The day I moved (back) to Los Angeles was wrought with peril. But a cross-country flight, two terrified cats and the abandonment of life as I’d know it could not quash my higher function: Hunger. As vegetarian-orientated as California is, the caliber of the local vegetarian options simply does not compare the echelons of New York. I was ready for disappointment. Fortunately, I was met at LAX by my parents and a Thai Chickin’ salad from The Veggie Grill.
That Veggie Grill’s salad changed my life… at least in that desperate moment. As I shoveled crisp greens spattered with fruity dressing and hunks of non-supermarket grilled mock chicken into my mouth, the tremor in my heart dissipated. Though none of Los Angeles’ high end vegetarian/vegan restaurants compare–NYC’s Blossom and Pure Food quash LA’s Madeleine Bistro and Cru–with one bite, The Veggie Grill asserted Los Angeles’ dominance of the casual vegetarian culture.
Such is the exact intent of founders Kevin Boylan and T.K. Pillan. Historically, vegetarians have been beaten into submission by flaccid veggie burgers and salads that put your tongue to sleep. But these two omnivores–turned herbivorous–refused to submit. Weary of their (doctor ordered) low/no meat diet, they conceived of The Veggie Grill and pursued it dispite their lack of restaurant experence. Wrangling Chef Ray White (co-founder of Native Foods) they answered the war cry of vegetarians like me: A plant-based restaurant aimed at omnivores!
The All Hail Kale Salad ($ 7.95) is frequently singled out as the anti-vegetable eater’s game changer… it immediately alters ones outlook on a commonly hated vegetable: Kale. Although, not me! I grew up with kale in my hair, pea tendrils necklaces and stalks of broccoli in my fists. I’ve yet to meet a vegetable that hasn’t ended up on my plate. But sadly, for many people vegetable diversity doesn’t extend past the 20 or so supermarket friendly varieties. But Kale is a great gateway green. Perceived as an overtly healthy bitter leafy vegetable, newbies are surprised by its delicate ruffles and rich flavor. Unlike collard or mustard greens, kale is great raw. But as The Veggie Grill proves, it’s even better marinated! It’s topped with red cabbage, roasted corn salsa, agave-roasted walnuts and not too vinegary ginger-papaya vinaigrette. You would truly have to hate food to find significant fault with this salad.
The Baja Fiesta Salad ($8.95) does an equally sly job of introducing another vegetarian oriented ingredient: Quinoa. The couscous like grain is packed with nutty notes and a slight satisfying crunch. Topped with chopped romaine, sweet papaya, creamy avocado, roasted corn salsa, cucumber, cilantro, crisp tortilla strips and the same fruity vinaigrette as the kale, these two salads make an important statement. Neither rely on mock meats, traditional concepts or artisan ingredients that can’t be easily sourced at a supermarket. They are proving (by example) that salad–as a bowl of vegetables–is exhilarating. With just a little effort, great food happens.
But the most significant feature at The Veggie Grill is the mock meats. At this point in the restaurant narrative, it’s so upsetting to be served Morning Star (Kellogg), Boca (Kraft) or Gardein’. I can make this at home, thank you. But with Ray White at the helm, all proteins have been developed and produced specifically for The Veggie Grill. Turns out, The Veggie Grill meats are commercial grade Gardein, which is heftier then the wimpy patty sold at Whole Foods. So, when you order the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin’ Sandwich ($8.95)–and you should order it–you are getting a meal you can get nowhere else. The chicken patty is made from their own Chillin’ Chickin’ and is coated in a coconut milk batter, breaded and fried (FYI-you don’t taste coconut at all). Served on a soft whole wheat bun with lettuce, tomato, rings of red onion, smashed avocado, a chopped clump of peppers and a slather of southwestern spiced vegan mayo, this sandwich is the best. Anyone new to The Veggie Grill should start with this selection.
Why do I push the Sana Fe Crispy Chickn’ Sandwich? Because the one time I strayed and got the Chipotle BBQ Sandwich ($8.50),I learned it simply doesn’t compare. To me, a BBQ sauce should be rich and smoky; this overly tangy sauce obliterats the nuance of the shredded veggie-steak. The chew of the meat is addictive, but I just can’t get past the acrid sauce. The caramelized onion, lettuce and tomato help cut it, but still, I don’t think I’ll be ordering this again.
Alongside any sandwich order, the Sweetheart Fries ($4.25) are a must. Crisp outside with tender sweet potato flesh inside. They’re served with a mild chipotle ranch that doesn’t add much to the fries, they are scrumptious as is.
Brand new to the menu (so new, it’s not even on the menu) are the electric red Buffalo Wings ($6.25). It’s the same Chikin’ used on the Santa Fe sandwich, but smothered in biting buffalo glaze. The buffalo sauce much better developed then the BBQ. With lively tang and stinging spice, it’s hard to stop eating these. The traditional cool accoutrements, celery sticks and (vegan!) ranch, do a perfect job at balancing the heat.
I also tried the Mac’n Cheese–against the recommendation of my friend who is better versed in The Veggie Grill’s menu–which is just not good. But it brought up a sudden awareness. The entire menu is obviously vegetarian but with this benign dairy-less mac’n cheese in my mouth it struck me. EVERYTHING is vegan! Besides the mac’n cheese, I’m not missing cheese at all!
A lot of seemingly vegan food is littered with whey and casein. But The Veggie Grill controls everything going into their food, guaranteeing its vegan status. This attention quality is simply astounding.
If you still have room, splurge on dessert! The crowd favorite is the Carrot Cake ($3.5), a ultra moist not to sweet cake with creamy vegan cream cheese frosting sprinkled with shredded carrots and chopped walnuts. The Chocolate Chip Cookie ($1.75) only tastes good to hardcore vegans who have forgotten to miss the butter. But my favorite is the Chocolate Pudding! With blended silken tofu and rich dark chocolate…. who knew pudding would taste better without dairy!
Beyond the outstanding vegan food, The Veggie Grill is primed for expansion. And it seems that is exactly what they have in mind! New CEO, Greg Dollarhyde, has a history of successful chain growth. He was the chief executive of Baja Fresh from 1998 to 2003 expanded the chain from 45 locations to 249 by 2002. Though I’m naturally inclined to be anti-chain fast food establishments, this is a restaurant I’m eager to see take over the country.