In Loving Memory

Talk about a turbulent year. 2017 has generated more sensational headlines than the past decade altogether, and even with mere hours left on the clock, I wouldn’t count it out for churning up some new controversy yet. Eager to move ahead straight into the new year without looking back, leaving those lackluster memories far in the past, it’s essential to hit pause, resisting the relentless push forward, to reflect on just those low points. For perspective, we can better appreciate when things are genuinely good, and for knowledge, to prevent those same mistakes from being repeated once again.

In this case, I wanted to take a moment and say a final farewell to some of the dearly departed vegan establishments that we’ve lost in San Francisco in the short span of 12 months. While it’s a grueling industry where failure is much more common that success, especially in the long term, it feels particularly poignant to see so many personal favorites close their doors, despite the immense talent, support, and passion in the kitchen.

Encuentro is the establishment I find hardest to let go of. If you had asked me before, I would have easily placed it on my list of top three restaurants in the bay area, if not first place to begin with. Few fine dining establishments exist for those that eschew meat, dairy, and eggs, but you would never even consider what wasn’t present on the plate here. Execution was on par with that of any Michelin-starred restaurant, in my opinion, but without the pretension that goes along with such a lofty award. Fancy but not fussy, I can’t recall a single bad meal here. Generous platters of tender sweet potato gnocchi and dark, devilish chocolate cake will forever haunt my memory. The dream is not yet dead, though, as the otherwise vacant store front still plays host to periodic pop-up events.

No No Burger shocked fans when they announced the end of their glorious but shockingly brief run. After transitioning from an infrequent pop-up to a daily staple at the SoMa StrEat Food Park, the future seemed bright, especially considering the nearly universal rave reviews for their juicy meatless patties and decadent toppings, deeply savory and indulgent enough to satisfy the cravings of even the most staunch omnivores. Many considered their burger to be the bright spot in a dark, murky landscape of mediocre vegetable-based hockey pucks, leaving a gaping hole in the dining scene between the ultra meaty Impossible Burger and old-school bean burgers.

Photo from Elyse T. via Yelp

RAW – A Juice Company was so much more than just juice, contrary to the name. Offering a rainbow of produce painstakingly crafted into living cuisine, you couldn’t go wrong with a plate of raw lasagna or an abundant acai bowl. Judging by the active Facebook page, though, we may just see the next chapter to this story taking place in the topical islands of Hawaii. Only time will tell when, or if, these fresh finds will resurface.

Seed + Salt had a whole lot of heart for such a tiny place. Wedged into a storefront the size of a bread box in the Marina, not even the limited seating could detract from the experience of eating in. Fully gluten-free in addition to being vegan, eaters of all stripes could find sweet and savory treats to enjoy. The chickpea frittata, served solo, in a breakfast sandwich, or sliced atop a bountiful plant-based Cobb salad, was always hard for me to resist. It’s a simple yet satisfying entree that has inspired many attempts at replication by myself and others in the know.

The Plant Cafe, while still an apparently thriving business with no less than six bustling outposts under its belt, including one in the highly desirable SFO Terminal 2 space, has shuttered both the Burlingame and waterfront Embarcadero establishments. Citing the usual battery of labor shortages and skyrocketing rents, it’s just a relief that their light, healthy fare will still be available for visitors and locals alike. Their impeccably well-balanced grapefruit and avocado salad remains the highlight of any trip that necessitates a stop at the airport. If you find yourself at any of other sit-down cafes that offer a full menu of brunch choices on the weekends, you can’t go wrong with the pesto tofu scramble, either.

Photo by Celiac Community

3 Potato 4, once a small franchise with three locations scattered about the bay, has slowly been shuttering those outposts one by one. The last holdout was in the Pleasanton Stoneridge Shopping Center, but without any warning or confirmation, that store seems to have gone dark mere weeks ago. Dedicated to spreading the spud love, their simple menu offered an array of baked fries and sauce, with seasonal soups, plus soft serve to finish on a sweet note. For comfort food without all the grease and guilt, it was hard to beat this accessible, affordable option. Here’s hoping that the tides turn and this outage is but a brief blip in business as usual.

To these fallen friends that we leave behind in 2017, I’d like to raise a toast- Piled high with avocado, of course- And wish their proprietors all the best on their next big idea. May they find this fork in the road ultimately as fulfilling as the meals they once shared.


True Gossip

Rumors are flying about the new taco spot in Nob Hill, but the buzz is so much more than mere gossip. Although that’s the translation of Chisme, the bespoke restaurant has already proven itself a worthy contender in a city teeming with Mexican eateries. Menu options are limited, focused on a short list of fillings to swaddle in soft, handmade tortillas, served two per order. Simple yet irresistible appetizer staples like chips and guacamole or fried potatoes do beckon, but stay focused here. Take a closer look at those taco options. Not only are the vegan choices clearly marked, but compared to the more meaty entrees, they dominate the colorful paper printout.

Fusion is the name of the game for these unconventional offerings, such as eggplant slathered in peanut mole, or plantains and black beans paired with a creamy coconut ranch dressing. Perish the thought of strained, unsatisfying attempts at “authenticity” here; flavor comes first, regardless of origin. Chisme caters to a different sort of crowd, and those customers seem to be eating it up.

Order at the front, grab a number, and take a seat at the communal table or benches. One might call the space spare and the service no-frills, but it’s warm and friendly, open and inviting, regardless. Besides, in a matter of minutes your surroundings will become irrelevant as a hot plate of food drops in front of you. If there’s only one dish to order, it’s the Jackfruit Taco. Marinated in a savory sauce and fried to crispy perfection, it remains juicy inside, with an impossibly meaty bite all the way though. Greens and cabbage are par for the course, adding a bit of freshness and crunch to the conversation, but the unexpected brightness of the mint verde sauce truly seals the deal. It sounds like a crazy combination, but trust me, it just works.

Don’t sleep on that fiery green hot sauce that comes on the side, either. It’s the sort of condiment that people would steal if it was put into bottles, or for those with more restraint, buy by the case if it was sold in stores. If the heat becomes overwhelming, cool down with a dairy-free coconut horchata for dessert. The sweetness of this cinnamon-spiked elixir could easily rival that of a proper milkshake, but is a welcome refreshment on a hot day.

Stop the gossip and get the facts. Chisme is the real deal.

Son of a Butcher

Snaking past the illuminated case of thin-sliced meats and artisan cheeses, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk, the line is already at least 15 deep, and it’s not even noon yet. Any respectable food establishment in downtown Berkeley will inevitably experience the usual lunch rush on any given day, but The Butcher’s Son is guaranteed to be more or less a mob scene no matter the hour. After a year and a half of slinging sandwiches to these hungry hordes, their popularity shows no sign of waning, nor the excitement from dying down. Eavesdrop on the masses already tucking into their oversized sandwiches for encouragement to endure the wait; exclamations of deep, primal joy echo off the walls, speaking louder than any formal review.

Salads and fried snacks round out the menu, but make no mistake, it’s all about the sandwiches here. Overstuffed with plant-based meats and dairy-free cheeses, these generous assemblages transcend the boundaries separating vegans and omnivores. Scores of staunch meat eaters have been shocked to discover that this old school deli is entirely flesh-free, even after devouring a full meal. There’s a certain finesse to the casual fare that reveals dedication to the craft that can only come from passion and attention to detail.

Each towering creation is a feat of culinary architecture. The Fried Mozzarella & Meatball could comfortably satisfy two diners, and the Roast Beef Reuben piles on thinly shaved beefless slices and sauerkraut with the same enthusiasm.

Bestsellers include the BLAT, a classic combination of bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, straight to the point and sure to satisfy any nostalgic cravings. It’s tough to leave without ordering the Pulled Pork though, a saucy, smoky barbecue sensation that’s crowned with tender strings of caramelized onions and creamy coleslaw.

Groaning, straining within the confines of one’s previously well-fitting pants, it would behoove the average diner to reach for a takeout box early on. Resist the temptation of cleaning the plate, no matter how strongly the urge strikes. Besides, there’s still dessert to consider. Don’t overlook the pastry case, stocked with a rotating selection of pies, cheesecakes, cookies, doughnuts, cannoli, flaky croissants, and all variety of other sweet surprises. Just in case you need a meaty fix throughout the week, cold cuts and cheese are sold by the pound, right alongside house-made sour pickles.

Come hungry and early to secure a table, especially for the epic weekend bunch menu. This isn’t your average delicatessen, but the overall experience wouldn’t lead you to think it was any different.

The Butcher’s Son
1941 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704

Silent Saturday: Berried Treasure

In case you’re hungry for some edible precious gems of your own, I have a little gift to at least whet your appetite. Click around and you’ll find that the second image will expand into a full-sized wallpaper, which can be downloaded to enjoy as your desktop wallpaper. Simply right click the larger version, select “Set as Desktop Background,” and choose the “Stretch” option to best fit to your screen.