Orange County, for all its Republican, meat-and-potatoes reputation, has a fantastic array of vegetarian restaurants; not just vegetarian, but vegan, and from a wide variety of ethnic traditions. We have little patience with hippy-dippy vegetarian places that skimp on flavor in order to emphasize the health benefits (seriously, whose idea was that?), but fortunately we can have great vegetarian and vegan food without the preachiness.
There are at least ten more entries that could be added to this list; we could have done two dozen without really breaking a sweat... so fear not, Buddhists, animal-rights activists, and people who have learned that not every meal needs to feature five hundred grams of dead animal, and let us know your favorites!
10. Tana Ethiopian Restaurant
The only not-purely-vegetarian restaurant on this list, Tana earned its spot here because Ethiopians are second perhaps only to Indians in their ability to cook pulses and vegetables. A vegetable special here comes with fifteen different vegetarian stews spread around an edible plate of sour, spongy bread.
2622 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim; 714-229-1719; tanaethio.com.
9. Au Lac
There are a half-dozen Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants in Little Saigon; Au Lac was the choice for this list because its menu of "Humanese cuisine" provides common ground for Asian Buddhists and earth mother-type people to eat. There's a juice bar and a menu of raw foods, but the best thing to eat is canh chả cá thì là, "fish" (actually tofu) soup with dill and tomato.
16563 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley; 714-418-0658; aulac.com.
8. Loving Hut
Loving Hut is a large chain of vegan restaurants that spread like wildfire after people noticed their first OC location, in faraway Ladera Ranch. It's the vegan equivalent of the burger-Mexican-Asian shacks that dot Orange County, with veggie burgers, Asian fare, and burritos. It's definitely the best option in the Brea Mall food court.
Overall website: lovinghut.us.
1065 Brea Mall, Brea; 714-990-2261.
19891 Brookhurst St., Huntington Beach; 714-962-6449.
27522 Antonio Pkwy., Ladera Ranch; 949-365-1077
237 S. Tustin St., Orange; 714-464-0544.
7. Namastey India
Named our Best Indian in 2011, Namastey India isn't really a restaurant. It's an Indian grocery store, with shelves bowed from the weight of all the ingredients needed to stock the kitchens of those Indians who moved east from Artesia. The back, though, is the best Indian steam-tray food counter in OC. It's all vegetarian, but depending on what's being cooked, you can have bitter melon stuffed with rice, or curried jackfruit, or the more usual Punjabi fare like chana masala. Your bread will take longer than you expect; it's rolled and baked to order.
7232 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park; 714-522-1111; no website.
There's no reason in the world a sandwich, soup and salad place couldn't cater to vegans, and Freesoulcaffe (yes, all one word) does it well. Toasty panini that don't rely overmuch on fake meat, great salads, and soups worth dragging the carnivores in for compete with the coffees that started the business. Once you're done, you're in for the happy discovery that desserts are the best thing here.
191 E. Main St., Tustin; 714-371-0976; freesoulcaffe.com.
5. Native Foods
The only place that feels real in Aliso Viejo has twins at the Camp in Costa Mesa and at the District in Tustin; all three feel like oases in a sea of beige sameness, and the food is packed with flavor (though the menu feels like an assault of the word "Native", which in this case means "fake", as in "Native Chipotle Crema" and "Native Taco Meat").
Overall website: nativefoods.com.
26705 Aliso Creek Rd., Aliso Viejo; 949-831-1926.
2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa; 714-751-2151.
2453 Park Ave., Tustin; 714-259-0400.
4. Veggie Grill
The Veggie Grill won our hearts with their All Hail Kale salad. Kale's a tasty vegetable, sure, but it turns into something even meat-eaters could crave with marinated cabbage, corn salsa, sweetened nuts, and vinaigrette. The UCI location is full of students; the Irvine Spectrum location is full of refugees from high-priced meateries elsewhere in the complex.
Overall website: veggiegrill.com.
4213 Campus Dr., Irvine; 949-509-0003.
81 Fortune Dr., Irvine; 949-727-9900.
3. Happy Family
Anyone who thinks vegetables are boring needs to go to Happy Family; here, they're treated with the respect they're accorded in China. Meals arrive beautifully plated; the unbelievably well-balanced flavors come as a shock. They serve delicacies unheard of in most Chinese places, like fa cai ("hair" vegetable) in soup with tofu; lily buds stir-fried with asparagus, ginkgo nuts and wolf (goji) berry; and even Chinese vegetarian classics such as hong you chao shou, the steamed wontons in chile oil that are the favorite street snack of Chengdu.
1400 Bristol St., Costa Mesa; 714-668-9288; happyfamilyvege.com.
2. Avanti Natural Cafe
Avanti sits in an unassuming space in the usual Costa Mesa strip mall, but inside is a warm, inviting space that serves food deserving of a higher-end address. Homemade ricotta cradles olives, almonds and greens on a pizza bianco; olives d'amour (what Sicilians would call ulivi cunzati) are marinated with bay; at one point there was a dish of eggplant that had been rolled in falafel dough and fried. Desserts are spectacular, and there's a well-curated wine and craft beer list as well.
259 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa; 949-548-2224; avantinatural.com.
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SHOW ME HOW
A vegan truck that runs on biodiesel? Sounds like a PETA pipe dream, except it's real, it competed on the second season of "The Great Food Truck Race"--and it's excellent. Known for jackfruit tacos that are indistinguishable from chicken and beer-battered avocado tacos, the best dish ever was tofu curry with cashews over rice is better than any Thai restaurant can make it. The menu changes with the seasons, as it should, which just means more reasons to stalk the 'birds. Incidentally, the women who own Seabirds are opening a brick-and-mortar soon; for now, chase the truck!