Eating animal-free doesn’t have to mean only noshing on salads, juices and other vegetable-loaded clichés — though vegetables are, of course, delicious.
In Orange County, vegan food always has been part of the overall culinary conversation, an influential part of everything from immigrant cuisine to surfer grub for not years, but decades.
From raw fried rice to avocado tacos, here are four native O.C. spots that think differently about vegan dining.
1617 Westcliff Drive, #112, Newport Beach; (949) 386-8100; cafegratitude.com
Maybe you’ve been to one of the counter-service Cafe Gratitudes in L.A., where dishes come as affirmations (“I Am Loved”) and the juice always is fresh-squeezed. For its first foray into O.C., the company went full table-service with a new Gratitude concept that features lots of imaginative dishes and, for the first time ever, a slate of all-organic, all-vegan cocktails. With beverage director Jason Eisner at the bar’s helm, this means a menu of creative classic drinks, like the agave margaritas, tea-like gin and tonics and an old-fashioned dosed with house cola syrup. A lineup of CBD-infused cocktails launched last year, giving customers yet another way to make their body feel good.
3801 Warner Ave, Huntington Beach, (562) 592-4494; secretspothuntingtonbeachca.com
The ultimate post-break surfer shack, Secret Spot serves loaded burritos, melty sandwiches, hearty plates, fresh juices and more from a tiny storefront that’s in full view of Bolsa Chica State Beach. College kids man the grill and register, offering vegi turkey or tofu as proteins in everything from (non-vegan) tuna sandwiches to the famous HB Surround Sound burrito, made vegan by removing the cheese and adding more barbecue sauce.
16563 Brookhurst St, Fountain Valley; (714) 418-0658
The chef at Au Lac took a vow of silence almost 20 years ago, but he’s been loud and clear about his advocacy for a cuisine he calls “Humanese,” raw-vegan food that nourishes both body and mind. Originally an Asian-fusion (but mostly Vietnamese) restaurant that opened in 1996, Chef Ito turned half the menu into soaked wild rice, living soups, uncooked sushi rolls and kelp noodle chow meins. Ito makes his own nut cheese, preps his own desserts and always is experimenting with new Humanese flavors from around the world.
2930 Bristol St, Costa Mesa; (714) 549-2584; seabirdskitchen.com
Orange County’s most popular vegan food truck now is Orange County’s most popular new vegan cafe, with a second location on the way in Long Beach. Seabirds opened at the height of the mobile eatery craze and instantly changed the animal-free game with beer-battered fried avocado tacos and purple potato taquitos (topped with house-fermented curtido). Since getting a brick-and-mortar inside The LAB in 2013, the menu has expanded only to include soups, flatbreads and more veganified takes on Mexican favorites.
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.