Meat seems awfully important in much of this town. Most San Diegans have, at one point or another, enjoyed an intimate encounter with carne asada fries, and the fish taco is arguably the official food of San Diego County.
Perhaps less discussed, then, is the fact that our fine city also excels at vegan and vegetarian dining. All it takes is a little exploring to discover that, across all ethnicities, San Diego is truly veg-friendly-and we're not talking salads here.
So the next time your black-mullet-sporting, record-store-clerk, hipster friend from Portland comes to visit and makes a smarmy remark about how hard it's going to be to find vegan food, simply smile and take out your handy Local's Guide to Stuffing Your Face With Tasty, Cheap Vegan and Vegetarian Eats, 24 Hours a Day.
For breakfast, it's all about Mexican: even meatheads will love Rancho's (3910 30th St.) in North Park, simply because the colorful, relaxed restaurant makes excellent Mexican food, regardless of 'the vegetarian thing.' That said, almost every item on the overwhelming menu-favorites include tofu chiliquiles, avocado and corn enchiladas, and shiitake mushroom burritos-can be ordered vegetarian or vegan. Next door, Rancho's sister all-vegan grocery store boasts the best selection of raw foods in town.
At Pokéz (947 E St.), vegan doesn't necessarily mean health food. Although this volunteer-run hipster mecca has become somewhat infamous for its service standards-if you need quick and courteous, look elsewhere-the 30-plus veggie/vegan burritos and plates (all humongous and dirt-cheap) and the all-day breakfasts (starting at $4.25) make this downtown Mexican institution more than worth it on days when you're not in a hurry.
Around lunchtime, decisions get a little more complicated. Buried in the strip-mall anonymity of the Midway area, Café India's (3760 Sports Arena Blvd.) all-vegetarian, mostly vegan lunch buffet is the greatest quantity of first-rate Indian food you will ever eat for $6.95. The daily all-you-can-eat features four vegetable curries, tandoori naan, soups, rice and an assortment of fruits, salads and sauces that will have you going back for thirds-until you realize you can't walk. The place is family-owned and -operated, which means ridiculously friendly service; it also makes the organic juice bar cool, not pretentious.
However, lunch is also a perfect opportunity to discover vegetarian options at non-vegetarian places. Mama's Bakery and Lebanese Deli (4237 Alabama St.) has the most authentic and veg-friendly Middle Eastern food around. Sit outside on the covered patio and fill up on fresh baba ghanouj, hummus, falafel, tabouli and grape leaves with homemade Saaj bread for darn cheap.
At Mandarin Dynasty (1458 University Ave.), a special menu of vegetarian items features traditional Chinese dishes made with mock meat-Mongolian 'beef,' anyone? It's a strip-mall restaurant, so the interior design leaves something to be desired, but the waiters are friendly and, at $5.95, the massive lunch specials leave little room for complaint. Same goes for generously sized lunch deals at Amarin (3843 Richmond St.), only it's Thai instead of Chinese. The atmosphere is delightful, which accounts for the recent slight jump in prices. Still, the curries are some of the best in San Diego, and most entrées on the menu can be ordered vegetarian.
Alright, it's dinnertime-get out those elastic-waist pants. One of North Park's best-kept secrets, Harar Ethiopian's (2432 El Cajon Blvd.) exterior appears deceptively dive-y-don't be fooled. Inside, superior renditions of East African dishes like spiced lentils, eggplant, collard greens, and cabbage and potato stew are served-without utensils-on a platter of injera, a spongy buckwheat bread. Head for the patio and enjoy making a mess as you eat with your hands. The vegetarian sampler is superb and incredibly cheap, as is the Friday night buffet.
For standard American fare, head to Veg-n-Out (3442 30th St.), a meat-free eatery that prides itself on more than 20 specialty burgers and sandwiches. They range in price from $6 to $9, which seems pricey until you realize that the veggie patties are made there, that generous sides come before your burger, and then, a few minutes later, that your burger is gigantic. Best of all, there's none of the attitude that often comes with veg-only restaurants, and dishes actually taste homemade.
In the mood for ethnicity blending? Sipz Fusion Café (5501 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.), an all-vegetarian, mostly vegan Clairemont institution makes excellent Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese dishes with stand-alone-quality mock meat. Take your carnivorous friends here and order the basil chicken, barbecue chicken and beef with broccoli; then dare them to tell you they like the real thing better. The family-owned restaurant has recently added both a sushi bar and an extensive drink menu that runs the gamut from Boba to sake to Pabst Blue Ribbon.
So now, let's say it's 1 a.m., you've hit some bars, and your non-veg friends are chowing down on the aforementioned 24-hour-drive-thru carne asada fries. Your drunk-munchie-craving vegetarian stomach actually has a few options: at Santana's (all over the place), $4.50 gets you a one-pound make-your-own veggie burrito, but beware: It's pretty unlikely that the rice and beans are 100-percent vegan.
For truly vegan late-night munchies, hit Kung Food (2949 Fifth Ave.), the only all-vegan drive-thru in San Diego County-because a big cup of soft-serve tofutti ice cream is a great thing to have someone hand you from a drive-thru window at 1 in the morning. Two flavors change daily-when in doubt, go peanut butter. The café features organic hot food and sandwiches inside during regular business hours, but that's a lot less fun. Other late-night musts include sweet potato fries and 'chicken' tenders that have induced fairly long-distance drives across San Diego from certain vegetarian households.
Are we full yet? Has your black-mullet-sporting friend wiped that smirk off his hipster face? Head home and sleep off your food comas; you'll need the energy. For Day 2 of this extravaganza, some places to review on your own:
Jyoti-Bihanga (sandwiches, salads, dinners), 3351 Adams Ave.; Lighthouse Ice Cream & Yogurt (Soy Dream waffle sandwiches!), 5059 Newport Ave.; People's Organic Foods Market (grocery store, hot food), 4765 Voltaire St.; El Zarape (veggie-option burritos), 4642 Park Blvd.; Earth Food Veggie Dog Cart, corner of Fifth and University avenues.; Café Zia (wraps, salads, sandwiches), 6686 El Cajon Blvd. ; Spread (a little upscale, almost all vegan), 2879 University Ave.; and Soltan Banoo (Persian, almost all vegan), 4645 Park Blvd.