“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” John Muir, an eloquent early advocate for wilderness preservation, a frequent explorer of California, and an occasional San Francisco resident, understood the restorative powers of interacting with the natural world. Having very recently visited California for the first time I understand more acutely what he meant with quotes such as these. After spending ten days in San Francisco, I feel restored in body and mind. I did a lot of hiking, saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time, stood at the precipice of several summits, while looking down across the city’s many astonishing vistas, both natural and manmade, and, of course, I ate some really great food.
In some ways San Francisco is less vegan friendly than Toronto. That is to say, there are a lot less specifically vegan restaurants, bakeries etc. but I discovered that vegan options at non-vegan restaurants are very common. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time (or the budget) to try all the restaurants and food that I wanted to but here’s a review of what I had the opportunity to indulge in.
Judahlicious (3906 Judah St) was the first restaurant I tried in San Francisco and it was one of the culinary highlights of my trip. It’s located in the Outer Sunset area, very close to both Ocean Beach and the west side of Golden Gate Park. It has a fairly large and diverse menu for a small restaurant that includes a variety of juices, smoothies and a few desserts. I tried their Nekkid Burrito, which was delicious and very filling. At $10.75 it’s a pretty solid deal, especially considering the high quality of the ingredients and the generous portion. The avocado, cashew cream and tomatillo sauce had just the right amount of spicy kick and blended perfectly with the rice and beans. I also tried a slice of their raw cheesecake. It was such a luxury to eat my lunch outside on their patio, with the scent and flavour of the ocean in the air.
Veganburg (1466 Haight Street) Veggie Burgers have become one of those staple alternatives that most main stream restaurants will offer and while the consideration is nice and it enables us to enjoy meals with our meat eating friends and family that we may otherwise miss out on, these burgers almost always miss the mark. They’re not intended to be good; they are intended to placate the targeted niche for the duration of the meal, to give us vegans and vegetarians something to fill our mouths until the bill comes. Even some specifically vegetarian and vegan restaurants seem to believe that a veggie burger, in and of itself, is a treat. Generic dried out, Yves patties with redundant toppings are an unfortunate reality. That’s why a restaurant like Veganburg made me so happy. They have several type of burgers on their menu, as well as sides, and each one has clearly been carefully thought out in terms of the ingredients and toppings. I tried the Cracked Mayo burger and can highly recommend it. I really wanted to try out their Avocado Beetroot burger too. Alas I didn’t get a chance to go back. My one critique is that it is a bit overpriced. My burger was $9 without a side. Most of the sides are 4 or 5 dollars apiece. A burger and fries for $15? Ouch. Still definitely worth checking out. Haight Street is also a great for people watching and there some really great shops in the area.
Whole Foods haul – As I was travelling on a budget, and fortunately had access to a lovely kitchen in my Airbnb, I made quite a few meals in the apartment, but I tried to sample some of those allusive American products that don’t make it across the border to Canada. First of all, Whole Foods has vegan baked, baked fresh daily, for a $1.50!!
Beyond Meat is another product that Canadians have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of. While this particular Whole Foods didn’t have the famous Beyond Burger, they did have some of the company’s single service meals. I tried both the Korean BBQ and Indian Curry ones. I can’t say they were great. It’s a frozen food dinner and, well, it’s about what you expect from a frozen food dinner.
Sugar Plum is a vegan and gluten free bakery based out of Sacramento. Their products can be purchased online at http://www.sugarplumvegan.com/collections/all. I found their Peanut Butter Creamie while searching for new things at Whole Foods. It was definitely one of the best creamie cookies I’ve had. Unlike most creamies, it was not excessively sweet and the cookie was the perfect texture for the sandwich.
The best product I discovered was Ripple Food’s pea based milk. I loved it. I tried both the chocolate and the original flavoured milk. This was definitely the best alternative milk I’ve ever tried, and, as it’s pea based, it’s more nutrient dense than the average soy and almond milks, with 8 grams of protein per serving.
Glaze Teriyaki (2095 Chestnut/1946 Fillmore St.)– Glaze Teriyaki is a chain restaurant with two locations in San Francisco, one in Lower Pacific Heights and another in the Marina District. The one I went to was on Chestnut, in what was probably one of my favourite areas of San Francisco. I highly recommend taking a walk along Fillmore Street, both below and above the Fillmore Stairs.
The restaurant is basically a build a plate type, where you choose your protein, your rice and your salad dressing. They have a few non-meat options for their protein, including Wok sauteed vegetables and tofu. I had the Tofu with brown rice, and a side salad with sesame dressing. Both rice and salad were great. The salad was super fresh. But the tofu was out of this world! It was grilled and the outside had just the perfect amount of crispiness, with the inside having a very tender texture. The restaurant also has some veggie friendly sides like steamed edamame, but I didn’t get a chance to try them.
Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant (854 Washington Street) – Lucky Creation is the San Francisco equivalent of Toronto’s Buddha’s Vegetarian. Tucked away inconspicuously in a tiny storefront in sprawling Chinatown, the restaurant serves up large portions of soups, vegetables and mock meats at a remarkably affordable cost. In my excitement I ordered two dishes, Deep Fried Bean Cakes and the Deep Fried Bean Curd Sheet. Why did I order two meal size plates of deep fried tofu? I didn’t think that through very carefully. The menu is fairly large and I wanted to try it all. The food was delicious, but it was way too much.
Japanese Tea Garden (75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive) – The weather was just about perfect for my first week in San Francisco, so it was hard to complain when the rain finally did come. The light drizzle actually made a nice accompaniment to my tea garden trip. Located in Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is a 5 acres wonder, filled with Buddhas, Pagodas, stone lanterns, koi ponds and stone paths. The tea house itself is near the center of the garden, and serves a variety of Japanese teas and light snacks. I tried the Genmaicha green tea, which is colloquially sometimes called “popcorn tea” because it’s brewed with rice that sometimes pops during the roasting process. Sitting under the garden shelter, sipping tea, and watching the rain – if you’re looking to just sit and unwind for a bit, this is the perfect place to do it. One note though, it cost $8 to get into the garden, which seems steep, but I can guarantee you won’t regret going.
Loving Hut (524 Irving Street/Westfield San Francisco Centre) Prior to their Toronto location closing its doors, Loving Hut was one of my favourite local restaurants, so I was very happy to learn the chain is still alive and well in San Francisco, with two locations. The one in Outer Sunset, which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try, has a larger menu and more seating. I went (twice) to the one in the food court in Westfield Mall, on Market Street. There’s really no reason to go to Westfield otherwise, unless you’re really into expensive box stores like Bloomingdales. With so many independent retailers and unique stores scattered in plenty across San Francisco, it shouldn’t really be a choice destination when you’re visiting. The food court, however, has quite a few good options if you’re looking for a quick bite before heading somewhere more scenic. I had Loving Hut’s Grilled Philly Sandwich and their Loving Hut Sandwich. Both were fantastic. I was particularly impressed with the freshness of the bread they used for their sandwiches, and how perfectly it was toasted (especially considering this is essentially fast food). They also have a fair selection of desserts. I tried their Mint Cheesecake and it was a silky smooth minty dream.
Sun Rise Restaurant (3126 24th Street) Sun Rise is one of those small inconspicuous restaurants in which you would never expect to find vegan food, but it actually has a nice selection of options. This is a great place to grab breakfast if you’re eating with non-vegan friends or family. For vegans, they have French toast, a breakfast burrito, Chorizo (soyrizo) and a tofu with veggies and home fries dish. As I had been eating too much heavy food, I opted for the lighter option and got the tofu with veggies with a side of the chorizo. The tofu and veggies were okay, but the chorizo made the meal. It had a great texture and flavour. The Mission is also a wonderful neighbourhood to do a walking tour, and there are numerous vegan options in the area. You can spend whole days here, just eating and sightseeing.
Mission Pie (2901 Mission St) – Mission Pie is a San Francisco staple with a few solid vegan options in both their savoury and sweet pie selections. I had a slice of the Vegan Pear Raspberry. The flavours of the two fruits were very well balanced and the pear had just the right amount of tenderness. With ample seating, and lots of windows, it’s a nice place to sit for a while, enjoy a coffee with your pie, and watch the vibrant neighbourhood.
Paxti’s Pizza (Multiple locations) – Paxti’s is a well-known American chain pizzeria restaurant with several locations in San Francisco. The one I ate it was in Inner Sunset, at 822 Irving. When I heard that they had a vegan deep dish pizza option, I made it a priority to eat there. It was a pretty huge disappointment, especially when compared to the high quality of everything else I ate while in the city. It doesn’t seem like this particularly vegan option was given much thought. The crust was over cooked and too crispy, but more importantly the toppings or contents of the deep dish were a little threadbare. They use spinach, garlic, onion and Daiya to make the pizza, which on an ordinary size crust, might be fine, but this a deep dish pizza and you need something more substantial to fill that extra space. A vegan pizza with one substantial vegetable on it seems a bit ridiculous, and there wasn’t even that much spinach. It was mostly just burnt crust with miles of sauce on it, and overloaded with garlic. I love garlic but this felt like I was chomping down on an entire clove with every bite. There’s nothing wrong with Daiya cheese either – it’s great! But I paid $21 for a 10-inch pizza! For that price, there’s no way Paxti’s should be using Daiya cheese. Daiya isn’t a fresh ingredient and it’s mostly made from oil, so it’s relatively cheap. For $21, they should be using either more high quality cheese alternatives or making their own vegan cheese (Cashew Cheese would have been perfect). I would not recommend it, but I heard that quality of the pizzas varies greatly from location to location.
Seed and Salt (2240 Chestnut St.) Seed and Salt is a nice chic but cozy café in the Marina District that serves up a variety of healthy salads, soups, sandwiches and other fare. They obviously put a great deal of thought and care into choosing their ingredients and their menu reads like a guide to superfoods. I had the Taco Salad and would definitely order it again. The Walnut Chorizo was definitely the highlight of the dish. My only note was that there was too little dressing and as such the salad was a tad on the dry side, but otherwise would highly recommend. I would definitely like to have gone back and tried some of their items. They also have some desserts, all of which looked lovely, but we’re a bit on the pricy side.
Holy Gelato (1392 9th Avenue) Holy Gelato is an ice cream lover’s paradise. At least half of all their flavours are vegan friendly. I had the chocolate, peanut butter and marshmallow ice cream. It was as amazing as it sounds, but surprisingly not overly sweet either. I ate it while walking back to the apartment through Inner/Outer Sunset and even though it was quite cold I relished every bite of this remarkable and creamy treat.
Gracias Madre (2211 Mission Street) I saved the best for last. Gracias Madre is all vegan Mexican Restaurant in the Mission that has a pretty stellar reputation and is a very trendy hot spot for foodies. Line-ups are apparently a pretty common occurrence, though I had no problem getting a seat right away at lunch time. The line-ups are understandable. This is first rate food, and though the cost is a bit more than average, the high quality of the ingredients and substantial portions justified the extra money. I had the Tempeh Chorizo Torta, and while I waited for my food I watched as everyone seated near me was brought all kinds of beautiful, delicious-looking food. My meal was served with Escabeche vegetables (pickled). The flawless texture and tangy vinegar made these vegetables some of the best I have ever tasted in a restaurant. The Torta (bread from Acme Bakery in Oakland) was topped with Tempeh Chorizo, black beans, pickled cabbage, pico de gallo, avocado and cashew crème. I really wanted to try one of their desserts as well, but it was a little bit out of my budget. Next time!