California Vegan is workingman's Thai cuisine, if such a thing exists, and if working men slurped glass noodles with fake fish and kombucha for lunch, rather than carne al pastor from the taco truck across the street. You will not find the regional exotica of Hollywood or Thai Town in the ramshackle dining room, or the finesse accorded meatless dishes at Bulan in WeHo or Silverlake. You will not find anything spicy; the chili pepper icon on the door-hanger menu is a ruse. The only dishes threatening heat are the red and green curries and the Chinese-inflected “drunk man's style” fried rice. You practically need to prostrate yourself in the kitchen entry to convince the staff that yes, you really do like it hot. Rather, California Vegan delivers a roster of very farang-friendly Central Thai favorites, simply prepared and served with your choice of protein–assuming that protein is derived from soy, TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein) or wheat.
It's advisable to order al la carte and avoid the perfunctory spring roll and miso soup. Besides, every item is served with organic brown rice, the only accompaniment you need, flawlessly cooked just a stitch past al dente, toothsome, nutty and gently perfumed. The grilled pepper steak tastes of a long bath in vinegar, dark soy and oil, and arrives tableside with carrots (the factory-scalloped kind), broccoli and sheaves of green cabbage. Try the wide Rad Nar noodle, doused in brown gravy and topped with more lightly sautéed broccoli and soy shrimp–as convincing a simulacrum of the real crustacean in appearance, if not quite in flavor, as there ever was. And the un-Larb salad, minced tofu tossed with toasted rice powder, fresh aromatics, a spot of chili and cured in lime juice is an invigorating starter.
The dish that claims a regular following at California Vegan bears no resemblance to Thai cuisine at all. This is hardly a surprise, as the kitchen emphasizes options over authenticity–the menu is littered with quotidian veggie burgers, wraps, something called Cowboy, even a quesadilla–none of which Squid Ink has been motivated to try. The crispy chicken is a different beast, however. A battered breast of soy poultry, deep-fried to order, cut into fat matchsticks like a platter of Cantonese duck and served with sour-sweet dipping sauce, this is the sort of vegan fare that makes carnivores sigh with relief, and possibly pleasure. Savory, well-tanned and weeping little rivulets of organic grease, it's a welcome respite from that redoubt of the non-vegan at a vegan restaurant, the french fry. Which are pretty good at California Vegan too.
California Vegan:12113 Santa Monica Boulevard, 2nd Floor, Los Angeles; 310-207-4798. Also in Hollywood.
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