If you ate Erven’s beer-battered tofu sandwich blindfolded (I don’t know why you would, but just go with it), you would have no idea it’s vegan. Any variety of animal parts could be tucked inside the brick of golden-fried batter, the slaw tastes like it was tossed in creamy, fatty mayo, and the chewy pretzel bun is a far cry from the sprouted, whole-grain, gluten-free sponges you typically find at plant-based restaurants.
It might be made from congealed soy curd, but this sandwich satisfies on every level possible. You could eat it drunk at 2 a.m. (the restaurant’s only open for lunch now though, sorry), and your munchies wouldn’t stand a chance.
Chef Nick Erven’s eponymous new restaurant in Santa Monica is making vegan food for non-vegan people. “I want people to be faced with the question of: ‘do I go to a plant-based restaurant or a non-plant-based restaurant tonight,’ and choose the plant-based one just because it looks freaking delicious,” Erven says, getting me more jacked up about eating my veggies than I’ve ever been before.
Is it fair that plant-based restaurants get pigeon-holed as earthy, crunchy, all-kale-everything spots that sacrifice flavor for a healthy aesthetic? No, it’s not, but it’s also easy to see how someone could get that idea after being spurned by too many flavorless quinoa burgers topped with three inches of densely packed alfalfa sprouts. (Seriously, the alfalfa sprout thing needs to stop. I don’t care how vegan you are, no one likes alfalfa sprouts that much.)
Erven’s new restaurant bucks that stereotype by being coincidentally vegan… which is absolutely a term I just made up. But let me explain. Think about how many phenomenal dishes you’ve eaten at a restaurant that, by pure coincidence, didn’t contain any animal products. Gjelina, one of Erven’s favorite restaurants, is the perfect example. They can char a squid better than anyone and their pizzas are often loaded up with cured meats, but Gjelina’s menu, brand, and legacy is dominated by vegetable dishes, tons of which are coincidentally vegan, and tons which are completely satiating.
Let’s revisit his beer-battered tofu monster: There’s a flavor in there past the requisite fat and acid you expect from any great fried cutlet sandwich. It’s hot and earthy and creates bass-line of warm spice that runs throughout the whole dish. It’s coming from a schmear of brownish paste, and even after tasting it separately you can’t even start to identify it. A server informs you it’s manchamantel: a fruit-heavy mole from Central Mexico spiked with cinnamon and chiles. If this sandwich was made by a lesser vegan restaurant, that beautifully complex sauce might be replaced with slice of sweaty Daiya cheddar-style cheese product.
Erven never moralizes or gets preachy about the ethical and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, even when you try and goad him into it. Maybe it’s because he’s not vegan himself (though he eats mostly vegetables at home), or maybe it’s just because he’s not a dick.
“We don’t ever want to think of ourselves as a plant-based restaurant, we’re just a restaurant who happened to not order meat that day. Or fish. Or dairy. Or honey,” Erven says. “So cool, how do we make delicious food without that stuff?” The chef answers his own question the only way he knows how—with hot, nasty, badass cookery.