The "neon gravestones" roll, made with black rice, vegan "shrimp" and "tuna", and cucumber, topped with scorched peppers and eggplant
This spring was supposed to be sort of a moment for vegan sushi in San Diego, a reminder that — minus the fish — rice, rice vinegar, and seaweed fit well within the plant-based ethos.
2254 India St, San Diego
The trend’s emergence may be best exemplified by chef Junya Watanabe’s RakiRaki family of restaurants. Four years ago, the local ramen brand began opening Pokirrito locations, to meet the trending demand for poke bowls and sushi burritos. This year, those Pokkiritos have been replaced with RakiRaki’s new, dedicated vegan restaurants, The Yasai.
The word yasai is Japanese for vegetables, and it doesn’t only refer to plant-based sushi: ramen too is on the menu. In the case of the Little Italy location that was half Pokirrito and half RakiRaki, the entire venue has been taken over by the vegan concept.
Vegan ramen with house fermented shoyu and vegetables, from The Yasai
RakiRaki had long been serving vegan ramen options alongside those with pork and chicken broths. However, at Yasai, Rakiraki favorites including the red edition (with fermented chilis), black edition (with fermented garlic), and curry ramens are served with a six-vegetable broth rather than tonkotsu. There’s also a tantan-style ramen, with spicy sesame, and a tomato ramen combining pureed tomatoes and dashi, seaweed stock.
For my vegan take-out order, I went for the 15-dollar Kyoto Shoyu ramen, flavored with RakiRaki’s own, house fermented shoyu, better known as soy sauce. The relatively simple broth features Rakiraki’s “triple thick” noodles (beet, kale, or gluten-free noodles are available for a small fee), and vegetables including steamed bok choy, wakame seaweed, sauteed bean sprouts, green onions, and garlic chips. The highlights were pan-crisped slices of Kabocha squash (a.k.a. Japanese pumpkin), and thin strips of seared tofu, seasoned to mimic char-siu pork.
Once a RakiRaki and Pokirrito, now serving entirely plant-based Japanese cuisine under the same ownership
I know I enjoyed it, because this omnivore did not for one moment miss the pork.
However, more surprising was how much I enjoyed the sushi. I shouldn’t still be surprised how much I like vegan sushi, but in this instance, Yasai’s 15-dollar Neon Gravestones roll found a way. To begin with, I opened the take-out container to see it was rolled with black rice. With faux tuna, faux shrimp, and cucumber inside, the eight-piece roll has vegetable toppings in four different colors: both red and yellow scorched bell peppers, scorched jalalpeño, and strips of marinated eggplant.
The gray brown eggplant may show the least visual appeal, but even compared to the contrasting sweetness and spice of the peppers, its flavor won the day. The two bites of roll with eggplant sent me down a rabbit hole of umami, almost as though the center of my tongue were waking from a long sleep.
Which may be the case after five weeks of isolation.