This week we brought you a list of the 5 best vegan restaurants in Los Angeles, an update on last year’s list. But if a 100% vegan eatery isn’t on the cards for whatever reason, LA has a superb selection of vegan-friendly vegetarian restaurants, some of which rival or exceed the offerings available at vegan-only establishments. From a 60s-era hippie health-food store to a modern hipster hangout, LA has it all. Check out our top five vegan-friendly vegetarian restaurants and please let us know in the comments if you think any don’t deserve the list, or you have a favorite that should be on it.
This tiny restaurant without any signage on a busy section of Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park is quite the find. With seating for only a handful of people, and usual wait times an hour or more, there has to be something cool about Elf. And, indeed, there is. While vegetarian, many dishes are either vegan or vegan optional with everything prepared from scratch in the open kitchen. Being strictly word of mouth (I mean, a restaurant with no sign outside that doesn’t advertise anywhere has to be, right?) yet so busy shows that there’s something very special inside.
The menu is relatively diminutive, yet highly inventive. Some of the food items have been there for a while, and others rotate in and out as the chefs see fit. The atmosphere is dark, and romantic until, that is, the place fills up then it gets incredibly loud and busy and the tables are very close together so one can sometimes feel cramped. Also, they have a BYO policy so you can bring your own wine and pay a small ($4) corkage fee, which always works out to be a fraction of the price you’d pay for the normal 100%+ mark-up on restaurant wine.
UPDATE: hummus king in thee valley has closed down, but they are offering catering and free delivery until they hopefully re-open in silverlake!
I don’t know much about Kosher restaurant certification other than it’s difficult and expensive to get and involves visits from Rabbis etc. I’d imagine, though, that the certification is easier if there’s not meat served in an establishment, so I’m really pleased that Hummus King is 100% OU Kosher and 100% vegetarian (which means basically vegan except for some optional toppings).
Hummus king has a few things going for it, principally the BEST hummus in the 818, probably the BEST falafel (my personal favorite is the crazily spicy “fire ball” falafel) and the best meaty vegan shawarma available. The generous portion sizes, incredible value and beyond polite service make Hummus King one of my favorite places to visit. Whether you’re up for a full-on dine in meal or you just want to grab a stuffed pita to go, Hummus King has you covered. Don’t let the bright fluorescent lights and plastic seats fool you: what lies beneath the low-rent exterior is some of the best vegan food you’ll ever eat.
And, if you’re strictly Kosher, why not try Hummus King? Be cruelty free – it won’t hurt (you or the animals).
I’ve been to Cru a bunch of times, always enjoyed the food and atmosphere but for me it really defies classification. It’s a raw restaurant that serves some cooked food. It’s a vegan restaurant that serves honey (therefore proudly titling itself “vegetarian”). It’s also a small space that never really seems crowded, even though it’s frequently full with long hour plus waits on the outside. One good thing is that Cru seems to be dropping honey as an ingredient in many of its dishes, which is a great thing. Of all non-vegan ingredients, honey is perhaps the easiest to substitute and I’m looking forward to being able to eat more and more of the menu as time goes on.
The menu is pretty diverse, but seems to contain the same narrow list of root ingredients, so if you order a few things you may end up with strikingly similar appearing and tasting dishes. Normally that would be instant disqualification from a “best of” list, but because those base ingredients are so damn good everything works out to be excellent. You can taste the quality of the ingredients and the care that went into preparing them. I typically stick to the raw dishes for a change, but the cooked items are superb. Cru won’t disappoint you, but be careful for hidden honey.
We’ve had a hot and cold relationship with Samosa House in the past, but their inclusion on this list is proof positive that our earlier misgivings are all resolved. Located on the Western end of Culver City, Samosa House is an Indian vegetarian paradise. They not only serve the crispiest, tastiest samosas this side of Bangalore, but have a 20-item prepared food section that rotates regularly and is mostly vegan.
For only $7.99 you can fill up on rice, roti and three selections from the prepared food section, and occasionally there are some special extras like a burger or bhelpuri that’s been specially created by the chef. Although this is prepared food served at the back of a grocery store, don’t let that fool you, as the quality you’ll get meets or exceeds what most Indian restaurants in LA can offer, and for a fraction of the price.
One word of warning, the lines can get long at the counter, especially after 7pm so go early to avoid the rush. Your food will keep in the fridge for a couple of days, and heats up just fine in the microwave. Great food, great deal and some of the nicest people anywhere wait for you at Samosa House.
It’s a pure coincidence that the last two entries on this list are both supermarkets as well as restaurants. You can fill up on groceries as well as yummy food on one visit, which is a good thing in my book, especially at Follow Your Heart, an amazing vegetarian oasis, established in 1970 in Canoga Park, which has LA’s premier (= only) vegetarian grocery store with a TON of vegan products (some of which can’t be purchased anywhere else). Not only that, it has a cosy restaurant and patio where some of LA’s finest vegan food is waiting for you.
Don’t miss the Reuben Sandwich (make sure you ask for extra 1,000 island dressing), as a human being has to try this out at least once in their life! There are many, many dishes with home made fake meats, and vegan entrees such as breakfast burritos, benedicts etc. Follow Your Heart does a SUPER job with the restaurant food and you pretty much can’t go wrong. If you’re averse to honey (hopefully you are, bees are cool), the buns have honey in them, so be sure to order your delicious burger on VEGAN bread.Tags: curry, falafel, hummus, raw, reuben, top 5
September 28th, 2010elf, flore, LA restaurants, mandoline grill, masa of echo park, native foods, pizza cookery, shin bbq (closed), shojin, tender greens, zpizza
While we usually cover LA’s extraordinary selection of vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants (vegan, vegetarian and vegan-friendly), some individual menu items in our city stand out as exceptional, and we thought they deserved their own post. We also opted to choose entirely new menu items from those of last year’s list as there are so many new things to check out on the LA vegan scene.
We chose no-compromise vegan foods: menu items that make no apology for being vegan and that, with only a couple of exceptions, you can order pretty much any time.
Have some things to add to the list, or stuff you don’t like? Let us know in the comments!
Masa of Echo Park Chicago deep dish pizza with Teese
Undoubtedly my favorite new thing on this year’s list. The combination of Masa’s 100% authentic Chicago crust, super tangy and chunky sauce and cooking method combined with real Chicago SoyDairy Teese (yeah, even the vegan cheese is from Chicago) is a mighty fine dish. The thing tastes almost the same as the real Chicagoland staple (and I should know, I’ve eaten a LOT of them over the years) but can be prepared entirely vegan (sub Teese for cheese, and ask that they use olive oil rather than butter in the pan).
I advise going for the medium or large even though you’ll not be able to eat it all, but it travels well, re-heats like a champ and will even freeze for weeks. It’s especially nice with a couple of low-key toppings like spinach or mushrooms, but the real star here is the crust and texture.
Native Foods Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger
There are a lot of vegan burgers in LA. Most of them are pretty darn good, but one stands head and shoulders above all others: The Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger from Native Foods. It seems as though Chef Tanya has studied those high-end burger joints and gone vegan mediaeval on the recipe. She’s taken the Native Foods Seitan (perhaps the best money can buy), sliced it thinly and soaked it in a special sauce topped with crunchy tempeh bacon, lettuce, two types of onions, ranch dressing, BBQ sauce, carrots, tomatoes and even crunchy fried dill pickles.
Yes, this burger has every ingredient you can think of perfectly proportioned and excellently presented. A meal unto itself, the burger is heartily filling yet not unhealthily so.
Shojin Dynamite Roll
The dynamite roll started out as a special item available only on Monday sushi nights, but the dish was so popular that Shojin quickly added it to the normal menu. Having eaten this roll several times, I can say without a doubt that it’s some of the best vegan sushi I’ve ever tasted, and definitely the best in Los Angeles.
The rice-based roll is filled up with avocado and Shojin’s genius spicy “tuna” mixture – a creamy, hearty blend of vegetables and soy that’s so good I could eat a bowl of it straight. Each slice is then topped with a dollop of spicy vegan mayo and slivers of green onions. Usually when dining out on sushi, I like to get a several rolls and share them around the table. At Shojin, however, I always make sure to get a dynamite roll just for myself.
Elf Cornmeal and Herb Dusted Spicy Oyster Mushrooms
Every once in a while, you come across a dish that changes the rules of cuisine a little. You get exposed to something new, perhaps a taste, texture or presentation that’s so different and tasty that you remember it forever. The Spicy Oyster Mushrooms at Echo Park’s Elf is just such a dish. It’s described on the menu in a low-key way that almost makes it sound unappetizing: “Our version of ‘hot wings’ – crispy oyster mushrooms served with marinated celery salad and bleu cheese cream reduction”. Clearly, it has to be ordered without the bleu cheese for the vegans, but I can tell you this dish can stand on its own with or without the cheese.
The texture is crunchy yet soft and the flavors are so complex and delicate that this will be quite a unique experience. Even the celery is amazing – I don’t know what it’s marinated in, but I can tell you that I could eat a plate of just the celery any time! My only beef with the dish is that there’s no vegan substitute offered for the bleu cheese. I mean, some vegenaise and herbs wouldn’t go amiss, would it?
Pizza Cookery Vegan Bread Rolls (they’re FREE!)
Yeah, one of our top omnivorous restaurant choices also carries a bucket list item, and it’s actually something served for free when you show up to get a pizza. Just be sure to ask for the vegan bread rolls, as the default ones are filled with dairy cheese. BE WARNED, though, these rolls are so freakin’ amazing that you are in danger of filling up on them (as did I) and not wanting to eat any of your pizza (as did I) and so end up taking it home (as did I). Assuming that you can exercise restraint here, these rolls are an awesome way to start off your meal.
Perfectly cooked, stuffed with vegan cheese (Follow Your Heart as it happens, but this is one of those occasions where it actually works very well) and dipped in garlic olive oil with real garlic bits these will take you to a different place for sure.
Flore Biscuits & Gravy
Take two humongous biscuits, perfectly crunchy on the outside yet smooth and steamy on the inside then cover them with juicy and tasty gravy (with sausage bits!). That’d be a meal on its own, but Flore lets you add a serving of their legendary tempeh bacon, fruit or potatoes, and the dish comes with a delicious bed of steamed kale to boot. All for $9.95. All organic. And all fucking amazing! Unfortunately, this is a weekend brunch only dish, so you only have 2 days per week to get your fill.
Mandoline Grill Tofu Banh Mi
There are a few vegan Banh Mi’s out there, but nobody does it like Mandoline Grill, and I’m really pleased that this vegan-friendly food truck has a menu item that made it into this list. First off, the Banh Mi is absolutely HUGE. It’s a 12″, vegan French-style baguette with all the usual Banh Mi fixin’s including cucumber slices, pickled carrot and daikon, cilantro, jalapenos, vegenaise and scallion oil. Despite the fact that the bread and ingredients are fresh and tasty beyond belief, the real kicker is the slyly named “lemongrass marinated tofu”, which comes in thick chunks and is unquestionably one of the most tasty things you’ll ever eat. I don’t know how chef/owner Mong Skillman can prepare such a gourmet experience from a tiny food truck, and frankly I don’t care how she does it. I’m usually too busy eating the thing to worry about the details!
Zpizza The Tuscan (veganized)
Yes, we’re pizza obsessed. Yes, there are two pizzas on the bucket list and YES, this one is damn good, but couldn’t be further in concept, taste and style than the Masa Chicago Pizza up top. The Tuscan is going for that Italian intersection of thin crust, oils and mushrooms that Zpizza does so well. The regular pizza isn’t vegan, but they will sub Daiya for the mozzarella and leave off the feta if you ask, and you will be home and dry with an absolutely stunning pie.
This thing has a bunch of ingredients. In addition to Z’s incredible crust, there’s homemade roasted garlic sauce, Daiya cheese, three kinds of mushrooms (cremini, shiitake and button), sweet caramelized onions, drizzles of truffle oil and fresh thyme. If you think this SOUNDS delicious, wait until you taste one – you will be blown away. For extra spice, pile on the dried chilies (they go especially well with the muted tastes of the oils and shrooms).
Shin BBQ Seitan Bulgogi
I was as shocked as the next guy to discover Shin BBQ’s vegan-friendly options, headlined with the incredible Seitan Bulgogi. Although clearly modeled on meat-based entree, this dish has a character all of its own, and even omnivores are ordering it regularly now. Slices of chewy seitan are marinated in something called “Shin’s secret marinade” – I have no idea what this is, but all I know is it’s 100% vegan and 200% tasty. The dish goes perfectly over some rice and don’t forget to pile on some of the excellent kimchi that will arrive in abundance at your table.
Tender Greens The Happy Vegan
This is another dish that I feel the need to eat on a regular basis, so I’m really happy that the WeHo Tender Greens is on my way home, and I can park for a dollar! Tender Greens is an upmarket, salad-oriented restaurant where you order at the counter, they make your salad and then bring it to your table. The Happy Vegan is so aptly named, as I don’t believe that any vegan would be something other than very happy post-consumption.
There are a ton of seemingly exotic ingredients in the salad: tabbouleh, hummus, pasta pearls, farro wheat, young kale and the eponymous “tender greens”. There’s also some crispy baguette slices dribbled with extra virgin olive oil to boot. For a salad, the price of $10.50 may seem high at face value, but I’d think nothing of paying $20 or more for this dish in a fancy restaurant.Tags: Bucket list, burger, pizza, sandwich
According to legend and folklore, an Elf is a “small, mischievous and magical” being, which probably explains why Elf Cafe in Echo Park is so aptly named:
Small: Elf Cafe is tiny. There are two rows of cramped tables and a bar with a few high stools, leading to a very intimate dining experience. The tables are also very close together, so you have pretty much no option but to get to know your neighbors, whether you want to or not.
Mischievous: I’d actually tried to visit Elf on three separate occasions before. Twice it was full with crowds waiting outside so I just walked on by, the third time I arrived at 5:50pm (the restaurant officially opens at 6) so I could be first in line, only to be told that they were running late “as usual” and wouldn’t open until 6:45pm. Also, the menu is different to what’s online, and there’s no reservations policy making Elf one of the more difficult places to eat at in LA. Mischievous Elf!
Magical: When you do get a table you will be treated to some of the most magical flavors and textures you will ever eat. Every dish is original, and every ingredient fresh (bought that day in most cases) and wonderfully, inventively prepared. Also, the organic environment of stone, wood, exposed brick, flickering candles and new-age style music really does evoke something not of this world.
I’ll start out by saying that Elf is a vegetarian restaurant, catering mainly to vegetarians with what appear to be some menu items that just happen to be vegan. There’s a heavy emphasis on cheese throughout, and all the very best signature dishes are vegetarian rather than vegan. Notwithstanding that, there are some really good vegan items on the menu, I just wish they could optionally make some items vegan – I mean, to substitute a vegan dip for a bleu cheese dip on a particular dish, or make a vegan version of a salad dressing would hardly cause the kitchen to collapse in a morass of disorganization, now would it?
Anyway, let’s get down to brass tacks. On our visit, we were the first people in the restaurant, glad to take a wonderful two-top table by the window. We were quickly seated, the bottle of wine we brought with us was spirited away to be opened (Elf is BYOB, and more on that later) and we were brought fresh minty water and menus. So far we’d been waited on by two people both of whom were nice and friendly. Once we’d had a chance to review the menu, we began to order.
As a small appetizer we received complimentary crackers with a delicious chickpea and red bell pepper dip. The crackers were fresh, crispy and crunchy, dusted with some herbs and the dip was cool, smooth and clean tasting. So far, we’d spent nothing (or so we thought) and had some tantalizingly tasty food to whet our gaping appetites.
The first dish up was the “Cornmeal and Herb Dusted Spicy Oyster Mushrooms” which the menu proudly proclaimed as “Our version of ‘hot wings’ crispy oyster mushrooms”. The dish usually arrives with the decidedly un-vegan “bleu cheese cream reduction”, but our server said they could be prepared sans-reduction so we asked for them that way. We were pleasantly surprised, though, when the mushrooms arrived and the server said “Here’s your spicy mushrooms, and we did a vegan version of our sauce. Hope you enjoy it!”.
Did we ever enjoy it…. this is one dish that everybody has to eat before they pass on to the next world – we’re talking millions of sliced, lightly fried and crispy mushrooms all spiced up to the nines atop a cool pile of sauce, with a few thinly sliced celery pieces. It’s not only incredibly tasty, but getting a mouthful of crispy, steaming hot mushrooms with some cool sauce in your mouth is quite the pleasure. I’m really pleased that Elf was able to figure out a vegan sauce, as it really did make the dish. Hopefully they will add that as an option going forward – I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt them.
Next up we went for the basic sounding “Elf Salad”, a veritable cornucopia of fresh green leaves, cabbage, dill, avocados and a bunch of other stuff including green beans and potatoes. We were blown away by the volume and quality of this salad so much that we had to force ourselves to stop eating it as there were another two dishes on their way shortly afterwards.
For one entree we rewound to the starters menu and opted for the “Roasted Flatbread Shawarma”, a mile-high serving of cabbage and spicy hummus piled on a fresh pita bread topped off with crispy and light mushrooms. This thing was really tasty – a real mix of flavors and textures that are tough to pull off and get right – we respect what the chefs did to make this, and would heartily recommend it as a very unusual and enjoyable dish. Seriously, one of the highlights of the evening.
Talking of highlights, the “Moroccan Vegetable Tagine” is probably the most under-described dish I’ve ever had on a menu. Don’t you usually find that menus talk up the items such that you’re bound to be overtly disappointed when they arrive? Not here, and not now. The entire description is somewhat pedestrian, almost boring: “Moroccan vegetable stew served over red quinoa with a side of spicy homemade harissa”.
Let me fucking tell you that this thing off the planet. I’m talking about at least ten different vegetables, all embarrassingly fresh, clearly organic (brussels sprouts, potatoes, cauliflower, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, beets, green beans, carrots, etc. etc.) and all cooked for what tasted like hours in the most amazing red beet sauce then plopped down over crunchy red quinoa, and served with a side dish of some spicy harissa that (frankly) was as good as the main dish itself, despite its diminutive size. Grab a spoon, dip it in the harissa, scoop up some vegetables and sauce, rinse and repeat until you pass out. You won’t be sorry.
We were way too stuffed to even consider desert, but there are always a couple of vegan options available.
There are few places I’ve eaten where every course has been as astounding as the last, but all ain’t completely rosy in the world of Elf. Let’s haterize for a moment.
One thing you have to know about Elf is that it’s incredibly trendy. Perhaps not as much now as it used to be a year or so ago, but it’s still very much regarded as a place one has to go and “be seen”. The clientele were all very much Eastside hip (I’d say hipsters, but that can be insulting I’ve been told) but all super nice and friendly. I could feel the creative juices flowing into me from the table of artists next to me. One guy even had a fury pirate hat and cape on, I guess just so he could stand out. See if you can spot him in the picture at the bottom of the post.
I’d probably be 100% gushing about the place were it not for the sneaky $2.50 per person corkage fee, which wasn’t disclosed anywhere on the menu or by the server when she so gleefully took our bottle of wine away to be opened. After paying top dollar for our food we were punished with an additional $5 charge on the bill. I believe that it’s actually illegal to insist on such optional, non-advertised charges, so I recommend everybody refuse to pay it until they put it on the menu or tell you when they pick up your bottle.
All in all, though, Elf really lives up to its namesake mythical being: Compact, kinda troublesome yet completely magical. I’ll be back soon, as I’m sure that most people who go there regularly will.
elfTags: echo park, mushrooms
2135 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026