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Unearthing downtown's inner vegan with a new food crawl

September 15, 2011 |  8:00 am

Pizza
We’re halfway through a bowl of menudo at downtown’s cavernous Mas Malo during Urban Food Crawl, a new vegan-food walking tour of downtown’s Historic Core, when the lull sets in. That post-Thanksgiving feeling of having been beaten into satiation by a hodgepodge bounty of tastiness that’s left us yearning for sweatpants.It’s around 4 in the afternoon, and balmy, and the table’s gone silent, slack in our chairs from the sheer task of it all. And we’re only halfway through this gauntlet.

Only a few weeks old, Urban Food Crawl is a way of introducing beleaguered vegans and curious newcomers to the animal-free sides of Central City’s mid-priced dining scene. But it’s a validation that so much has already taken root there. Every Saturday at 2 p.m., the relentlessly enthusiastic Sheri Wheeler and Jen Bardekoff schlep small crowds around to six downtown restaurants (only one of which, coincidentally, is completely vegan or even vegetarian) for four hours of downtown boosterism.

Last Saturday we tagged along, and learned that the job of hitting six restaurants in four hours –- even for calorie-skimpy vegan dishes –- is about three-fourths invigorating and one-fourth exhausting in all the best, belt-loosening ways.

The tour begins at Pershing Square, where those who bought the $65 all-included tickets make their introductions and begin a quick stroll to the upscale general store and deli Two Bits Market, on 5th between Broadway and Spring. Because we are terminally late to anything short of our own funerals, we unfortunately just missed the first course of a Rupee sandwich with bean puree, artichoke, squash and arugula.


So we hustled over to the Nickel Diner on Main Street and caught up with the tour. Wheeler and Bardekoff have a pixieish charm –- chunky glasses, lots of “500 Days of Summer” references -- that seems pulled right from the HR manual for Vegan Tour Guides. Our tour was slim –- only four guests, but the Crawl caps out at 10.

“So far it’s been a real mix, we’re seeing more and more non-vegans,” Wheeler said of their first few tours. “Some are vegan-curious.”

At the Nickel, a faux-greasy spoon at the edge of Skid Row that I’d only been to on occasions either immediately prior to or after intense hangovers, they made a left-field selection. The avocado stuffed with quinoa, black beans, corn, peppers and cilantro had a welcome light zip to it, appropriate for what was looking like an intense Saturday afternoon. As it turned out, it was one of few overtly vegetable-ly items on a menu that skewed to vegan versions of lunchtime classics.

Any Times' employee probably has an escrow account set up at Pitfire, the artisanal pizza place at the corner of 2nd and Main streets across from our offices, and after several years of plowing through their pies I’d thought I’d sworn it off for good. But maybe the best trick of the tour was to reintroduce a longstanding downtowner to places they thought they knew. The heirloom tomato pizza was all end-of-summer seasonal fireworks, marbled red and yellow and pinkish fruits sliced atop a modest crust and a sprinkling of Daiya vegan cheese. A mushroom version had a welcome, gruff earthiness, but couldn’t compete for the table’s attention with the tomato panoply.

Here we got to know our tablemates. Melody Chen, out with her mother from Cerritos, isn’t vegan but is pointedly genre omnivorous. “I love anything made from scratch, Peruvian, Lebanese,” she said. “I want to go to school to be a therapeutic chef, and I really wanted to see what people can do with vegan food.”

Along the walk to Mas Malo, Wheeler and Bardekoff quipped about the neighborhood. “Here’s where they say that OJ bought his knives,” Wheeler said, passing the Ross Cutlery in the ground floor of the Bradbury building, the irony as thick as the menudo we sat before a few minutes later.

While a bit overstuffed with meat replacements (tempeh, tofu and chickpeas), the fact that someone finally dropped the velvet rope to the forbidden Mexican weekend soup for vegan is worth applauding in itself.

By then, of course, the consumption began to feel a bit consuming. The party decamped to the aptly-named Syrup, a coffee-and-desert bar in the maw of Spring Street that can give you diabetes from 100 yards out. On the rare nights that alcohol isn’t an option, the spicy hot chocolate there is a worthy pick-me-up, but Wheeler and Bardekoff wisely kept it light with a pear-Champagne sorbetto and a Boston iced tea (a mix of earl grey and berries).

“Are you guys all vegan? Is that why you aren’t ordering more?” the waitress jibed, but no one had the energy to correct her that we’d been doing nothing but ordering more for the last four hours.

The tour wrapped up at Babycakes, the New York City vegan-cupcake import at 6th and Los Angeles streets, but the entire party was essentially comatose by then and saved their Blondie sandwiches (two cookies with a smattering of frosting between them) for a later indulgence.

At its best, Urban Food Crawl was a broad reminder of how diverse and accommodating downtown can be for vegans who might mistake their neighborhood as being all high-end omnivorousness or wan lunch-hour sandwiches, and to help locals rediscover places they’d been ignoring.

In a city teeming with insular underground supper clubs and mission-less hucksters (like the incompatibly vegan/pescatarian place Sea Minor, a side project of the debunked Green Leaves), it was nice to have a day of veganism that underscored what it could be –- an easy, rewarding facet of L.A. dining life.

-- August Brown

Photo: The vegan heirloom tomato pizza at Pitfire Pizza. Credit: Molly Kodros

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