Eat Monte Cristos and Breakfast Banh Mis at This Vegan Sunday Brunch in Long Beach
Vegan food is about to have a moment in Long Beach. With so many anticipated restaurants all planning to open soon, it feels inevitable. Under the Sun, the new cafe from the gals at Rainbow Juices, is a few months away from its spot on Third Street. A second outpost for L.A.’s The Grain Cafe, at 4th and Ximeno in Belmont Heights, is also imminent. The recent announcement of Seabirds going in on 4th Street (across from a McDonalds, no less) only sealed the city's fate as an emerging vegan destination.
Then, as if those weren’t enough, chef Soozee Nguyen, operating under The Wild Chive, returned from working at an acclaimed vegetarian kitchen in Brooklyn and started hosting a vegan brunch pop-up at Portfolio Coffeehouse every Sunday.
According to her website, Nguyen — who grew up in Texas eating meals prepared by both her traditional Vietnamese mother and experimental, fusion-loving father — became vegetarian at 19 but still craved the flavors and textures she had eaten before. “Not so much the actual food, but more what that food meant,” it says. So began an obsession with making vegan-friendly versions of international classics that even meat-eaters would want to dig into.
After moving to Brooklyn, Nguyen worked her way up the line at Champs Diner, a vegan restaurant known for its animal-free comfort food (biscuits and gravy, grinders and more), before becoming executive chef at the Black Flamingo, a tropical-themed nightclub with an impressive DJ setup on the bottom floor and a vegetarian restaurant and bar on top.
She debuted The Wild Chive last June at the Long Beach Vegan Food Festival with an oyster mushroom po boy that had enough crusty cornmeal nuggets to look just like the real thing. For weeks afterwards, she taunted Instagram with pictures of the cooking experiments she was undertaking: saffron-infused soyrizo paella, vegetable-stuffed pho, buttery Texas toast for bourbon barbecue jackfruit sandwiches, a vegan Cuban sandwich with meatless ham and house-made pickles. Occasionally, The Wild Chive would pop-up at Crema Cafe in Seal Beach or another vegan food fest.
In November, Portfolio started stocking The Wild Chive’s pre-made forearm-sized soyrizo breakfast burritos, marking the first time any of Nguyen’s dishes became more permanently available in Long Beach. The burrito is stuffed with tofu forked so fluffy and kale cooked down so softly that it became real competition for Portfolio’s own breakfast burrito, itself a neighborhood staple. Wild Chive’s not-too-oily vegan mac and cheese and a colorful kale cobb salad also make consistent appearances in the busy shop’s pastry case.
Last month, the retail run went big, turning a few pre-packaged items a day into a full weekly pop-up, where Nguyen now makes Sunday brunch with a team out of the Portfolio kitchen. From the flaky biscuits with wild mushroom gravy to a sugary-but-still-vegan fruit-stuffed French toast, it’s already one of the most interesting brunches in the city.
That soyrizo “burrizo” is on the menu, this time made fresh while you wait. As is Nguyen’s must-try banh mi, a crunchy baguette filled with her soft-scrambled tofu, hickory bacon, vegan ham, and all the requisite fresh and pickled toppings. On a recent Sunday, a maple-dipped monte cristo had just been added to the lineup and it arrived as a towering stack of Texas toast oozing with melty Daiya yellow cheese.
Long Beach’s vegan food scene has come a long way in just three years, when the closure of the city’s second vegan restaurant, the comfort-food-focused Long Beach Vegan Eatery, dealt a blow to the nascent animal-free food scene. Now, the city’s first vegan restaurant, Zephyr, operates as the similarly-minded Ahimsa and a handful of new concepts will open this year to fill the void. Nguyen is already setting herself apart from the others in the mix by popping up with her decadent brunches at one of Long Beach's most beloved coffee shops. That all the food happens to be meat, egg and dairy free is just a bonus.
The Wild Chive vegan Sunday brunch at Portfolio Coffeehouse, Sundays 9 a.m.- 2 p.m., 2300 E. 4th St., (562) 434-2486, thewildchive.squarespace.com