SFO: Vegan Mecca

I spent my spring break in the Bay Area visiting my cousin. While the purpose of my trip was more about the ambitions in my mind rather than my stomach, both ended up extremely satisfied (with the latter, in particular, being more satisfied). As a vegan, my options when eating out are generally limited. Seriously, I can spot the word “salad” from practically a mile away. I live in Philly, and yeah, there are some great vegan spots here (s/o to Blackbird, Vedge, Hip City Veg, etc), but here’s the thing: I’ve been here, and done those. Traveling to a new city, especially as a vegan, not only full of sight-seeing, but site-eating.

Prior to my visit, I’ve heard dozens of stories and seen hundreds thousands of pictures touting the Bay Area’s vegan food spots. After all, there’s a reason why VegNews is based in San Francisco. So, after I bought my PHL to SFO plane ticket, I constructed my master plan to hit up all the must-visit spots I could. Since the majority of my time was spent exploring career opportunities after I graduate in May (hmu), my gustatory exploration was limited to one weekend. Challenge accepted.

My cousin and I hopped into the car on Saturday morning. The destination? Timeless Coffee in Oakland. The place sits on Piedmont Ave, right by several vintage shops, Asian food places, and a Landmark theatre. Basically all you need for a leisurely Saturday is within walking distance, but there was no time for that. Today, I was on a mission to eat my face off.

Parking around Oakland was pretty easy. Maybe I’m just saying that because the PPA sucks, but everything is relative, right? Anyway, we walked in and were greeted by a friendly barista wearing a MBV shirt. I ordered my usual americano, then my eyes found the glass case of baked goods. First impression? I wanted to eat everything. The assortment of pastries, cupcakes, and cookies emanated a warm, inviting glow underneath the case lights. We decided to order a balance of savory and sweet – a sausage and potato empanada, and a slice of apple-cinnamon walnut bread.


Not pictured: our beloved empanada

The empanada was very well-seasoned and I believe the sausage inside was Field Roast (correct me, if I’m wrong), which is always a winner. Even my non-vegan cousin loved it. My only wish is that there was more filling, but then again, I’m more partial to potatoes and sausage than puff pastry. But, oh, holy cow, the BREAD was phenomenal. It reminded me of this cinnamon bread my mom used to make from a box when I was little, but better because it wasn’t from a box. This bread was perfectly m*ist (you know the word I’m referring to) and had a great apple-to-walnut ratio. Again, both my cousin and I were more than satisfied. And, since Timeless roasts their own coffee, the americano was obviously killer.

After our breakfast, we walked around Oakland for a bit and perused the shops. Most of this time was spent simply appreciating the sunshine as I’d just endured four months of the dark, cold northeast winter. We then headed 20 minutes north to Berkeley, our ultimate destination for the day. I had initially just planned to explore UC Berkeley’s gorgeous campus and end the day with a bang at highly-acclaimed Cinnaholic, but my cousin and I were a bit more hungry than that. I had heard good things about Saturn Café, which is, as fate may have it, located on the same block as the aforementioned cinnamon bun utopia. Yes, it was time for lunch.

The Space Cowboy in all his glory.

The Space Cowboy in all his glory.

Saturn Café is a completely vegetarian diner in the heart of Berkeley that has a PLETHORA of vegan options. I absolutely loved its ol’ 50s Americana diner atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of Brooklyn’s Champ’s Diner. Or, in my pre-veg days, Johnny Rocket’s. The menu options are just as classic, and naturally, my cousin and I opted for burgers and fries. He got the standard California burger, and I got a lil’ somethin called the Space Cowboy. The name alone brought to mind treasured childhood memories of trips to the Johnson Space Center with my family in Texas. Cosmos and cowboys complement each other so well. The burger had tempeh bacon, onion rings, cheddar cheese, BBQ sauce, and was topped with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. All vegan, of course. And holy shit, did this cowboy lasso my heart! This burger may have been the best I’ve had since going vegan, and my non-veg cousin was equally enthused with his. The fries, too, were phenomenal! I literally had to pull myself away from the table to keep from devouring them all and ruining my forthcoming cinnamon bun.


Buns of cinnasteel

Following lunch, we spent some time on UC Berkeley’s campus. It was a beautifully sunny afternoon – perfect for admiring the school’s buildings, monuments, and enormous redwood trees. We then returned to the same block we had dined at hours before to hit the buns. Established in 2010, Cinnaholic has garnered national attention over the years for its extraordinary cinnamon buns (which are, obviously, 100% vegan). They even won big on ABC’s Shark Tank last year. This isn’t some basic Cinnabon shit either. Upon walking into the shop, you can choose from their daily specials in the glass case. They typically have some winning combinations. For example, on that particular day the special was maple blackberry. If you’re not feeling that, though, there’s the option to make your own cinnamon bun. And we’re not talking about some sundae-bar-style-choose-your-toppings deal. Here, you have the option of twenty nine different flavors of frosting and twenty one toppings. These range from butter pecan and Irish cream to brownie chunks and pie crumble.

It took me and my cousin a few minutes of simply staring at the menu to fully grasp what lay before us. He was able to choose before I did: butter pecan frosting with coconut on top. I finally decided on cream cheese frosting with cookie dough and mini chocolate chips. A few minutes later, the buns came out of the oven, and we grabbed a table outside. In a word, they were AMAZEBUNS. One bite and I was whisked away to a warm, melty paradise featuring cream cheese sunshine, cookie dough sand, and chocolate chip waves. 12/10, highly recommend. And again, my non-veg cousin was highly impressed. With stomachs stuffed to the max, we called it a day and drove back down to the valley.

The next day was my last, and before we ended it with a glorious dinner, there was some top-priority sightseeing to be done. We took the train to the city and saw the Painted Ladies, Alamo Square, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I even saw the Full House house, which is now disappointingly blue. Even more disappointing, John Stamos was nowhere to be found.

Enchiladas con mole

Enchiladas con mole, olé!

Had I encountered the charming Uncle Jesse, I would have invited him to grab dinner with us at Gracias Madre, a 100% organic plant-based Mexican restaurant located in the heart of the Mission. It’s operated by Café Gratitude and even has a sister location in Santa Cruz. Upon walking in, I was immediately struck by its relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. It was like walking into the home of an old friend. The staff were kind and genuine, which added to the air of hospitality. Again, the menu was extensive, and every single option looked superb. My cousin and I started off with guac, because duh. It came with warm tortillas and looked gorg. It tasted even better. Honest to god, I think this was the freshest guacamole I’ve ever tasted in my life. For my entrée, I got The Tamal – a tamale filled with sweet potato which came with refried black beans and homemade pickled vegetables. My cousin got the enchiladas con mole, which were, more obviously, open-faced enchiladas with mole, mushrooms, and cashew cream.

I could write a book about how incredible this food was. Everything was cooked perfectly. The flavors perfectly balanced and enhanced each other. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my entire life. You can say “organic, fresh, local” all you want, but it means jack shit unless you can actually taste the difference. That’s exactly what we experienced here. My meal at Gracias Madre was not simply food; it was nourishment. I loved every single bite with all of my heart. The chocolate cake and ice cream we got for dessert was awesome too, but it’s the main meal I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

I took the red eye back to the east coast that night more than satiated and about three pounds heavier than before. My weekend had been a roaring success, and even my cousin was impressed with the vegan masterpieces we’d devoured. The San Francisco Bay Area is indeed the plant-based promised land ripe with options for conscious hearts. This piece is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m bummed that I couldn’t make it to Millennium before it closes, but I have no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back to the Bay very, very soon. Until then, I’ll be planning my next #blessed journey.

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