Front and Center

Pizza parlors are a dime a dozen in any city worth its rent. Sold by the slice or full pie, the combination of crisp, slightly charred blistered crust with gooey cheese, still bubbling from the oven’s scalding hot breath, no one can resist such simple pleasures. Cybelle’s Front Room in San Francisco was founded upon that basic premise, like countless others, but rapidly evolved into an outpost for far more complex, diverse comfort food delights.

Not just catering to the sporadic herbivorous visitor, an entirely vegan menu pulls out all the stops, with old-school Italian-Fusion fare, paying no mind to misguided naysayers. Leave your diet at the door, because this is no rabbit food.

Despite her blisteringly hectic schedule, I had the great fortune of sitting down with chef Christa Yan (in our respective apartments during shelter in place mandates) to get the inside scoop of how this classic red sauce joint transitioned into a meatless dining destination.

Buffalo Chick’n Mac & Cheese

Hannah Kaminsky: When was Cybelle’s Front Room originally established?
Christa Yan: So CyBelle’s Pizza used to be a pizza chain with 28 CyBelle’s Pizza locations throughout the Bay Area. It was one of my dad’s first “real” American jobs when he came here from Hong Kong as a teenager. He worked his way up and became manager of all 28 CyBelle’s Pizza locations. In the early ’90s the entire chain split up and all the stores became independently owned. My dad ended up independently owning one CyBelle’s Pizza location on Parnassus near UCSF here in San Francisco.

In 2004, the original Front Room, where we are now on 9th Avenue, went up for sale by the original owners, who had been running the Front Room since the ’70s. My dad ended up buying it from them and decided to combine the two names and menus, hence CyBelle’s Front Room was born and it’s been this way since 2004. It’s been 16 years now as CyBelle’s Front Room and owned and operated by my parents!

Caesar Salad

HK: When did you start serving a vegan menu?
CY: I started the Vegan Menu in August 2017. It started out as a few simple items. I had just moved back to the Bay after a 10-year stint in Chicago. I didn’t know what the vegan community in SF was like at all. Had no idea it was such a supportive community!

HK: What was the inspiration?
CY: Inspiration was honestly seeing the lack of vegan food in our immediate area in the Inner Sunset District here in San Francisco. I’m a comfort food type of gal. I love eating “naughty” food! I wanted some real naughty vegan food!

Impossible Nacho Fries

HK: How often do you change the menu?
CY: So we do have an 8-page permanent plant-based menu now. It’s grown definitely. We keep adding “specials” pretty much all the time that interchange every month or so. We have a little table menu that we call our mini “specials board” and that’s where we keep all our specials that change all the time, in addition to the 8-page permanent plant-based menu.

Zucchini Noodle Carbonara

HK: How have the vegan dishes been received? Was there any push back from regulars?
CY: No push back from regulars that I can recall right now honestly! I think plant-based comfort food is new to a lot of people who aren’t familiar with faux meats etc. Our regulars that have been coming for 13+ plus years are wowed by everything honestly and they try stuff from the vegan menu all the time!

Chicken Parm

HK: What’s the most popular order?
CY: It’s a tie between the beignets with cookie butter and the mac n cheese pizza right now.

Beignets with Chocolate Sauce and Cookie Butter

HK: Do you have a personal favorite?
CY: My personal favorite is our Vegan Mozz Stuffed Garlic Knots. They are super naughty. Loaded with garlic and butter and olive oil and more garlic and then more butter. Not for the faint of heart. Or anyone on a caloric deficit. But it is right up my alley and it’s been a huge hit.

HK: Is there anything you’re particularly excited about coming soon?
CY: OH YESSSS. We are debuting housemade vegan pepperoni. Working on Vegan Mozzarella sticks as well. Lots of cool vegan pizza combos. More types of different vegan wings as well. Possibly a super crispy ridiculous fried chik’n sandwich. Lots of things in my brain!

Mac & Cheese Calzone

HK: Any other background information or stories you’d like to share?
CY: My parents have been in this business 30+ years now. They are high school sweethearts. They are true San Franciscan locals. They met at George Washington High School here in SF. They compare their love story to The Notebook, it’s ridiculous and sweet and hilarious. I feel lucky to have such a solid support system that came from so much love like that. It’s almost not real but it is.

My father is at the restaurant from open till close, every single day, and has held our family and business together for decades. That to me is the definition of a dedicated father, great husband, honorable businessman. He has helped so many businesses on our block. I could go into detail but he’s so humble about it he doesn’t want me advertising. He came here from Hong Kong as a teenager with very little. This is a true American Dream story.

Cybelle’s Front Room
1385 9th Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94122

 
 

 

 

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From A to Vegan, and Beyond

The clock hasn’t yet struck noon and already the restaurant is bustling. A line has begun to stretch around the corner and out the door while waiters carefully navigate the tiny space with their apparently bottomless, steaming carafes of darkly roasted coffee. Sunday, the last precious day of the weekend, used to be a time to sleep in and take it easy, but now it’s become the end-all, be-all day for brunch. Taking in the scene from a sunny corner, I can’t help but marvel at how quickly my generation has embraced this development, right alongside another, deeper reaching culinary trend: Veganism. As if to underscore this point, vegan options are woven in right alongside the other new American fare, highlighted by bold “V’s” as if to underscore my train of thought. 10 years ago, would the word “vegan” have resonated so thoroughly with so many people? Joined by my friend and dining partner in crime, Elizabeth Castoria, I can think of no person better to contemplate this rise in veganism with.

Author of the newly released How to Be Vegan, Elizabeth has experienced the shift in perception first hand, having embarked on her own cruelty-free path at the tender age of 17. Though this shifted her interested in predictable ways in regards to animal rights and food, nothing could alter her passion for writing. After achieving her masters in fiction at New School University, she quickly shot up through the editorial ranks. Modestly waving her numerous accomplishments off like a whiff of something unpleasant, it seems that her success still hasn’t fully sunk in. “To be honest, I picked a major in college because it seemed like an easy thing to do, but then it somehow worked out.”

It could have only worked out based on the strength of her work. After spending many years as the editor of VegNews magazine, bringing the vegan community together to become connected in ways it could have never been before, Elizabeth has always spoken from the heart. Inspiration comes naturally when the subject matter is so compelling, and as a prolific reader, there’s no shortage of engaging pieces out there to drink in. Working endlessly to refine and hone her craft has yielded the impressive results we all found on the new stands and still refer back to today, giving Elizabeth an irresistible resume when publishers came calling.

Offered the opportunity to create a lifestyle guide for new, curious, or confused vegans, Elizabeth saw that it was a growing niche to be sure, but one that hadn’t yet been fully satisfied. Though her entry isn’t meant to be the last book on the subject with encyclopedic entries, she offers something that far too many similar authors work to curtail: Her unique voice. Conversational but authoritative, with a good dose of her trademark humor added to the mix, it’s not a dry or boring read to slog through. It’s a book you’ll actually want to pick up, work through from cover to cover, and return to time and again later on down the road.

Reckless creativity is the standard approach to all of her endeavors, including her adventures in the kitchen. Less keen on following a specific formula than simply combining what’s in season with what’s currently in the pantry, she’s quick to credit Robin Robertson with her assistance in developing the recipe section in How to Be Vegan. One particular dish that Elizabeth picked out as a favorite is the Soyrizo Pasta, a super-simple, comforting combination of any pasta shape that might be handy, tomatoes, a generous handful of garlic and spices, and lightly sauteed soy-based chorizo. Also included are food staples that even the most novice of cooks can master, producing dishes that will still impress and satisfy. The question of “what’s for dinner” will inevitably enter the conversation where veganism is concerned, so this fool-proof arsenal will have even the pickiest palates covered.

As if on cue, as our thoughts shift to treats and good eats, our food arrives. I waste no time tearing into my tofu scramble while Elizabeth more delicately works on her Burmese tea leaf salad and samusa soup. Between the two of us, it’s a brunch fit for vegan kings; a signifier of the radical shift in the perception of veganism in general over the past few years. While the uninformed may regrettably still be stuck on the classic protein question, the lifestyle is more widely accepted, understood, and accessible than ever. Elizabeth’s book is just one more piece to the puzzle that makes transitioning away from the standard American diet a piece of dairy- and egg-free cake. She delves deep into the heart of the matter, explaining the cruelty of circuses and factory farms in non-confrontational language that doesn’t preach or accuse. “My goal for How to Be Vegan was never to convert anyone, but to provide realistic, everyday information to help readers form their own conclusions about common issues, and advice to stop the cycle of cruelty whenever possible.”

Indeed, far from merely covering the food as most popular media is drawn to do, Elizabeth doles out wisdom on vegan clothing, makeup, travel tips, eating out, relationships, and even how to deal with close-minded naysayers without losing your cool. Considering the depth and breadth of information packed into this slim paperback, it’s surprising to hear that it came into being just about a year after the ink had dried on the final contract. “Nothing motivates like a deadline,” Elizabeth admits. There’s no magic to the writing process nor a time when the words flow most easily; it comes down to creating a firm schedule and clear goals to strive for. Although inevitable, the curse of writer’s block hasn’t been able to slow down the stream of sage advice. A long run through San Francisco’s lush green spaces always does the trick, clearing out the mind and making space for a fresh start. Clearly, what ever she’s doing to harness her full creative capacity, it’s working. How to Be Vegan has remained in the high ranks of Amazon.com’s vegan book section ever since its initial release, and has been well-received by the blogosphere at large. The real impact, however, is one that’s a bit more difficult to quantify. With this stellar literary entry, one can only imagine the countless lives, both human and animal, Elizabeth has already touched.