Right now, after reading the title of this post, you might be thinking, "Is vegan Japanese food even possible? How can sashimi be sashimi without the fish, and what's ramen without the fatty pork broth?"
Yes, Virginia, it's possible. Vegan ramen can be delicious. And sashimi can, in fact, be made without involving Nemo or Dory. Local. Healthy Tapas & Sake proves it. It serves a version of sashimi that takes konjak—the jelly made from the corm of the konjac plant—and marinates blocks of it until they absorb umami, then slices them into steaks and arranges them on a plate with dabs of homemade ponzu. And when you taste them, you'll be damned if they don't look and chew as if they were pieces of ahi tuna. The rest of the menu is full of similar izakaya-style appetizers that are often nibbled with sake and beer—except edited to the more vegetable-centered dishes. Spinach is paired with sesame. Boomerangs of roasted kabocha squash gets glazed with a sticky-sweet, soy-based barbecue sauce.
It must be said that since Local caters to vegans and hippies, the words "organic" and "sustainable" are predictably overused. But it's owned by a Japanese family with a young mom who will at times have a toddler in her arms while she's taking phone orders. The family has repurposed the place from a failed sushi bar, stripping it down so it has nothing but dangling light bulbs set to low, chalkboards scribbled with specials, and a bicycle in the corner that may or may not be part of the interior décor. But if you discount the vegan part and the hippie platitudes, it boils down to this: Local's chefs seem to know how to tap into the core of what makes each dish great. One night, I had a bamboo basket of steamed vegetables served with four dipping mediums—green-tea salt, miso, pesto, and sundried tomatoes in olive oil. It exhibited the classic hallmarks of Japanese cuisine: Keep it simple, and let the main ingredient shine. These were everyday produce (broccoli, potatoes, mushrooms), "garden-variety" in the literal sense, but somehow, the nine vegetables—which the chefs arranged as intricately as ikebana and steamed to order—tasted more vibrant and more elegant than I thought possible.
If you order the dish and expect it to be filling, it's likely you won't agree with me. In fact, you might think the $10 price exorbitant. But think of this: If the same vegetables were deep-fried as tempura at your neighborhood sushi joint, you'd consider it a bargain.
This minimalist approach happens a lot at Local. You can get an agedashi tofu, but it won't be encased in the usual batter or soaked in a pool of dashi stock. Instead, the chefs simply pan-fry firm tofu steaks and dollop them with an onion-garlic sauce that's akin to a relish. Local is also not above serving meat. It has a whole omnivorous menu that proclaims, "If you are vegan, do not look at this page." Filets of fish are prepared with a subtle touch, whether delicately grilled and served with a lip-searing yuzu-kosho sauce or as sashimi with more ponzu. And if you simply can't imagine drinking beer without something fried, there are hunks of juicy chicken karaage served with sansho pepper for dipping, a Japanese condiment as rare in OC as fake wasabi is common.
The chefs also prepare rice burgers—the first I've ever seen—using oil-crisped hockey pucks of brown rice as buns to sandwich not only tofu curds emulating spicy tuna, but also actual spicy tuna or a grilled breast of a free-range jidori chicken. They're like onigiri (Japanese rice balls) crossed with tahdig (Persian crispy rice), and they're better, crispier and more satisfying than any ramen burger I've ever tried. And then there's Local's actual ramen, which features angel-hair-like noodles in a lip-smacking broth that involves no pork, fish or even MSG. The savory flavor is most likely from mushrooms and kelp, and some bowls even use soy milk to emulate the creamy, murky richness of traditional tonkotsu broth. Toppings include slices of fried tofu, corn, salad greens and bits of pickled bamboo shoots, everything dutifully compensating for and distracting you from the lack of meatiness and animal fat.
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But perhaps the most refreshing thing about Local is that veganism is an option, not a mandate. One evening, I ordered the fried potato dumplings, which had a chewy texture closer to mochi than gnocchi, and when I asked one owner whether she preferred the vegan cheese or the mozzarella filling, she answered without hesitation, "I like the mozzarella—definitely the mozzarella!" And I did, too.
Local. Healthy Tapas & Sake, 1907 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 873-5333. Open Sun., noon-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-9 p.m.; Mon., 5:30-10 p.m.; Wed.-Thurs., noon-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m.; closed the third Sun. of every month. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Beer, wine and sake.