To meat eaters, vegan restaurants are forever burdened with overcoming the flavorless stereotypes of most animal-free cooking. I know it sounds horrible, but sorry veganos: it’s true. The subtle beauty in texture approximations and wannabe meat are often lost to those of us with access to the real thing and, we are often only begrudgingly accepting what’s put in front of us as sustenance, all while secretly wishing that the smushed up tofu had the real fluffy yolkiness of scrambled eggs or that the tempeh came with the filling umami of a slab of fatty pork belly. Indeed, most vegan meals (or vegan food festivals, for that matter) have ended with an al pastor-filled taco run.
That’s why having Happy Elephant Vegan a few blocks from my house has been such a blessing . It not only debunks many of the vegan-food-is-boring myths, but does so with a selection of pan-Asian food that draws out much of the inherent tastiness in each country’s cuisine. The restaurant opened a year and a half ago on a block of the Broadway Corridor that’s as much the Gayborhood as it is Long Beach’s own miniature Thai Town. With the stalwart pad-Thai-takeout experts at Thai Silk a few doors down and a wall shared with the recently opened Jitlada-family-owned Spicy Sugar, Happy Elephant almost appears as the strip’s token vegan place, perfect for those craving a soy milk Thai iced tea or an order of curry lacking the dash of fish sauce dropped into most traditional dishes.
And Happy Elephant doesn’t stop at Thai. Chef Danny Siridechakul (aka Chef Danny V. S.) – who is promoted on the website but rarely seen by diners – also relishes in turning seafood-reliant Japanese and Vietnamese food into vegan masterpieces.
A plate of vermicelli noodles becomes a deconstructed bún served with bean sprouts, dried chilis, some salted pickled Chinese kale and fresh vegetables, topped not with fish sauce, but a pungent spicy coconut curry that is as thick and herbaceous as the chip dips found at any righteous British pub. Steamed gyozas filled with a savory blend of tofu, noodles and spices make a good starter, and a giant bowl of salty mushroom-broth udon-noodle soup features a mound of tempura-fried vegetables, from soft kabocha squash to fresh eggplant.
Siridechakul’s magnum opus, however, is a thoughtful line of vegan sushi rolls, complete with soy spicy tuna (which looks more like stringy imitation crab) and vegan salmon caviar (which come out the size of individual bulbs of a blackberry). The presentation of each vegan roll is just as picturesque as the fish-filled kind, all accompanied by a flurry of toppings and sauces.
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Vegan food of this caliber costs money and takes time, so it’s helpful that while you’re waiting, you can help yourself to a buffet of soup (miso, hot and sour), salad (complete with nut and topping bar) and desserts (melons and a sweet-ish tapioca-like goop), which is complimentary to all customers during weekday lunch hours.
The woman who is always answering the phone for delivery orders and appears to be Happy Elephant’s sole server (Siridechakul’s wife?) mentioned on a recent visit that the menu is being updated soon to add some new dishes and remove ones that are too time consuming to make. Now that’s something even meat-eaters can look forward to.
532 E Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 491-7429; happyelephantvegan.org