The Quinoa Chronicles: Michael Chin’s Extreme Existential Pizza Peril

by Michael Chin
Staff Writer

OK, so I knew this was going to happen eventually. We all did. Everyone knew that my vegan stride wouldn’t last the month. The quinoa has hit the fan. I hit my low point. I’m not ashamed to say that this past week wasn’t easy.

It hit me on Sunday night as I prepared what I thought was going to be an old standard converted vegan. I made beef and broccoli using a pack of Trader Joe’s “Beef-less” strips I had stashed in my fridge. The pan certainly looked good –– before I tasted the stuff, I thought that I had conquered another vegan battleground. The strips certainly looked like beef. The dish smelled good, so I proceeded to put some on rice, and …

Upon taking that first bite, my entire vegan world came crumbling down. “Beef-less” strips aren’t beef strips. They’re not even close. They’re spongy, somehow both bland and overpowering all at once. And like that weird imitation crab stuff you get at bad sushi restaurants, it left my head spinning with disappointed questions: Where does it come from? Who was responsible for passing this as a meat substitute? Did I miss a crucial step in preparing it? No … The reality is that these were a crass oversight on my part, an unrealistically high expectation created by the frequency of the really, genuinely good meals I’ve had thus far as a vegan.

Not every vegan substitute is going to be good, I realized, and the week only tried to punish me further. Monday and Tuesday, scheduling weirdness more or less forced me into inadvertently eating the same Wahoo’s tofu burrito for five meals in a row. While I really do appreciate the tofu option at the on-campus Wahoo’s and think that it’s great sustenance, two and a half straight days of the same meal wore me down.

What’s worse, I recently had the most exceedingly average meal I’ve ever had at Native Foods. Their Oklahoma bacon cheeseburger was ineffective at providing enough textural contrast, despite the copious amounts of lettuce and carrots atop the bun. Layers of seitan didn’t emulate a burger patty as well as I would have wanted, and the Native Bacon lacked anything one might expect from real bacon.
Needless to say, I felt that something vital was missing from my diet. Friday night, the realization came to me in the form of a Round Table box taunting me jeeringly from my refrigerator. Pizza was such a huge part of my pre-vegan diet and it’s been tough trying to find a rough one-to-one equal vegan conversion. I was on the hunt for a while, but nothing really fully replicated that undeniably unique pizza sensation. The crisp elasticity of a good crust, toppings melded seamlessly with sauce and cheese. A combination that heals all wounds.

I had tried the pizza at Native Foods, which while satisfying wasn’t quite what I wanted. More vegetable flatbread plate than actual pizza, the plethora of vegetables on the Chef’s Garden pizza was surprisingly filling and so piled with greens that you walk away from the pizza feeling refreshed. I don’t know about you, but it’s the first time that ever happened to me. I didn’t want that, though –– I wanted grease, I wanted that gut satisfaction.

Then I remembered hearing about “zpizza” on Harvard in Irvine; I set forth to try theirs, a Berkeley vegan pizza of vegan cheese, veggie burger crumbles (akin to sausage), mushroom, green peppers, zucchini, tomato and onion. Here, I had found my elixir. Besides a bit of textural inconsistency with the vegan cheese that distinguishes the pizza as unmistakably vegan, zpizza’s was a working replacement for the collegiate soul, that wandering, relentless late-night craving. Watch out because you can’t get it by the slice, though a small is good for a meal and some cold next-day fare.

For those in want of something a bit more sophisticated (and if you’re vegan, why not go for the fancy option?), try True Food Kitchen in Newport. Located in the Fashion Island parking lot, True Food offers vegan pizza here as well, though their menu expands long past vegan options. The pizza there, opposite z’s vegan cheese and veggie burger crumbles, is a super thin, crispy crust on which roasted kale and grilled onions are spread with organic tomato sauce. Still vegan, but categorically different; there is no mention of a cheese substitute to speak, though I think the pizza may have benefited from it. While roasting the kale with onion and garlic gave it aromatic brilliance and eliminated kale’s characteristic bitter aftertaste, the thin-crusted pizza suffered structurally from its lack of cheese. The moisture from the kale betrayed the crust’s crispiness toward the point of the slice and with no cheese to hold everything in place, the kale tended to end up more on the plate than on the crust.

Other True Food options include a TLT (tempeh, lettuce and tomato) and a teriyaki tofu bowl. True Food’s commitment to providing vegan options is commendable, certainly, but one can’t help but sniff longingly and their non-vegan options. Though not vegan, the caramelized onion tart looked and smelled delicious.

So that’s something, right? Even in our darkest moments, even vegans have pizza.