One of my favorite local Indian restaurants, All India Cafe, is on the second floor of a mini mall at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Bundy. There is nothing else worth eating in the mini-mall, except, perhaps the fast food Hawaiian barbecue place. But even that doesn't look all that enticing. And of course, the least enticing of the lot is the upstairs corner, Thai Beer.
Thai Beer is a just an idiotic name. There’s no other more sophisticated way for me to say it. It’s just stupid. If the place were a bar, perhaps it would make more sense, but it also has the word Thai in it, so would they only serve beers from Thailand? It is a restaurant, so at the very least, it should be called Thai Food. But let's face it, that's about as good as those places I've seen called "Donuts" and "Best Chinese." *ugh* And, of course, there’s that other Thai chain, Thai Dishes. I guess Thai Beer was the next best thing.
One day, on the drive that I do every other day (when Barrington is too tightly packed with traffic), I noticed that Thai Beer was gone. In its place, a royal blue sign with yellow lettering spelling out California Vegan. It made me think it was a vegan restaurant owned by someone who went to Cal (Go Bears! school colors are blue and yellow). That’s Berkeley. Vegan and Berkeley – made sense to me.
So I thought that one day I’d try it. I have had vegan food before – Real Food Daily and A Votre Sante – and it wasn’t bad. If you get past the “meat” and just focus instead on eating vegetables, you’re good. A salad with greens, vegetables, and an olive oil based dressing, you know, is vegan too, but it doesn’t make you bristle.
Well, imagine *the horror, the horror* when we decided to try California Vegan, went in, and found that California Vegan, which replaced that god awful Thai restaurant, was, in fact, vegan Thai! Oh well. I’ll try anything once, even twice, and though I’ve eaten and hated Thai almost every single time, I’ve never had vegan Thai. And it couldn’t be horrible since there were other people enjoying their meals there – a young Asian couple sitting in the corner and an extremely pale, obviously vegan (*slap me* for such flagrant foodie profiling!), extremely thin, almost skeletal, bald man enjoying what looked like a burger and fries. Just as we were finishing up our meal, two families came in, pushed three tables together and took over the center of the restaurant. Thank God it was at the end of our meal– there were lots of little kids with that party.
The menu has all the standard Thai items, and if you had somehow mis-read the sign out front when walking in, you probably wouldn’t have figured out that the restaurant is vegan because the dishes can come with shrimp, chicken, and beef. Tofu is also available, so I guess that’s the vegan part.
The sign had confused me - vegan. Then the menu - Thai - didn’t jive with the sign so that confused me. Then the dishes - meats - didn’t jive with the menu so that confused me. I called over our Thai-looking server (no, no I can’t tell us Asians apart. that confuses me too) with red-dyed hair and earrings to ask him if this was a vegan restaurant? Yes. But you have meat? Yes, shrimp, chicken, and beef are all “shrimp,” “chicken,” and “beef,” made from soy. Oooh. This was going to be interesting. I've done meat-quote-unquote before and it was, yes, interesting.
So by now, it’s pretty clear that I am not a huge fan of Thai food. I can’t go into all the details, but it basically comes down to lime and coconut flavors in savory foods not quite working with my tastebuds. But I can always get by at Thai restaurants with the spicy soups, even with that tangy citrus. So we chose to share a large bowl of soup to start – I can’t remember exactly, but tom yum something. I was anxious to try the “chicken.” For the main event, we ordered a green curry. I kind of wanted to see if soy shrimp would actually be shaped and colored like shrimp, but we *ahem* chickened out :)
The soup looked fairly innocuous. So innocuous, that it didn’t even look like it had anything in it – just a deep reddish orange broth halo-ed with ring of shiny red oil and a single bay leaf for flavor. But when I stuck my little rounded spoon down in the broth and gave it a slurpy swirl, there were cute little button mushrooms, a whole cherry tomato, and something that upon first cursory glance, looked like chicken. However, upon further inspection, I could see: it wasn’t vegetable; it wasn’t animal. It looked like a yellow kitchen sponge that needed to be replaced about three weeks ago because it had turned an awful, dirty grey beige after scrubbing a sinkful of Chinese restaurant ventilation hood filters. *hmm*
So I took a bite and chewed. It looked like a sponge, so it certainly made sense that it tasted like a sponge. It was sort of weirdly chewy, but not like meat. No, more like springy and rubbery like the way I’d imagine fake Spam to feel like in my mouth. Nope, not chicken. It’s made of soy, but it didn’t taste like tofu either. If I were going to go soy, I’d rather just have tofu!
Though the “chicken” was too weird for me, I did enjoy the broth. It was flavorful, a touch oily for my taste, and for as dark red as it was, still could have used a bit more heat. We finished up just as our server brought out the next plate.
The green curry is not actually green. Rather, it’s a creamy pale yellow color with only the faintest hint of green. After the soup, we didn’t mind that sliced bamboo shoots are the most prominent ingredient, with a couple pieces of eggplant, bell peppers, and only a few pieces of “chicken.” The curry is served in a shallow oblong bowl on a large plate that has a perfect dome of steamed brown rice, a salad that looks like garnish, and a spring roll.
I tried the salad first, just to let my tastebuds recalibrate after the strange sponginess of the “chicken” and the flavors of the soup. Just a plain little salad of greens, but I enjoyed the dressing that is sometimes called “sesame” and sometimes called “peanut” depending on which one fits better with the cuisine *wink* I ate some of the chewy brown rice with the dressing, too. The vegetable spring roll was decent, with its flaky crisp skin, but still tasted a bit oily. It would have been alright if it had been served with a vinegar-based dipping sauce, but the dark brown stuff in the little cup was syrupy sweet.
The curry tasted just fine as far as I can tell, but I am not a good judge. If I go by the taste of it in its own flavor vacuum, then I can’t be fair because I just don’t love the taste and texture of Thai curry to begin with. If I go by how it compares to other green curries I’ve tried, I still can’t be fair, because this one is vegan, and it will taste different no matter what. It’s fairest to say that I tasted the curry part and didn’t hate it, but mostly picked out the eggplant and bamboo shoots to dip in the salad dressing.
California Vegan did alright, but I think once was enough for me on vegan Thai food. For a strictly vegan diet, California Vegan is probably a nice change from the usual brown rice and vegetables at A Votre Sante and Real Food Daily. (And it’s also nice for vegans who live in West Hollywood since there is a location on Sunset) However, it’s just not for me. If I want to eat vegan, then I’d rather eat food cooked with flavors that I love (like Latin!), and unfortunately, I don’t love the combination of flavors in Thai cooking. However, If I have to eat Thai food, then I’d rather eat at place that has ingredients that taste more familiar to me. Like chicken chicken.