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Life as a vegan in LA: An interview with Happy Cow's Eric Brent

Eric Brent, the LA-based founder of veggie and vegan dining directory Happy Cow, tells us about plant-based dining in the city Wednesday, 1 May

By National Geographic Traveller Food

My journey towards veganism started in 1988. A few friends took me to a vegetarian restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, called McDharma’s. It was the first time I’d ever tasted a veggie burger, and the first time I realised the connection between the food I ate and its living, breathing animal source. From that inaugural veggie patty — which was nothing like the plant-based burgers we know today — I began to see food differently, and I changed my diet to reflect this. I became fully vegan around 1991 after travelling in Asia and studying Buddhism.

Being vegetarian wasn’t difficult back in the ’90s, but being vegan was another story. The options were often very limited, and it was a constant struggle to eat out. It was because of that challenge that I created the HappyCow website in 1999, so that vegans could find the information and support they needed with a few clicks of a mouse.

The Southern California lifestyle and plant-based cuisine complement each other well. People are interested in staying fit, looking good and being healthy, and the variety of vegan dining offered here reflects this attitude. Southern California is the pinnacle of vegan-friendliness — having lived in and travelled to over 60 countries and hundreds of cities, I’ve no reservations saying that. Even beyond Los Angeles, counties including Orange County, San Diego and, to some extent, Riverside are coming into it. The movement has advanced both through the growth in plant-based Latino cuisine and the expansion of SoCal-based chains such as Veggie Grill, Seabirds, Plant-Powered Fast Food, Monty’s Good Burger and Cafe Gratitude.

Los Angeles is a leader in vegan dining. Not only for the prevalence of vegan-friendly restaurants but for the variety. The city hosts regular vegan festivals, markets, dozens of amazing vegan restaurants — including several Mexican restaurants and pop-ups such as Gracias Madre, Cena Vegan and Sugar Taco — plus countless places to eat with vegan options on their menus. Additionally, it’s home to the annual Vegan Street Fair, the world’s largest festival of its kind.

The city has so many vegan-friendly neighbourhoods. Silverlake, Echo Park, Highland Park, West Hollywood and, recently, Downtown (DTLA), just to name a few.

I’m always blown away by the Dynamite Roll served at both Shojin restaurants in LA. It’s a creative vegan sushi roll that’s torched at your table. I also loved The Great Pumpkin, a seasonal special at Vegetable restaurant last winter. It consisted of a whole roasted sugar pie pumpkin filled with rosemary stuffing and served with cranberry chutney, and mushroom gravy. Finally, the cacio e pepe and desserts at Plant Food and Wine can’t be beat.

As plant-based cuisine becomes more mainstream there’s increasing competition. Omnivore restaurants that now offer exceptional meat-free options have started attracting the customers who once only frequented the all-vegan places. In cities like LA, the growth of vegan establishments has slowed and in some parts of the city even decreased. In order to survive, aside from being business savvy, vegan places in LA need to keep improving, streamline their menus, and offer outstanding food. These establishments are no longer the only option for non-meat-eaters, and they can’t rely only on that customer base. To thrive, they really need 70-80% of their customers to be omnivores.

 

LA’s finest: Eric’s top 3 vegan restaurants

Little Pine
This chic Los Angeles restaurant is owned by musician and activist Moby, and all profits go to animal rights organisations. The menu and atmosphere reflect seasonal, Californian cuisine within a minimalist yet cosy setting. Favourite dishes include lemon and poppy seed pancakes and croissants, as well as the savoury seasonal flatbread. littlepinerestaurant.com

Shojin
Japanese restaurant Shojin has two locations in LA, and both regularly feature on the city’s vegan ‘best of’ lists. Sushi options go far beyond the usual cucumber and avocado rolls, and some of the more extravagant creations are torched at your table. theshojin.com

Veggie Grill
Originally established in Irvine, Orange County, this veggie fast-food concept has been a huge success, and is now a national chain with several LA branches. It’s a go-to for its reliability and consistent quality. Omnivores love the burgers and mac and cheese, while, personally,  I’m happy with the nutrient-dense bowls, grilled tempeh and salads. veggiegrill.com

Happy Cow is a global listings website for vegan and vegetarian restaurants. happycow.net

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