True, at first glance a vegan and gluten-free lifestyle sounds like a joke from Portlandia‘s Allergy Pride Parade. Wave those flags high, besmirched friends. But here’s a non-snarky thought: for some people, it’s just life. They have actual allergies to gluten and/or dairy.
Or, there are those who simply eat delectable vegan meals for personal reasons and have best friends, family, or partners with high risks of Celiac disease. Either way, any way, whatever way, with all the delicious, forward-thinking offerings in the Bay Area, it ain’t so bad. In fact, it’s really, really good. Don’t hate, just taste.
QUESADILLAS DE CALABAZA AT GRACIAS MADRE
This quesadilla is the antitheses of the greasy pocket you’re used to. It’s a folded upright pillow, weighted lightly in the base with mouth-watering folds of whipped butternut squash and carmelized onions. While the presentation — which reimagines the quesadilla with a classic samosa shape — is worth it alone, the dish comes slathered in Gracias Madre’s signature spicy cashew cheese and a nutty pumpkin seed salsa. It defies logic, and sets gentle fire to the tongue.
2211 Mission, SF (415) 683-1346, www.gracias-madre.com
FRESH SPINACH LEAVES APPETIZER AT ANGKOR BOREI
When you listen close enough, people in bars are having conversations about food all over San Francisco. Angkor Borei Cambodian Cuisine is a word of mouth restaurant, passed from vegan to vegan, bar patron to bar patron. While there are other yummy choices here (try the pumpkin curry with tofu, served in half a pumpkin piece), perhaps the most surprising, most exemplary idea of what you can do without wheat and dairy is the deceptively simple vegetarian fresh spinach leaves app. It’s a circle of little glass bowls, each with one ingredient: ginger cubes, peanuts, coconut, lime wedges, and the titular fresh spinach leaves. Scoop up a leaf, pile on the accoutrement with tiny spoons then spread the dipping sauce atop; the combined pop of zesty flavor is a delicious experiment.
3471 Mission, SF (415) 550-8417, www.cambodiankitchen.com
VEGAN CHARCUTERIE AT GATHER
It’s an elegant, inspired dish, there’s no debate. Loved by both vegans and omnivores alike. It won Best of the Bay in 2010, made Food & Wine’s 10 Best Dishes of 2010, and earned countless, breathless reviews on local and visiting vegan blogs. But it also should be noted that the vegan charcuterie at Gather — a sturdy board dotted with the most imaginative vegan offerings imaginable, from smoky watermelon to unrecognizable trios of mushrooms — is also gluten-free (save for the hunk of unnecessary Acme bread on the side). Dip your fork tenderly into the offerings, for each is a piece of tasty art.
2200 Oxford, Berk. (510) 809-0400, www.gatherrestaurant.com
PISTACHIO AND CORNMEAL-CRUSTED TEMPEH QUINOA AT THE PLANT CAFE
This tempeh provides a mouthful of dancing flavors. The large pistachio and cornmeal-crusted triangles meet rich, fluffy quinoa covered in a spicy cucumber sauce. Pow. The zing. The Plant is another spot that has many delicious vegan options, and some wheat-free choices, but this is one of few meals that encompass both. Make sure to check the menu — true to its cause, the Plant’s dishes are seasonal, though the crusted tempeh itself seems to be a frequent option (previous incarnations have come dressed up with pumpkin seeds and served over coconut mashed yams).
Pier 3, Ste 103, SF (415) 984-1973, www.theplantcafe.com
GREEN PAPAYA SALAD AT HERBIVORE
Let’s get to the most salient question: yes, this salad is big enough to fill you up on its own. Its tangy shreds cover the whole plate and rises in a crunchy mound in the center. Next, let’s discuss the unfairness of most green papaya salad itself: yes, the Thai custom is to make dish with dried shrimp, and we’re not trying to change tradition here, however, it’s a shame such a tantalizing dish isn’t more often served vegan, when it’s just one ingredient that offends. Herbivore’s version has crispy shreds of tomato, green beans, red cabbage, carrots, onions, tofu, peanut, and mint, all with a spot-on ginger-tamarind dressing. No shrimp needed.
531 Divisadero, SF (415) 885-7133, www.herbivorerestaurant.com
FRIED OKRA AT SOULEY VEGAN
Just thinking about these tiny fried balls of perfection makes me long for a warm afternoon perched on the outdoor benches next door at Beer Revolution, chomping okra and scarfing vegan mashed potatoes. Everything at Souley Vegan is rich and delicious. But there’s something about that spicy fried okra that makes the meal super-special. Twist the lemon slice offered atop, pop one in, then share among friends on the benches. Or keep them all to yourself. No one will judge you.
301 Broadway, Oakl. (510) 922-1615, www.souleyvegan.com
SAHA SAMPLER AT SAHA
Saha has the goods: creamy hummus, smokey baba ganoush perfection, fire-roasted eggplant and tomato spread, and a colorful mix of Mediterranean olives. All of these come in one dish, naturally, the Saha sampler. The cherry on the sampler is the offering of gluten-free pita wedges, every bit as hearty as the kind with wheat, and just as perfect for scooping all that good Middle East-inspired spread.
1075 Sutter, SF (415) 345-9547, www.sahasf.com