Vegan ‘Salmon’ Rolls, Hot ‘Chick-Un’ and Hibiscus Tacos—Oh, My!

Vegan Citrus Salmon Sushi
Citrus “salmon” roll from Naughty Boy Sushi. Photo by Huu Nguyen

The sun’s orange glow settles on the small canopies gathered in the garden outside the Woman’s Club of Orange. The hiss of sliced onions hitting hot grills and music echoing from the ballroom drifts into the early evening. Beneath the canopies, men rapidly chop fresh cilantro, spiking the air with its sharpness; pizzas bubble inside stoves; and ice sloshes in big buckets of bright juice. There is a fervor building among the crowd, as the anticipation to feast is palpable.

It is exactly the kind of night the organizers behind the OC Vegan Village were hoping for. Long gone are the days when vegan options consisted of dry bean burgers and rubbery soy cheese. There are now plant-based diners serving VcGriddles, ice-cream parlors without a hint of dairy and vegan Tex-Mex dishes. And while it seems as if the number of ways to turn cauliflower into steak are infinite, the concept of a casual vegan meal is still new to the masses.

Nashville Style Hot Chick-un
Vegan Hooligans’ Nashville-style hot “chick-un” sandwich. Photo by Huu Nguyen

Garrett Nibarger, one of the founders behind Munchies Diner and My Vegan Panda, sought to bridge this gap between non-vegans and vegans. Similar to how food trucks found success, in part, by building communities in empty parking lots, Nibarger rolled out the Vegan Village, a collective of like-minded brands. For now, the roaming pop-up exists in empty lots and venues across Orange County. This evening is set against a 1920s clubhouse, packed with vendors slinging clever offerings, from ceviche formed from hearts of palm to poultry-free wings soaked in buffalo sauce.

At the center of the event is Naughty Boy Sushi, with a fantastic citrus salmon roll; the spicy jackfruit and sriracha mayo build to a slow burn, tempered by the cool texture of “salmon” and thin orange slices. The fish stand-in, a meld of rice gum, potato starch and bean gum, is remarkably good, the texture smooth and even slightly buttery. A few stalls over are inviting barrels of aguas frescas from Malinalli Superfoods, the sugar replaced with agave. There are tart seeds swimming in a neon pool of blended passion fruit; blueberries and hibiscus flowers stirred into a violet hue; and a thick, creamy horchata made from cacao and starchy amaranth grain.

One popular item is the hot “chick-un” from the Vegan Hooligans, who are also known for hearty burgers. To make the Nashville-style item, the crew lovingly dip seitan patties into an egg substitute, bread each one in flour, then crisp them up before dousing them in a peppery sauce and topping them with fresh coleslaw.

Vegan Tamales
Shane’s Tamales. Photo by Huu Nguyen

At Vegan by El Zamorano, hibiscus flowers sautéed in fragrant onion and garlic are dressed with sliced avocado and salsa verde, then finished in a flour tortilla. There are also mushroom and incredible plant-based asada tacos. A canopy tucked into the corner shades Shane’s Tamales, where soft masa encases mushroom “pork” and soy “chicken” perked with pickled onion, squirted with crema, and sprinkled with cilantro criollo.

If you aren’t knocked off your feet by the time the sun sets, you can always order another hot “chick-un.”

Check www.facebook.com/ocveganvillage for details on future pop-ups and other vegan-friendly events.

Charisma can usually be found eating cake with a cup of hot coffee for breakfast or walking around the OC with Toto, her awesome corgi-chihuahua.

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