Long Beach Lunch: Ahimsa Vegan Cafe
Last year, Long Beach's oldest vegan and raw restaurant unceremoniously disappeared from its long-standing location at 340 E. 4th St., without so much as a closing party or note to loyal customers. Despite wonky hours and notoriously slow cook times, Zephyr was the much-loved bastion of health food and alternative thought on the northern fringes of the East Village Arts District, perfect for a lazy-day sietan bowl or a casual meeting over zucchini and tempeh sandwiches--until it was gone.
Thankfully, the kirtan-loving, political-rallying, crunchy-granola vibe that Zephyr cultivated for the city's artists, hippies and college students remains not only intact but on steroids at its former location, where Ahimsa now resides. Aside from its hard-to-pronounce name ("ahh-heem-sah"), Ahimsa is an upgrade from Zephyr, with a fresh, re-decorated interior (think: chalkboard menu art and a South Asian-inspired mural) and a selection of healthy foods that adds Indian flair to the previous veg offerings.
For Zephyr fans who refuse to accept change (okay, I might be one of them), most of the classics remain. Ahimsa's Teriyaki Bowl is a replica of Zephyr's Teriyaki Vegetable and Tofu Bowl, minus the black beans, which didn't make much sense alongside pineapple and sweet teri glaze anyway. The Vietnamese Spring Rolls and Vegetable Sushi Rolls that once sat under the "Living Foods" header of Zephyr's menu have been moved into the appetizer section at Ahimsa, and still come with sides of the addicting (and unavailable anywhere else!) tahini ginger dipping sauce.
Lastly, Zephyr's MF Works Burger--long known as the best vegan burger in Long Beach--is alive and well as Ahimsa's house burger. An upgrade on the original, it uses a house-made vegan patty that somehow manages to be juicy and full of meaty consistency without any of the grease or gluttony. Stacked high with fixins--from tomato and avocado to vegan mozzarella and vegan mayo--the Ahimsa burger is full of flavor and texture approximations that make for a dripping, two-handed mess of a meal. As rare as it is to find a vegan burger that satiates meat eaters, this might be the one.
But Ahimsa isn't just a Zephyr redux. With an emphasis on Indian culture and cuisine (a legitimate Hare Krishna--wearing a hairnet over his sikha--was the cook last time I went), curries, chutney and samosas also line the menu, albeit with a smaller selection than at an actual Indian restaurant.
In bowl form (India Bowl), the yellow vegetable curry drapes over cauliflower, garbanzo beans and brown rice with a hint of spice, while in wrap form (India Wrap), it blends with cucumber and warm lavash for a more handheld dish. Both come with a side of crispy papadums and sweet berry chutney, reminders that India does have its own version of chips and salsa.
The addition of a juice bar and the removal of alcohol are other changes that Ahimsa's owners rightfully made when they took over Long Beach longest-running vegan and raw restaurant, which had appeared more empty than full in its final years. Now operated by thoughtful new owners who hark back to their predecessors while carving their own cafe's unique identity, Ahimsa is an even more sought after destination, not just for Long Beach's animal-free-grub set, but those from Orange County and beyond.
Ahimsa Vegan Cafe, 340 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 435-7113, longbeachvegan.com
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