Going Whole Faux Hog in Hollywood

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But we all know fake burgers are an entry-level meat substitute. Fortunately, Los Angeles is home to serious overachievers in the field of meat reproduction. The popular organic vegan restaurant Real Food Daily serves tempeh vegetable meatloaf that might actually be an improvement on real meatloaf, which is usually as depressing as a Matlock rerun playing on a hospital-room television. I used to regard meatloaf on menus with suspicion, as it can easily be cobbled together from the previous day’s uneaten scraps. But Real Food Daily’s version is nutty and creamy beneath a satisfyingly thick meatless gravy, and tastes like it was made to order—a real comfort. And L.A.’s vegan Thai restaurant Bulan Thai offers nearly every kind of meat that can be carved out of soy protein. Their shrimp has a real attention to detail, including that hard-to-replicate snap of real shrimp and adorable red stripes. And their chicken wings—compressed gluten (or something close to it), molded around a wooden dowel “drumstick”—actually shred like real poultry. My wife, Lisa, and I have forced these wings on our meat-eating friends as if to warn them, “we have your technology now.”

Of course, in sampling L.A.’s many meat substitutes I’ve been burned and learned plenty of times: Dry bricks of gluten creating an embarrassing scene inside a bowl of traditional Vietnamese bún chả. Bits of tofu gravel stepping in for scrambled eggs. And, thanks to mistakes previously made, when I scan a menu now and see “tempeh bacon,” I know what I’ll really be getting are a few soft, wet Band-Aid-size strips of weird mouth feel dragged in liquid smoke. That said, I’ve had enough quality fake meat that I started to feel satisfied I’d be able to find a veggie replicant version of nearly every form of flesh. There was only one frustrating footnote: Even as I continued to uphold my pig-free contract, I found it impossible to find a satisfying animal-free version of pulled pork. Until recently.

About a year and a half ago a vegan friend—and in Los Angeles, statistically speaking, every fourth friend is vegan—told me about a dingy little outpost called Pure Luck Restaurant. It’s one of those atmosphere-deficient spots where all of the patrons look a bit like members of the underground in a dystopian sci-fi movie—piercings, dreadlocks, pale skin, loose-fitting natural fabrics over skeletal frames, and smelling faintly of grease from a bike chain. But Pure Luck’s lack of ambience only made its vegan comfort food that much more stunning. The menu delivered great salads and unique side dishes like fried pickle chips and “potato pals”—lightly fried gnocchi with a delicious and slightly sour dipping sauce that puzzles me to this day. But the king presiding over Pure Luck was the lowly jackfruit: an ugly, fleshy, and very sticky fruit popular in Thailand, often sold canned in brine. But with enough patience and heat, this pale yellow fleshpod grows stringy and chewy, exactly like pulled pork. And with enough barbecue sauce and a bit of coleslaw, it might as well be pulled pork.

Unfortunately, Pure Luck has closed down, but just a couple miles from its old location you can get your jackfruit fix at Sage, in the form of something called “street tacos.” The tacos are supremely spiced, paired with chile-rubbed mango slices and pickled cabbage, and create a very good approximation to traditional carnitas, with bonus points for never needing a toothpick to remove pig strands from between your teeth.

These days I’ve folded a bit more meat back into my diet, though I’m eating much less than I was two years ago. And, naturally, I still have my weaknesses, including the tissue-thin slices of pastrami at Canter’s delicatessen, and Animal’s poutine with oxtail gravy and Cheddar cheese—their giddy “f--k you” to your body’s gastrointestinal tract. But it’s very comforting to live in a place that understands the omnivore’s dilemma and has plenty of creative ways of serving up a kind of soy methadone for former meat junkies. It’s also a relief to be assured, as I continue to honor my promise to that pig, I know where I can happily eat pulled jackfruit “pork” until I throw up.

Todd Levin writes for Conan, a talk show on basic cable. He also coauthored the sex manual parody, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk. His last piece for Gourmet Live was a fictional Yelp review of the worst restaurant ever.

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