Not … Thai Meeup … as well as the increasingly popular Thai Meedown. I will keep you apprised of my progress in discerning their authenticity. In the meantime, Mr. Meaner, thanks to you and Miss Anthrope for your excellent reporting and for infusing your posts with the gravitas and maturity that these restaurants so richly deserve.

  • My favorite was Ladyboy Vegan out in Palm Springs, they even had a small menu of homemade Filipino and Korean comfort foods – our usual dinner was an order of the Chocolate Stew and Bosintang. SO GOOD!
    It makes me almost miss the 909, you can’t get food like that in the Valley.

  • Everything is descended from Toluca Lake:

    Jules: This in the Valley, Vincent. Marsellus ain’t got no friendly places in the Valley.
    Vincent: Well Jules this ain’t my fucking town, man!
    Jules: Shit!
    [Jules dials a number on his cell phone]
    Vincent: What you doin’?
    Jules: I’m calling my partner in Toluca Lake.
    Vincent: Where’s Toluca Lake?
    Jules: It’s just over the hill here over by Burbank Studios. If Jimmie’s ass ain’t home, I don’t know what the fuck we’re going to do, man. ‘Cause I ain’t got no other partners in 8-1-8.

  • Vegan kum??? Hahahaaaa! Classic!
    Happy 4/1!!

  • MY jaw dropped when I read that there was a 4-5 hour wait at a vegan thai restaurant! You totally got me. Amazing article!

1 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

Leave a reply