Unless you live in some sort of vegan utopia where all your friends are herbivores (or Portland), it's almost a guarantee that dining out with meat-eating friends is going to be a disappointment for at least one of the parties involved. Either the vegan eats a bland salad at a steakhouse or the carnivore pretends to enjoy kale, seitan and carob. Whatever the case, someone ain't happy.
This conundrum is exactly why the weekly Urban Food Crawl tours are successful, fun and most certainly worthy of the $65 tab. Operated by Jen Bardekoff and Sheri Wheeler (with the help of two tour guides), the L.A.-based company began last August as a way to showcase restaurants with vegan options and spirited ambiance. As crazy as this sounds, these two attributes aren't always a given when dealing with veggie-friendly joints.
The four-hour walking trek through downtown introduces guests to six eateries with legitimate meat-and-dairy-free options on the menu, but only one (BabyCakes NYC) is completely vegan, meaning you're not only eating awesome food, you're also being introduced to restaurants where vegans and meat eaters get satisfying meals.
Last Saturday's tour began at Two Bits Market with a half-serving of a rupee sandwich. Comprised of bean puree with artichoke, black olives, squash and arugula puree on a baguette, the quick bite is light and healthy, making it the perfect way to start a glutton-filled day. While the sandwich is tasty, the best part of starting the tour at Two Bits Market was the introduction to the store itself. For vegans, there are plenty of grocery options: local and organic produce, numerous varieties of snack bars, two brands of prepackaged cookies and vegan wine. For non-vegans, the market offers cheese and meat-based sandwiches from the deli. Basically, it's a win-win for vegans and carnivores.
Angelenos have known about Nickel Diner long before that guy with the frosted tips on television filmed an episode there. What we might not have known is how the eatery's stuffed avocado might be one of the best vegan options in all of downtown. Served with quinoa salad — black beans, red peppers, squash, corn and cilantro — this dish is bona fide delicious, and dense enough to compete with those burgers and the steak sandwich meat eaters order. The palm-sized avocado is fresh and creamy, while the addition of the quinoa salad creates a zesty kick with a Mexican influence. If only Nickel Diner didn't tease its customers with that old menu on the wall with the ad for a 20-cent beer.
The veget. ground beef & pickle taco (don't ask why it's called “veget.,” but that's what the menu says) at Mas Malo is gr-gr-greasy, but sometimes that's OK. And that sometimes is during happy hour, which just happens to be when Urban Food Crawl gets its guests into the restaurant. Made with homemade ground beef (faux, of course), pickles and a fried shell, the taco is the epitome of vegan drunk food, which comes in handy during hora de feliz's $3 sangrias and $5 pinata smashes. The booze isn't included on the tour, but it should be because the serrano chile in the pinata smash rules, whether you eat meat or not.
The average vegan is probably stuffed at this point in the day, so the Urban Food Crawl stops at the Bradbury Building to give everyone a few minutes to relax. Yes, the wrought iron inside is beautiful, but you can't eat wrought iron, so the tour moves quickly to Pitfire Pizza, where slices of field mushroom pies (crimini, oyster and shiitake mushrooms with Daiya cheese) are passed like doobies at a Snoop Dogg concert.
The idea of a strawberry pocket tart from Semi Sweet Bakery almost always sounds like a good idea, but after eating four dishes in less than three hours, sometimes food that sounds great doesn't always taste great. Fortunately, that isn't the case at Semi Sweet, because this veganized version of Pop-Tarts satisfies the sweet tooth that surely arises after the aforementioned meals.
If you've paid money to stuff yourself, then damn it, you'd best stuff yourself. With this in mind, devour the black-and-white cookie from BabyCakes NYC not because it's the final stop on the tour but because a delicious blend of black and white icing is not something a vegan gets to enjoy on a daily basis. The fist-sized treat is so good you won't even care that you're licking icing off your fingers in a room full of strangers. Besides, they'll be doing it too.
The high you get from the cookie is enough to make Crawlies jokingly suggest they should forgo the train in favor of walking back to Long Beach. Except, considering all the food they just ate, maybe they aren't joking.
Urban Food Crawl hosts downtown tours every Saturday at 2 p.m., and the occasional vegan hike through Silver Lake. You need to purchase tickets in advance, and you'll want to bring walking shoes and maybe some sunscreen. And an appetite.