There is a wafting wall of flavored air billowing down Bakman Avenue, great gasps of puffed sugar and fried things emanating from a brightly decorated cordon of food trucks and kiosks.
This is the Vegan Exchange, a weekly street fair occupying a city block of North Hollywood. Launched last year, Vegan Exchange is one of the largest weekly events of its kind in the world. Up to 50 different vendors participate each week, serving fried chicken sandwiches, pea flower horchata, sushi and soul food and ceviche and crab cakes. Every scrap of it is vegan.
Vegan Exchange is part of a wider ecosystem of vegan culture bubbling up and across the greater Los Angeles area, including pop-up events, food trucks, singles mingles, stand-up comedy showcases, takeovers and restaurants within restaurants, all catering to the meatless masses.
Jessica Schoech cofounded the event with her husband, Kenny, after successfully developing the annual Vegan Street Fair in 2014.
“We saw the demand for something more regular,” Schoech says, “and the idea of it being weekly means it’s more approachable and less intimidating.”
A big part of her job managing the event involves curating the ever-changing vendor lineup each week, balancing returning favorites with new purveyors. Nearly every vendor here is a two- or three-person small business. “Most of these places are really being incubated,” Schoech tells me.
“The crowd decides what stays or goes,” she says as she watches for what the crowd likes, evaluating newcomers, seeing who might stick.
Thousands of people come to Vegan Exchange each week, representing every possible age, income and social strata; the casual Teva billionaires in line behind the hypebeasts in Travis Scott Jordan hightops. There’s the occasional “Stranger Things” logo reimagined for the cause (“VEGAN THINGS”) and a high concentration of the Smiths and Morrissey shirts (the singer has been an outspoken vegan for decades).
Otherwise, the sartorial mix feels contemporary: a Bathing Ape here, lots of throwback Dodgers gear there; women owning their hippie chic revival or health goth or millennial bruja looks. You could be at a film festival, or a music festival or any other sort of festival, really, except that it is 2019, so you are at a vegan food festival. Same difference, really.
Vegan Exchange is boozeless, and single-use plastic is kept to a minimum — there’s no bottled water for sale, for example.
Some exhibitors, including Organic Junkie of Corona (serving excellent vegan ceviche and butterfly flower pea horchata), use Vegan Exchange as an extension of their existing bricks-and-mortar restaurants; others, such as Shardé Whitt and Laurie Prescod’s Voodoo Vegan (crabcake and creole shrimp sandwiches, soul food bowls with excellent creamy mac-no-cheese), are building their brand by selling food at the Exchange.
“We’ve only been here since June,” says Whitt, “but it’s just been phenomenal. It’s been wonderful for us, the exposure and access to so many different kinds of people. This event is something we will always do, no matter how successful we get or how much we grow.”
Still more fall somewhere in between: The growing Vegan Hooligans empire boasts no full-time restaurant but hosts weekly pop-ups inside Abby’s Diner in Eagle Rock; there’s also Tehuanita 2.0, a fully plant-based but otherwise traditional taco truck on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.
The event is regularly attended by famous vegan Angelenos including Daisy Fuentes, Mena Massoud, Redfoo and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. I queried dozens of attendees (none especially famous) patiently waiting for Nashville Sandos — “Southern chick’n patty” with pickles, slaw, ranch and spicy dip on a bun — at the Lettuce Feast cart, asking the same simple question of everyone: “Are you vegan?”
Roughly half said yes, though I encountered several groups where not a single person identified as such: “We’re just here because the food is good.” I heard some variation on that theme throughout the day, from vegans and non-vegans alike. “My events aren’t really built for vegans,” says cofounder Jessica Schoech. “We see it as an opportunity to plant as many scenes as we can. Every race, every class can see themselves here. It’s our form of activism, except we’re not protesters — we do activism through food.”
A few attendees described mixed partnerships — “My girlfriend is vegan; I’m just here for fun” — and someone else referred to their “blended family” of vegans, vegetarians and omnivores.
It feels odd to describe a weekly vegan food event as somehow being “post-vegan,” but, in a lot of ways, the descriptor works for Vegan Exchange. You will not, for example, find much here by way of animal-liberation literature or graphic abattoir photo displays. It feels unjudgy and come-as-you-are in a way that lands as sneakily progressive. You could come here and eat rad food from some small businesses and move on with your day regardless of your diet, or you could be a hungry vegan counting the days until another Sunday event; Vegan Exchange fields both.
Which is not to say this is a health-food festival. If you want fried things, and sweet pecan-swirled vegan cinnamon buns, and doughnuts and black bean brownies and cheesy mac hot dogs with spicy vinegar hot sauce, or stuffed pineapple chicken fried rice, or massive cheesy waffle fries, this is the weekly event for you.
Turns out pretty much everyone likes fried chicken, even if it’s not chicken at all.
What to try if you’re trying Vegan Exchange
Honey Walnut Shrimp from SreyVegan
Chef and founder Sreyneang Lor’s SreyVegan has been a mainstay cart at Vegan Exchange since November. Srey’s honey walnut shrimp riffs on the comfort food classic, a beautiful bowl of flower-topped white rice with a handful of perfectly sticky, sweet, crunchy “shrimp” tossed with walnuts.
Nashville Sando from Lettuce Feast
A phalanx of young Angelenos in $1,000 sneakers waiting in line for hot chicken — you’ve read this story before. That the hot chicken sandwiches at Lettuce Feast happen to be vegan feels totally ancillary, because the sandwich itself is a marvel. Spicy, sweet, hot, crunchy, perfectly fried in peanut oil and dressed with slaw and pickles.
Chicken Bucket from Eat Love
No single item at Vegan Exchange draws more hungry eyes than the fried chicken bucket from Eat Love. As good as the bucket looks, it eats even better — this is lovely, fresh, light, clean-tasting fried chicken from founder Lynn Torres, made with a fluffy, juicy seitan cutlet with an assortment of classic sauces including “Honee Mustard” and spicy mayo. Consider this an ideal form factor of “KFV” — Kentucky Fried Vegan.
Ceviche from Organic Junkie
The hearts of palm ceviche at Organic Junkie is a revelation. It’s a faithful, downright traditional salt-lime fresh approach to the dish with hearts of palm in place of fish, served with avocado and warmed corn tortillas.
Combo Bowl from Voodoo Vegan
Good vegan mac and cheese is nothing new, but at Voodoo Vegan, the recipe is a closely guarded secret and comes out resembling the picnic mac of your dreams. Get it as part of the bowl set at Voodoo, alongside sweet potato mash and crunchy breaded Southern-style fried “shrimp.”