Sausage. Steak. Burgers. Those are the kinds of meals beer fans have grown accustomed to eating at craft beer bar Toronado over the past decade or so. But times have changed. When I bellied up to the bar last week to order a meaty steak sandwich to go with my IPA, there wasn’t an ounce of beef in it. In fact, the entire menu is now 100-percent plant-based. Toronado’s kitchen now belongs to Anthem Vegan.
4026 30th Street, North Park
Anthem had been a pop-up and farmers market food vendor before opening a large vegan diner on El Cajon Boulevard last year. When that location closed last month, it caught me off guard; I can only imagine how vegans felt. We experience our share of ho-hum plant-based restaurants in San Diego, but I didn’t consider Anthem one of them. There were a few duds to be found in its deep menu, but for the most part there was substance to its vegan diner shtick, and vegan demand is supposed to be trending up.
Meanwhile, Toronado has consistently furnished a great beer menu: most days its 50-plus taps pour world-class Belgian ales plus highly sought brews from in-demand local and West Coast brands. Elbow-to-elbow crowds led to the bar doubling in size a few years back, but they showed up for the beer more than the food.
Nevertheless, the marriage of Toronado and Anthem initially saw a few beer swilling carnivores strike aghast postures on social media, as if meat and cheese were somehow integral to their beer enjoyment. While it’s unquestionably a bold move for a meat-centric bar to go vegan, as usual, the internet’s loudest voices appear to be loudly wrong: Toronado employees report food orders have increased since Anthem replaced burgers with soy and wheat-based meat substitutes.
Those include Anthem’s so-called karne, inch-wide chunks of faux beef that I enjoyed on the black and blue steak sandwich, which is modeled after a steak sandwich topped with blue cheese dressing. The karne had a reasonably beefy flavor and chew, and though the blue cheese substitute was less pungent than the real thing, I personally found it more palatable. I tried the chicken, served with pineapple chunks over achiote-flavored rice with teriyaki sauce. Weirdly, the only let-down for me here compared to actual teriyaki chicken was the sauce could have been better. The faux chicken had a nice flavor and a bit of juicy burst, like a hunk of chicken thigh still sizzling out of a stir fry.
For the moment, we can only wonder whether the net effect of this marriage of businesses is North Park vegans drinking more beer, or craft fans embracing Anthem’s plant-based take on bar food. But we know for sure good vegan sandwiches are harder to come by in this town than beer, so from that perspective this looks like a value-added proposition. Good news for those approaching from the vegan side of things: most beer is vegan by default, and the Toro staff keeps a chalkboard list behind the bar noting anything on tap that is not.
Mostly, if you’re among the many craft beer loving’ omnivores in town who appreciate the quality of Toronado’s taplist, give the new Anthem menu a shot next time you visit. My bet is you’ll be impressed.