In a tiny Victorian house marooned on a corner of Virgil among dour, mid-century apartments and repetitive storefronts hawking cheap sundries and phone cards, Vegan Star Café is an oasis of movement, laughter and cool air. Bikes are leaned against the side of the building; at outdoor tables groups of students, bikers, activist types and neighborhood denizens sit and laugh and share food under a broad-leafed tree.
Vegan food in L.A. seems to fit into two incarnations: the highfalutin’ overpriced model available at places like Real Food Daily—which often seems to exist more to serve its consumer’s sense of Hollywoodian self-aggrandization—and the college-student co-op, where you chow down on your brown rice surrounded by manifestos from the RCP. There are a few exceptions—like Madeleine Bistro in Tarzana—but for the most part vegans are stuck with Option A or Option B.
Luckily, Vegan Star Café is neither, although it does tend toward the collegiate feel. It transcends this by inventing a whole new vibe, created partly by the service and partly by the setting: hometown kitchen. It’s downright cute. Charming little accents adorn the wall below a staircase that leads up to…what? Does anyone live here? “No,” laughs co-operator Robert Estrada. But it seems like someone should.
It’s not just the fact that you’re in a house. It’s the sense of family that pervades the place. Owner Pia Sutakun is a delicate woman who oversees kitchen operations with a gentle, maternal touch. Vegan Star Café offers soups, salads, sandwiches and various dinner plates, many with a Thai flair. I’m not vegan myself, but that’s no reason not to enjoy fabulous vegan food—and Sutakun, Estrada and their staff make some of L.A.’s best. If you’re not vegan, be adventurous—and you’ll be deliciously rewarded.
On Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. an all-you-can-eat buffet is available for the modest price of $10. I’m at a loss as to how Pia gets her pancakes so light and fluffy without using eggs or milk, but they’re worth the price of the buffet alone—a buttery-rich, nutty body to the cakes themselves, not the least bit chewy or elastic (which can happen easily with high-protein whole grains), dusted with cinnamon, and heavenly with the pure maple syrup that’s offered alongside them. Country potatoes are seared red-gold with the perfect salty-garlic tang. This is divine hangover food, for those who don’t find an ironic conflict in downing six drinks Saturday night and noshing on vegan chow the next morning. Oh, and watch yourself pouring that syrup: if you’re not careful you’ll end up glopping an entire plate full of the stuff. Which I gracefully did.
That was just fine, though, because the syrup I didn’t sop up worked perfectly with the next round of food: a pad thai with fresh, crisp and cooling bean sprouts and a tofu scramble with a curried, complex flavor. Was it curry? Was it a scramble? It could have been both. I didn’t care. It was delicious. A vibrantly tangy fruit salad with pineapple, banana and strawberries wasn’t too sweet or too sour. Their fresh green salad came with tomatoes, red onions, and three options for dressing: tahini, Italian, or peanut (my personal fave). Not on the buffet menu, but also worth a look, are larger house salads—like Pia’s garbanzo high-protein salad, an oriental tossed salad, and a Thai salad (all $8) that can be had with faux cheese, soytan, or baco bits. A quesadilla is made with casein-free soy cheese and served in chapatti bread; “fish,” lentil loaf, pepper “steak” and fried “chicken” dinners are also available (all $9). I didn’t have time to sample the curries, including an appealing mock duck curry ($8), but I’ll be heading back for that.
Desserts are beautiful. A raw-food raspberry cheesecake arrives drizzled with a jewel-like raspberry essence. Its crust of soaked nuts was an absolute delicacy. For those who haven’t tried raw food yet, this is a great place to start. The chocolate cake with strawberries was an aesthetically irresistible composition of glittering fruit, spongy chocolate crumbs, and an almost-candied mint leaf.
Pia was busy steering the kitchen, and modestly declined to be barraged with my questions, but as I went to leave she emerged from the rear to take my arm in both her hands and whisper in my ear how much she loved her cooking staff—“He,” she said, nodding at de facto manager Dean Spunt, “he is so helpful. But you come back soon, ok? You must come back.” She beamed up at me. I got a flutter of Gramma goodness.
How could I not come back?
Vibe: Your mom hosting your idealistic, anarchist friends for dinner, and loving them.
Service: Friendly and mellow.
Parking: Lot in rear.
Recommended dishes: It’s all good, yo. And no prices over $9, except for the all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch at $10.
Credit cards: Sorry, cash only.