Like the increasingly popular vegan versions of Thai food that are popping up around town, sushi is starting to catch the Tofurky Syndrome. This is what I call the attempt to make animal-product-like food out of animal-product-free ingredients—Tofurky being, essentially, tofu in the shape, color, and arguably flavor and texture of turkey. In the Thai restaurants that go vegan, this translates into a colorful assortment of protein pretenders that you can’t help but be impressed by, even if you think it’s a bit silly.
Loving Vegan, on Coors near Montaño, has tossed its hat into the flesh-toned ring of wannabe meat—wannabe fish, specifically. The restaurant, owned by Sushi King, even has a sushi bar manned by a chef who seems completely dedicated to the ingredients at his disposal, such as fake shrimp, scallops, salmon and squid. He rolls them expertly and artistically, and if you squint your eyes, they look exactly like “normal” sushi. They’re also pretty delicious, even if they don’t quite taste like fish and you have no idea what your fake lobster is made of (that would be sweet potato, mostly).
I found myself hunting through the menu at Loving Vegan searching for old-school dishes that originated long before the term “vegan” was coined. And there are a number of traditional foods that earn the label only coincidentally here, including natto (fermented soybeans), umeboshi (salt-pickled plums), kampyo (a type of squash) and pickled daikon radish. Most of these were satisfying, without the awkwardness of a faux krab roll looking up at you from the plate with hot-pink eyes.
The highlight for me was the umeboshi, which delivered just the right amount of palate-cleansing punch. (The sour plum can easily overpower this stripped-down roll ... and everything else you just ate.) I couldn’t appreciate the natto. Being a card-carrying member of the Church of Fermented Foods, I really wanted to like it. But, alas, natto is indeed an acquired taste. It was too hard to get past the slimy texture and musty taste.
As for the fake fish sushi, many of them came together into a familiar blend of flavors and textures—perhaps not geared toward those looking to get their seafood on, but tasty enough for people with an open mind. A veggie-packed summer roll’s “crab stick” read like Vietnamese shrimp sausage, and its peanut-laced dipping sauce did an especially convincing job (perhaps a little too convincing) of invoking nam pla.
The hi-tech vegan offerings improved when they moved away from pretending to be raw. A teriyaki chicken bowl was unctuous with fried flavor. In fact, judging from the reactions of the people around me, it’s a fake chicken bowl that real chicken lovers can like.
Another winner was the udon noodles, which were perfectly stir-fried—not too chewy or soft—and in a light, savory sauce that packed a little heat. It was uncomplicated vegan goodness that didn’t carry the ache of wishing it was something else.
The bento box probably delivers the most food for the money of any dish on the menu, with miso soup, small salads (cucumber-seaweed and green leaves in a gingery dressing) and pan-fried spinach gyoza filling out my sizable order. I forwent the various fishlike options for the entrée slot, instead ordering a grilled portobello with vegetables—in this case, thin, tender-crisp asparagus and a fat ring of onion—on pleasantly glutinous, lightly seasoned brown rice.
There are plenty of folks who’ll love the food at Loving Vegan—especially those who can afford it, because it does add up. And you’ll have to find it first, as it’s tucked in an anonymous strip mall on Coors. Once you make your way into this simple place, however, you’ll encounter a crew of sincere cooks dedicated to the vegan cause. And if you order enough of it, you’ll leave full but not feeling heavy—your conscience included.