One of the things we noticed about the food scene when we were in Los Angeles recently was how notably vegan-friendly it was. But it’s not the number of strictly vegan or vegetarian restaurants that struck us—though that was considerable too—it was how well non-vegan establishments integrated vegan + vegetarian options into their menus that really impressed us.
Coming from New York City, we’re already wildly spoiled in terms of living in a city that both values food highly, in general, and one that offers up many establishments that specialize in vegan/vegetarian foods. But—at the risk of sounded like spoiled children—we will say that many if not most of New York’s mainstream restaurants can be not-so-accomodating or -creative when it comes to catering to those choose to abstain from eating animal products.
Seriously, guys—this bacon-in-everything trend is getting OOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLDDDDDDDDDD.
But in LA—and blame our rose-colored glasses if you like—there’s an unmistakable difference in the way chefs + home cooks alike seem to approach food. Perhaps it has to do with the near-year-round growing season, or maybe you could even say their popular culture is a more health-centric one than New York’s, but plant-forward cooking + eating is much more the norm there.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of LET’S MAKE EVERYTHING OUT OF MEAT EVEN THE WALLS places + retro burger joints out there, but, from the Vegan Grill embedded in the Venice Whole Foods to the simple fact that the über-legit Santa Monica taco place that was recommended to us had three—THREE—different vegan tacos for us to enjoy, it’s hard to argue with Veg News magazine’s recent declaration that LA was the “Center of the (Vegan) Universe.”
One such amazing non-vegan restaurant that was recommended to us by LA vegan blogger, quarrygirl, was Susan Feniger’s STREET. We hadn’t heard of the place before, but one look at the menu, with its barbecue jackfruit bao, Japanese-fried tofu bites, curry fries (not curly, curry), and enough asterisks for vegan options on the menu to make you think you’re looking at a cloudless night sky, we were in.
It ended up being one of the most enjoyable dining experience of our stay in LA, prompting us to reach out to find out more about STREET and the idea behind it. Chef + co-owner, Kajsa Alger (below, left), was gracious enough to answer some of our questions on the food scene in Los Angeles, where the vegan lifestyle fits into it, and to share some pictures of some truly mouthwatering vegan dishes from the restaurant. Scroll down for the photos + a video quarrygirl did with Kajsa on the restaurant’s vegan options.
Chef Kajsa Alger: Susan, through her travels, experienced so much culture and realized that it all ties back to food. We’ve both tasted so many distinct flavors on the streets of India, Turkey, Egypt, etc., and wanted to bring them back and create a restaurant that celebrated the community and culture that makes street food so special.
What interests you about street food in particular?,
Just seeing the love and community that goes into these delicious bites on the streets of all these amazing countries inspired me.
Do you + Susan collaborate on everything or is there a clear break-down of responsibilities, interests, et cetera?
Susan and I have worked together for a long time. The restaurant, menu, and concepts are all collaborative and stem from years of working together and a mutual appreciation for the way we cook and eat and travel/explore food.
In terms of the space that you created at the restaurant, what was important to you all when you were planning STREET?
We wanted a space that was exciting and unique, reflecting a sense of modern architecture, but that still felt small and warm and welcoming. We want STREET to be a cool, modern yet neighborhood restaurant. A space that felt exciting to be in, but not stuffy or over-thought. We used Neil Denari Architects, and they were great!
Yeah, it’s really nice. The wall art, decor, + overall look of the restaurant is very distinct and rather reminiscent of 80s pop street art. Who did that for you all?
Su Huntley and Donna Muir created the colorful onsite works and worked collaboratively with Denari’s design. We love the artwork!
How would you characterize the current food scene in LA? We were pretty shocked at how…foodie—for the lack of a better term—the city seemed.
LA has definitely seen an increase in small, independent restaurants focused on great quality food and beverages. It has moved away from the big-spender “Hollywood” feel that it was trending with in years past. People are wanting intimate and interactive dining experiences. The guests are more food educated and are looking for a way to explore and try lots of different kinds of food. Small plates/tapas style dining is big. People want experience and “value” isn’t based on size of portions any more, but how creative and well made the food is.
Your menu is strikingly vegan-friendly and seems to center around plant-based foods in many cases. Is that intentional?
Approximately 1/3 of our clientele is vegan. Neither Susan or I are vegan but we believe in a non-meat centered menu and most ethnic food lends itself to that world anyways. I eat a predominantly plant-based diet and am hugely involved in the vegan community. We have always emphasized great veggie food, but specifically over the past two years we have started to move the restaurant in the direction of being more vegetarian-/vegan-focused, with an emphasis still on our global comfort food ingredients and style.
Why do you think it’s so rare in such a cosmopolitan city like New York to have vegan options integrated into a non-vegan restaurant’s menu? LA seems so much better about that to us.
New York has an incredible amount of vegan restaurants with fantastic quality. But it’s true—there are not a lot of “mixed” vegan/non-vegan places and the options for vegans outside of a vegetarian restaurant are limited. I think that the difference is that LA is more health-based in general. Even if someone is not vegetarian or vegan, a huge majority of the population is concerned about their health, healthy eating, and eating light. So those options are more prevalent in LA restaurant menus in general. On top of that, there is a huge vegan food movement happening in LA right now. People are preferring to eat vegan rather than vegetarian and there is a whole subdivision of “foodie” vegan restaurants that are pushing into the mainstream audience.
Yeah, that just makes me want to get back there as soon as possible. What are some NYC spots you like for vegan food?
Well, for non-veggie places that do great veggie, I love that place Danji—sort of korean modern food—actually my fave restaurant in the city right now. Then I love Red Bamboo, Hangawi, MOB in Brooklyn…there’s actually such amazing food happening right now in Brooklyn…I want to check it out more when I go next. I met some people from Paris the other night who said the new expression for great food in Paris is to say it’s “tres Brooklyn!”
Oh, Brooklyn. Funny though—MOB’s actually a block up from our office. Now, I know Susan has a cookbook. Any chance the curry fires + jackfruit bao recipes are in there? We REALLY need to have those again as soon as possible but I’m not sure we can actually justify the airfare from NYC right this second.
Those recipes are not in the current cookbook, but many of the recipes are vegan, or easily adapted into vegan recipes. So much of the world’s food is vegan by nature, that it is easy to transition. We are toying with the idea of a vegetarian cookbook soon….
DO IT!!! Any other exciting plans for expansion or development in the future?
We hope so!
Hm. I’ll assume from that mysteriously vague response that you are opening an east coast outpost. In Brooklyn. A block away from our office. Just in case my assumption is not correct though, any nice new vegan options we should look forward to for our next visit in the coming seasons?
Come Mother’s Day—we are starting an all new brunch menu with at least 15 new vegan items. We’re very excited about that. We are continually recipe- and menu-developing and have every intention of including vegan recipes in all of our upcoming menus and special events. Check out our social media, website, etc…for news on all of that.
You can read more about STREET + check out their menus on their site. If you’re in LA, start off your week with their Meatless Mondays and be sure to stop by for their happy hours—5-7PM Monday-Friday—for food + drink specials. You can follow STREET on Facebook + Twitter and check out Susan Feniger’s cookbook (and even a few of the recipes) here.
Below, photos of STREET’s Potato Samosas (awesome); the Pumpkin Cauliflower Cannoli (awesome); Curry Fries (MIND-BLOWING); and then photos from Kajsa’s Instagram account (@chefkajsa): a gluten-free falafel waffle w blood orange hummus; falafel poppers with feta or vegan Daiya cheese inside and blood orange + date salad with harissa vinaigrette; mishuku fries; the fable barbecue jackfruit bao (so good); a soyrizo empanada made with plantain masa; and housemade soyrizo.