As a proud carnivore, I have no intention of relinquishing meat. Yet it certainly wouldn't hurt to cut back — and that's made easier by the city's gifted chefs. With beets, they may have stumbled upon a meat substitution that transcends a mere trend. In fact, beets just might turn out to be my gateway vegetable.
For nearly a decade, Zinc Cafe has been a mecca for the meatless gourmand. From its original outpost in Laguna Beach, Zinc has expanded throughout Southern California, including a location in the Arts District that opened just over a year ago. The strictly vegetarian menu eschews soy-based beef imposters, opting instead to let nonprocessed vegetables shine.
Rather than relying on tofu or seitan, Zinc delivers full flavor in the form of brown rice, beans, cauliflowers and — in the case of its “Reubenesque” sandwich — beets.
Midnight-black pumpernickel bread is piled with melted gruyère, pungent sauerkraut, Russian dressing and coriander seeds. The only deviation is the dark red-hued root vegetable. “As a lifelong vegetarian, it's not so much about trying to match flavors,” says Zinc general manager John Secretan, “as it is about getting to borrow the majority of a traditional menu item and make it accessible to a vegetarian.”
The newly opened Chavela, a vegan Peruvian bar and restaurant (it's attached to Hollywood's Los Balcones), has a succinct menu of a dozen entrees and appetizers — and it dives headfirst into the beet-for-beef substitution. The beet tartare is served cold, on crostini drenched in aioli and a nut-based “ricotta cheese.”
“Beets are a wonderful substitute for beef in tartare because it really fools the eye,” says executive chef Rachel Carr, adding that the vegetable offers “a complex, rich flavor and a lovely texture when properly roasted.”
At downtown's hip Mexican newcomer B.S. Taqueria, chef Ray Garcia is renowned for his popular takes on dishes that could easily inflict night terrors upon any devout vegetarian. Yet in addition to lengua, chorizo and lemon-pepper chicharones, Garcia offers a beet torta. The $11 sandwich showcases beets in both fried and pickled form. The breaded “cutlets” at its core — dubbed beet milanesa — are crunchy, well-salted and a satisfying substitute for fried chicken.
Although it seems far-fetched, a beet Wellington is on the menu at the Lost Knight, an English-style gastropub in Echo Park. Roasted beets are wrapped in a puff pastry, then baked lightly before coming to rest on a bed of bruléed goat cheese and micro greens. I'm a meat eater who typically dines with the same. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't slightly weirded out when ordering this dish in their company. But I'd also be lying if I said it was anything less than delicious.