The first thing I saw as I walked into Vegan Nirvana were pigs suffering in sow crates, a chicken whose neck was nearly plucked of all its feathers and a dairy cow that looked particularly sad. These images were all on a video the restaurant looped on a huge flat-screen at the back of the restaurant. Part propaganda film, part PowerPoint presentation that flipped through photos of famous vegetarians, it's something PETA can easily use as a recruitment tool. But here at the restaurant, it seemed like preaching to the choir. Does anyone need to be shown the evils of factory farming when they're already sitting down to order a vegan BLT?
I conveniently chose a table that was out of the video's line of sight. There were less appetite-destroying distractions to look at. A kooky flying-saucer UFO mural filled one wall; a small, cascading waterfall gurgled on the other. And then there was the rumor that a guy in a cow costume might jump out at any minute and dance to house music.
The menu took every ounce of my undivided attention to read. It's the kind of list in which the act of ordering a meal is akin to code breaking. "Divine Eternity," "Garden of Eden," "Kingdom of God"–these are all names of dishes. The fish tacos, by the way, are called "Ultimate Liberation," but when our waiter, a tall affable gent with giant gages in his earlobes, came around, I told him, "I'll have the fish tacos and the fried shrimp." It seemed too weird to say to a complete stranger I wanted an "Ocean of Love."
As I devoured the first of the four fish tacos on the plate, I told my date that if I were blindfolded and served this taco along with one from Rubio's, I probably wouldn't be able to tell which was using the fake fish. And if you asked me which I liked better, I'd actually pick this one. It was spot-on on texture, falling apart into flakes as though actual cod, and there were two huge fried pieces of something stuffed into each soft corn tortilla fold with the proper amount of cabbage, pico de gallo and vegan white sauce.
The fried-shrimp appetizer was another revelation. Covered in a crisp breading, then wok-tossed with an aromatic sauté of garlic, green onions, jalapeños and basil akin to a classic salt-and-pepper seafood dish at a Vietnamese restaurant, the "shrimp" were in the shape of gigantic mutant cashews. Their consistency was somewhere between crawfish and imitation crab. If the restaurant wanted to show a video, I thought, why not a How It's Made documentary on how it managed to transform soy protein into these wonders of food science?
On my second visit, I took two more friends, purposely seating them so their backs were facing the TV. For drinks, we ordered limeades, zippy elixirs flavored with berries and fruit of which the jackfruit is best.
For an appetizer, we asked for that "Divine Eternity" dish–butter lettuce leaves filled with a chewy mess of vegan chicken shreds wok-tossed with veggies and an overly salty sauce. It was, I think, an attempt at P.F. Chang's chicken lettuce cups. As entrées, we ate stir-fries that used more of that ropy vegan chicken and tofu, as well as a dish that drowned fried shrimp in a cloying sweet-and-sour with pineapple–both of which none of us liked very much.
And then there were the spongy fried-chicken fingers that reminded everyone of the ones we ate as kids in the school cafeteria. In fact, it was so uncanny that one of us asked aloud what percentage of those school chicken fingers was actually chicken.
Next came the dish that made our night: the "BLT Awakening," which turned out to be exactly that. Here was a sandwich that had all the requisite crispness and smokiness that any bacon-loving American would require of a good BLT, perhaps the most convincing argument that veganism is an achievable dietary choice. "I actually like this better than a real BLT," one of my companions blurted out to my shock.
Finally, at exactly 8 p.m. that Saturday, the lights at the restaurant dimmed, the music got louder, and then the dude in the cow suit leaped out of the kitchen and shook his udder in a nearly two-minute dance that caught most of the unsuspecting vegans midchew. Amidst the flashing rainbow of lights, we clapped, hollered and wondered where on his costume would be an appropriate place to slip dollar bills. More of this, please, instead of pseudo-PETA sads.
Vegan Nirvana, 7862 Warner Ave., Ste. 110, Huntington Beach, (714) 847-4080. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-8:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$40. No alcohol.