A hunk of thickly breaded, fried chicken sitting atop a pile of mashed potatoes, all smothered in gravy. A Rueben of marbled rye bread loaded with corned beef, melted cheese, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing. A meatball sub, drenched in marinara, and topped with grated mozzarella. These staples of American gluttony have been personal and professional favorites of mine, the types of food I seek out, not so much because they’re exciting, but because they satisfy a deep carnal appetite I’ll not likely shake in this life.
4332 30th St #3, North Park
Except this time it’s different. This time, all of the above are vegan. The Modern Vegan, or so the new North Park restaurant calls itself. Though if the aforementioned menu items are any indication, modern vegans eat a lot like 20th century meat eaters.
An irreverent vegan eatery out of Las Vegas, The Modern Vegan (or TMV as it commonly touts itself) recently opened a second location here in San Diego, on 30th Street just off El Cajon Boulevard. The business asserts its mission is to “serve you delicious food without harming animals. Keeping your looks intact, without compromising taste… Keeping you healthy and smart, because vegans know best and you fucking know it.”
The jury’s still out on whether veganism keeps anyone’s looks intact, but at least part of what makes TMV tick is the continuing proliferation of plant-based meat substitutes. The place is at its best when building recipes off these tried and true products. That fried “chicken” is made from wheat and soy protein-based Gardien “chick’n”. The “corned beef” is made from wheat gluten-based, seitan. And the “meatballs” are part of the ever-growing list of products marketed by tech company Beyond Beef. A litany of burgers, a cheesesteak, and fish’n’chips likewise employ these meat alternatives.
That crunchy fried chicken may lack the scrumptious oils that make actual fried chicken finger lickable. But its seasoning and texture hit home, and with the help of its mushroom based gravy, it becomes craveworthy to the meatless eater. This omnivore has zero complaints. The Reuben shouldn’t work, but the rye, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing help fill in the flavor profile round the faux beef, so that when the seitan comes close, you can close your eyes and almost imagine you’re eating the real thing. The Beyond meatballs have the squeaky texture of finely minced beef, and though it could stand to have more oregano in the marinara, the surprising presence of wilted spinach on the sandwich offers more for me to like.
A friend of mine gets irritated when vegan menus aren’t also low carb or gluten-free. As he sees it, if he’s giving up meat, all the diets of the world should be crammed into his plant-based meal. If he wants to spend the rest of his life shoveling bunches of undressed sprouts into his mouth and call it healthy, he’s welcome to. It is likely possible to eat vegan plus keto plus gluten-free here, but the point more seems to be an opportunity to give up meat without giving up the host of meaty American favorites.
That said, I do think mediocre French fries do figure too prominently as a default side dish for 14- and 15-dollar vegan entrees, and the alternative salad seems a flimsy alternative. But most of my complaints about The Modern Vegan have to do with the drab, cinder block walls, and oddly oriented entrance through a business complex courtyard. Despite efforts to add splashes of color and personality with a couple squares of living wall and large painted letters declaring it, “So fckin good [sic],” the place has a grim feel that reads more like the dystopian future vegan. With a little more effort, I think it could become an inviting place for the exact sort of meat-loving, vegan curious modern eater who’d enjoy eating this stuff.