R: Classic Southern soul cuisine arrived in Los Angeles in April 2008--but with a twist. This soul is vegan to the core! Proudly taking up residence on the corner of West Pico Blvd. and Norton St. in Los Angeles is the Vegan Village Internet Café, an imposing, historic, pastel pink building with plenty of parking in the rear. The restaurant offers a spacious dining room, straw-colored linens, and a menu of pure Southern comfort.
Z: Not only is the Vegan Village an appealing restaurant, but it also offers its customers an evening of entertainment with a gigantic disco located above the dining room. On our first visit for dinner at Vegan Village we left our camera at home and felt we could not do the review justice without sharing the visual feast.
R: Though we came for lunch this time, we could still appreciate the ambience designed especially for nighttime intimate dining with soft, diffused lighting and muted eclectic music. Wearing its age well, circa 1920s to 1930s, the dining room, complete with mirrored ball and beautifully finished wood floors in cherry wood tone, began as a nightclub and on the weekends, it still is.
Z: Impressive is the 40-foot bar dominating one wall with its maple-tone wood, old-fashioned backless wooden bar stools, and totally retro horizontal mirrors with rounded corners. The rear of the bar houses pass-through openings that lead to a private dining room perfect for special gatherings.
R: We had invited our friend, Chuck, to join us for lunch and chose a quiet table close to the stairway that led to the upstairs disco. In the mood for hearty dining, we scanned the menu and quickly found the perfect dishes to sate our appetites. Our friendly server, Nancy, delivered the Raw Kale Salad along with Barbecued Hot Wings and we wasted no time devouring the lightly spiced and well-sauced Hot Wings, imitation chicken drumsticks made from a soy base and wrapped around plump lollipop sticks.
Z: Those Hot Wings might not fool a true carnivore, but they would be hard-pressed to discount the zesty flavor and moist, pleasantly chewy texture. The Raw Kale Salad was an instant delight. Finely minced and dotted with kernels of sweet corn, the kale was bathed in an apple vinaigrette dressing bursting with both savory and sweet flavors. Kale often admits to having a sharp bite, but you would never know it with this well-composed dressing.
R: Because we decided to share each of the dishes, Nancy placed the Soul Plate, Village Sampler Plate, and Crablike Cakes in the center of the table. Brimming with variety, the Soul Plate consisted of hearty, bite-size chunks of bright orange candied yams, "buttered" sweet corn, the tastiest collard greens ever, and a large serving of fried, battered tofu fish. Zel couldn't stop reaching for more and more collard greens and uttering sounds of pleasure with each bite.
Z: Though I've tried, I have never been able to cook greens this tasty, but that day Chef Ricky Cryer gave me an impromptu lesson in "Cooking Greens 101." The Village Sampler Plate also had generous servings of those wonderful collard greens and sweet and tender brown-sugared yams in addition to giant chunks of tofu smothered in their zesty BBQ sauce, a Hot Wing that also enjoyed a good measure of the BBQ sauce with the spicy kick, and two deep-fried, crisp-battered shrimp--all vegan, of course!
R: The two Crablike Cakes were plump, deep-fried tofu cakes that seemed a little lonely on the plate with only French fries and a small condiment cup of ketchup. They could have used a tartar sauce and a little company like a serving of black-eyed peas and a heaping spoonful of those delicious greens. But they were tasty and served as an adequate stand-in for the time-honored Southern specialty.
Z: Though we were quite sated, we found our thoughts drifting to the portion of the bar where the delicious desserts were displayed. That was the moment Chef Ricky ventured from the kitchen to greet us at the table. Apron-clad and wearing a jumbo Cheshire cat grin, he credited Christoria, his Louisiana grandmother, for many of the recipes he uses in the restaurant and recalled the many times during his childhood when he watched her cook some of the familiar Southern dishes. Some of the recipes came from Jewel, the owner of the building and the health clinic next door, insuring the menu offered a good dose of real Southern soul.
R: Zel was determined to learn how to prepare a good pot of greens and asked the chef for a bit of advice. The secret, he said, was not to rush the cooking, but to simmer them slowly for about three hours. These greens were deliciously enhanced with onions, garlic, and tomatoes and were truly the best we had ever tasted.
Z: Chef Ricky has been cooking for many years, but has gone vegan only recently, inspiring him with a steady flow of challenges he applies to the homemade desserts that were beckoning us from the bar. Before we earned our dessert though, Ricky wanted us to taste a new dish he plans to add to the menu in the next week or two--real Louisana Jambalaya. It was so good we joked about moving to the bayou! The menu will also include several new items like steamed broccoli with dried cranberries and Brazil nuts along with several breakfast dishes.
R: If you're not into soul food, try the Mexican-inspired menu offerings like burritos, tamale pie, or taco with rice and beans. Enjoy a Wakame Salad, Chef's Salad or a Vegan Caesar. Perhaps you might choose a bowl of lentil soup, or one of the three unique wraps. Even falafel and hummus appear on this eclectic menu. The menu's list of sides provides some appealing choices like black-eyed peas, cornbread, brown rice, and macaroni and cheese.
Z: Finally, after we had downed the last bite of Jambalaya, we were rewarded with our desserts of Apple Walnut Cake and Sweet Potato Pie. Both were a great way to top off a tasty meal, but our favorite was definitely the cake that was made with Brazil nuts rather than walnuts. Deeply cinnamon-spiced and well moistened with apple, the tall, chestnut-colored cake was deliciously encrusted with a unique topping that was baked on then drizzled with a streusel upon emerging from the oven. Usually Ricky serves this cake with Double-Rich Cream, a soy-based topping that elevates the dessert experience, but that day he had run out of it. We enjoyed the Cream on our first visit and can promise a delicious treat.
R: The sweet potato pie is heaven-made for yam lovers with a crust that's super thin and a filling of moist, rich, brown-sugared yams laced with cinnamon. Cakes are definitely Ricky's specialty and include Coconut Pineapple Cake, Brown Sugar Caramel Poundcake, and Chocolate Oreo Cake. This personable chef takes pride in his recipes, knows how to make his patrons feel welcome, and is very eager to please. He even spent two hours consulting with one of his allergy-prone customers to make sure he would not serve anything that could cause the man discomfort.
Z: Vegan Village dishes up a good measure of tasty soul and offers meals with good value. We plan to come back when we crave those divine greens, a dish of Jambalaya, and an irresistible dessert with Double Rich Cream.
4061 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019
Reviewed October 2008