3442 30th Street, San Diego
Decision time: Eddie’s Philadelphia Steaks or Lefty’s Chicago Pizza? I’m near Upas, quarter of nine at night. Got half an hour before the next #2 bus.
Oh, what the heck. I’m on Lefty’s side of the road. Except, then, my eye catches Veg-N-Out. Little place hiding to the, uh, left of Lefty’s. “San Diego’s Meat-Free Eatery,” the sign says. Uh-huh. So how come I see a clump of people eating giant burgers inside? Gunk-covered patties, stacks o’ deep-fried onion rings, bacon hangin’ out, mayo, cheese…What gives? Where’re the nuts and twigs, people?
By now, I’m inside. There are half a dozen tables here and a little J-shaped counter you sit up at.
“Still open?” I ask the gal behind the counter, Alice.
“We close at 9:00,” she says. “You’ve still got time.”
Oh, wow. Like, ten minutes. So I cut to the chase. “What’s the most filling meal?”
“We have three burgers that are really filling,” Alice says. “The Western Burger is probably the biggest. It has a ‘meat’ patty under a pile of ‘bacon’” — she’s doing some serious air-scratching quotation marks with her fingers — “cheddar cheese, crispy onion rings, and lettuce and tomatoes, with mayo and a barbecue sauce. It’s our most expensive too, $8.99.”
She says the chili cheeseburger ($8.25) is not as tall but just as filling. “And Flam’n Raym’n will definitely fill you, as long as you can take the heat. It’s spicy. Our own chipotle sauce. It’s got lots of sautéed onions.”
Ouch. Sautéed onions. My weakness. Alice leaves the menu with me while she takes a phone call. “Veg-N-Out! Eat in? We close at 9:00. Ranchero Burger? Seven ninety-five. And an Italian meatball sandwich? Yes, with basil, $7.50.”
I make a quick check of the rest of the menu. Lordy. This is an out-and-out burger joint. About two dozen, plus a bunch of sandwiches, all around the $8 mark. Except, it’s not real meat. Incredible, really, to be able to simulate all this stuff. They even have a BBQ Chick’n Burger ($7.99) and a Big Kahuna ($8.25) with “chicken-style breast covered in grilled pineapple, melted jack cheese,” and “smothered in BBQ sauce.”
And, hey, there’s a “grilled juicy dog” ($6.75). Might take that back to Carla. She’s still hot to trot for anything “dog.”
But…gotta decide. Alice has a bunch of cleaning up to do. “I’ll go for the Flam’n Raym’n,” I say.
“Wedge potatoes, side salad, or Caesar?” Alice asks. “Or sweet potatoes, for a dollar extra?”
Love sweet potatoes, cooked any which way. “Sweet potatoes,” I say.
“Anything to drink?” she asks, just as I’m looking over this row of bottles all labeled “Kombucha 2000.”
“It’s fermented tea, from the kombucha mushroom,” says Alice. “Really great for energy, with antioxidants.”
They’re $4.35 each bottle, but I’ve got to try it. Could be the new açai.
I’ve been standing but now settle down into one of the counter seats. Glance around. It’s a friendly little place, with mostly cream walls decorated with bamboo, rattan, and tiki carvings and Chinese fans, I guess to fit the Buddha-veggie-fruit image. A string of Buddhist-style flags — like the ones you see whipping in the wind outside Tibetan monasteries in National Geographic — give the Chinese characters for love, happiness, peace, wisdom, tranquility, courage. I take a swig of my Kombucha tea. Ooh... Tastes fermented, all right. Kinda like beer.
A 30-something couple comes through the door. “You the ones who called?” Alice asks. They nod. They pay up, sit down, and a moment later, out come their Ranchero Burger and meatball sandwich in red plastic baskets.
Then Alice brings mine. It’s a big toasted bun with a patty covered in melted white cheese, all hiding under bean sprouts, lettuce, tomato, a slurry of sautéed onions, and a pile of huge golden disks on the side. Think mini-Frisbees. I pick one up. Hot! Chomp in. Sweet potato! Orange inside, too. Tastes almost like pumpkin. I mean, I’ve had sweet potatoes before, but never like this. A bit of salt, a lunge at the smoky-tasting burger, and you’ve got one great taste combo.
I ask Alice about the “meat” patty. “We make it from peppers, broccoli, carrots, onions, and mushrooms,” she says. Damn, but it’s tasty. I swear I wouldn’t know it wasn’t the real thing. Plus, now that the prickly chipotle heat is starting to kick in, it tastes even more like the real thing.
“Like heat?” says the guy who rushed in with his girl. Name’s Dan. Lady’s Ziva. He’s a psychologist. She’s a photographer and singer. They’ve been eating here regularly for the past couple of years.
“Sure,” I say. “Heat makes it interesting.”
“Dan entered a hot-sauce-drinking contest once,” says Ziva. “He won. He’s crazy.”
“I’ll tell you crazy,” says Dan. “Ziva is a vegetarian, but she hates vegetables.”
“It was hard growing up,” says Ziva. “All I could eat was cheese pizzas and pasta. But now people are doing such fantastic things with vegetarian versions of meat products, it’s not hard at all. These Italian meatballs...you’d never know.”
“San Diego’s starting to happen, vegetarian-wise,” says Dan. “But L.A., man. We had fake jambalaya and shrimp étouffée up there the other day. Fantastic.”
Till Alice throws us out — gently, around 9:30 — we chomp and yak. And, yes, sing. Guess it’s that kind of a place. You let your guard down. You’re back munching on nuts and twigs in the Garden of Innocence. No DCG (dead cow guilt)...it does something to you.
’Course, I missed that #2, but what the heck. Start humming at the bus stop, When you’re down and troubled, and you need a helping hand… That’s what Ziva sang, the whole of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Oh, man. What a crystal voice. Better than Carole King (who actually wrote it).
Animal magnetism? Blame it on the veggies.■
The Place: Veg-N-Out, 3442 30th Street, North Park, 619-546-8411
Type of Food: Vegetarian, vegan
Prices: Tree Hugger burger (with avocado, salad veggies), $7.95; Western Burger, with “bacon,” cheese, onion rings, $8.99; chili cheeseburger, $8.25; Flam’n Raym’n burger (with sautéed onions, chipotle), $8.95; Ranchero Burger, with BBQ chipotle, $7.95; Italian “meatball” sandwich, $7.50; Big Kahuna, with “chicken” breast, grilled pineapple, $8.25; BBQ Chick’n Burger, $7.99; Thai salad (with mint, basil, tofu, peanut dressing), $7.25; cinnamon sweet potato dessert, $2.75
Hours: 11.00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Monday–Thursday; 11.00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday; noon till 10:00 p.m., Saturday; noon–9:00 p.m., Sunday
Nearest Bus Stop: 30th Street at Myrtle