Good eating in San Diego at these sustainable vegan restaurants

A vegan margherita pizza from Donna Jean's.

Donna Jean's "Killer Queen" pizza. (Leslie Patinsky Funabashi/Courtesy Donna Jean)

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As someone who has been vegetarian for over a decade, I refuse to resign myself to the vegan food trope: that vegan food is not good food. I have a theory that vegan food is just as delicious, and maybe even more so, than non-vegan food. How is that possible? I must be in denial, right?

Here’s the thing: Meat and animal products taste good all on their own, while vegan and vegetarian food require mastery. If you go to a vegan restaurant, the level of time, effort, and skill that must go into the food they’re creating goes above and beyond. Further, the food requires no harm to animals, has less of a negative environmental impact, and, therefore, carries less guilt.

While it’s unlikely that everyone will adopt an entirely plant-based lifestyle, eating more sustainably should be everyone’s goal. Eating more vegan or vegetarian meals, shopping locally, and using seasonal produce are some main ways to do that. Animal agriculture is harmful to the environment in three major ways: excessive water use and greenhouse gas production, and destructive land use.

On the flip-side, there are many benefits to eating a plant-based diet, such as improved animal welfare and personal health, and better sustainability. I’ve been an ovo-vegetarian (someone whose diet includes eggs, but no dairy, meat, or fish) for a few years now. While living in San Diego, I’ve been on the search for the best vegan restaurants. San Diego is a wonderful place to be vegan or vegetarian, but as our need for more sustainable food grows, so does our need for more sustainable options. So, if you’re living in San Diego, or just here for a visit, here are few of those places. They’re delicious, comforting, and provide an array of options that’ll satisfy even the most tenacious of meat eaters.

Your new favorite Jewish deli: Ben & Esther’s

A bagel sandwich is stuffed with vegan meet and other fixings.
A custom bagel sandwich from Ben & Esther’s. (Courtesy Ben & Esther’s SD)

A few months ago, a close friend of mine asked me to meet her for lunch at a spot that she’s been dying to try. We’re both vegetarian and are constantly on the hunt for the best vegetarian and vegan food in San Diego. Ben & Esther’s is a hole in the wall style Jewish deli, with all the fixings: giant jars of kosher pickles, a selection of baked goods, deli counter salads, and a list of classic sandwiches, bagels, and of course, schmears.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was over the moon after seeing the menu. My friend and I both ordered our sandwiches. I went for the Rueben, a pickle, and a raspberry jammer for later. She got a bagel sandwich, and some schmear.

Since then, I have moved around the block from their location on El Cajon Boulevard and I’m not embarrassed to say that I have eaten there almost every week since. Even my non-vegan mother was impressed. She’s 71 and still asks if they have “regular” eggs at every vegan restaurant we go to.

I reached out to Ben & Esther’s founder Justin King, whose grandparents are the deli’s namesakes. He put me in contact with his business partner Marc Bennett, who lives here in San Diego. Marc and I spoke about the main goal of the company, to make consistently quality and delicious Jewish-American deli food.

Ben & Esther’s was born in Portland, Oregon, and has since opened three restaurants: the location on El Cajon Blvd., one in Oceanside, California, and a second Portland location. They are soon opening a location in Seattle. Marc says that their goal is to open locations all along the west coast, a goal I believe they will have no difficulty accomplishing.

Vegan food, that’s reminiscent of your favorite Jewish deli order? What more could you want? Both Justin and Marc sign their emails “for the animals,” a phrase that speaks volumes, as kindness and accountability are two of the pillars of the vegan lifestyle. So next time you’re craving a BLT or a Philly Cheesesteak, check out Ben & Esther’s. And make sure to grab a raspberry jammer for later, though be warned, it probably won’t survive the car ride.

The date-night spot: Donna Jean

I like to think that the future of food is in restaurants like Donna Jean. It’s a glorious, sustainable brunch and dinner restaurant on the outskirts of Balboa Park in San Diego. I spoke to its founder Chef Roy Elam about his gem of a vegan restaurant, whose namesake is his late mother, Donna Jean. When Donna was diagnosed with breast cancer, her doctor recommended that she start eating a more plant-based diet. According to a 2017 review, a vegan diet reduces overall cancer risk by 15%. This is possibly due to the presence of phytochemicals — biologically active compounds in plants that help protect against cancer. There are other benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet, such as better metabolic health, healthier gut microbiota, and lower cholesterol.

Roy flew home to St. Louis, Missouri, to help her veganize some of her favorite recipes. Years later, he was inspired to create a restaurant that, while plant-based and sustainable, offers beautiful and delicious seasonal dishes. My favorites are their house bread with Maldon salt (I recommend upgrading to the garlic butter sauce — it’s unreal). Seasonal dishes like the Sea Bean Caesar salad, and their Hot Shrooms: deep fried oyster mushrooms with pickles and Nashville style hot sauce.

They even have pasta and pizza, made with their own vegan cheese that actually melts. Chef Howe (of Donna Jean) and Chef Roy created Scratch House vegan cheeses. Chef Howe was unimpressed with the vegan cheese options on the market and embarked on creating his own. Just look at their “Fungazi” pizza. I’m in love.  

A vegan pizza features vegan cheese melted over arugula
Donna Jean’s Fungazi pizza. (Leslie Patinsky Funabashi/Courtesy Donna Jean). 

Chef Roy works with local markets and produce suppliers to make a menu using seasonal and local produce. Therefore, the menu will vary depending on season, and location. They have recently opened a second Donna Jean location in Sherman Oaks, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Reservations are required for the L.A. location, and strongly suggested for San Diego. It’s just that good. Chef Roy eventually hopes to open another location, in St. Louis, Missouri, to bring home some of his amazing recipes. But in the meantime, make a reservation at Donna Jean in San Diego or L.A., it’s food at its best: seasonal, sustainable, and comforting. I promise, Donna Jean will transform how you view vegan food.

The Punk Rock quick bite: Underdog

The newest member of San Diego’s vegan lineup is Underdog, a food truck on the borders of University Heights and North Park. They opened their truck only three months ago, but they’re already getting noticed. I reached out to married duo Chelsea and Mark Ross who created Underdog. Together they embarked on a journey to veganize classic street foods. They’ve both been vegan for two decades and wanted to create a food truck that’s entirely vegan but boasts all your favorite street foods. They’ve got everything from Korean-style corn dogs to animal fries and chili dogs. The concept is vegan food but punk rock, no limits, no rules. 

A vegan hotdog with jalapeños and other fixings.
Underdog’s “Danger Dog.” (Courtesy Underdog SD).

As with the previous two establishments, Underdog has a similar goal: providing delicious food without any harm to our animal friends. I’m a big fan of their corn dogs. They’re truly a perfect food; fluffy, savory, and served with a choice of condiments, though I’m a ketchup and yellow mustard purist all the way. However, the next time I stop by, I’m grabbing the “Goblin’s Club.” It’s their Korean-style corn dog covered in French fries, panko, and sugar. 

I reached out to Chelsea and Mark. We spoke about how they’re stoked on the vegan community here in San Diego and surprised at how strong it is. We bonded over our shared experience and how much we appreciate that San Diego is becoming something of a vegan oasis. When you go looking for them, their truck is bright orange and parked on the corner of El Cajon Blvd. and Texas St. You can’t miss it. They’ve got the perfect location if you’re looking to grab a quick bite. Whether you’re vegan or not, they have an amazing selection of delicious options. They might be the underdogs in this list, but they’re already making a name for themselves.

The future is vegan 

Not every city has as many vegan and vegetarian restaurants as San Diego. However, the future looks promising and it’s thanks to restaurants like these. I am so grateful to Ben & Esther’s, Donna Jean, and Underdog for making excellent dishes that give vegan food a new trope: good to your taste buds, and good to the planet. These restaurants have helped make me more optimistic for the future of vegan food, that maybe people (regardless of diet) will choose to eat at plant-based restaurants. Making this choice becomes significantly easier when there are more vegan restaurants to choose from. So, whether you live here, or are visiting, I hope you choose to check out one of these restaurants. I promise that you’ll love them.

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