Before Impossible Burgers, the Bay Area Perfected Fake Meats for Decades

Bay Area restaurants like Berkeley's Flacos have offered meat alternatives for decades. (Ruth Gebreyesus)

For a lot of us in the Bay Area, it’s like watching the rest of the country catch up. New waves of lab-engineered alternative proteins are sweeping the nation. They promise to be so much like their meat muses that it’s hard to tell the difference. 

Los Angeles’s Beyond Meat has made waves with its rising stocks and its beef, chicken and pork-inspired products. These now include patties and sausages sold at fast food chains like Carl’s Jr. and Subway. The Redwood City-based Impossible Foods first debuted its burger patty at upscale restaurants like Momofuku Nishi in New York and San Francisco’s now-closed Jardinière before scaling up through a partnership with Burger King last year. With their marketing language and their venture capital funding models, both companies are more Silicon Valley than Bay Area natural grocery store.

Bay Area history is replete with vegan “meats.” Some, like lentil and black bean burgers, are impossible to mistake with beef. They proudly stand, or rather lay, as legume patties. But for years, a variety of Bay Area restaurants and grocery stores have imitated the fleshy textures of beef, poultry and pork to much success. At Chinese restaurants in the Bay and beyond, vegan meats absorb sauces and hold chew convincingly—even though they’re genetically closer to the broccoli on the plate beside them than any poultry product. In fact, fake meat likely first emerged in Chinese cuisine as early as the 7th century. 

At Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Market in Oakland’s Chinatown, there is no language around “optimized protein,” but rather shelves and fridges full of plant-based proteins, in the shape of chicken nuggets, shrimps and more. The market, which provides wholesale meat substitutes for restaurants all over the Bay Area, including R&G Lounge and The Butcher’s Son, has been around since at least 1996. That’s co-owner Samuel Wong’s estimate. Wong took over the market, which imports a lot of its goods from Taiwan, last January from the now-retired Layonna Wang. 

“I spent over two months with her before she handed it over to me,” he says. “I was a cashier. I was a delivery driver. She questioned me a lot of times. She doesn’t want people to take over and then end [the business].” Since assuming control, Wong has noticed a big growth in his wholesale business. That includes new customers as well as increased demand from longtime clients. 

Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Store in Oakland's Chinatown.
Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Store in Oakland's Chinatown. (Ruth Gebreyesus)

Indeed, the demand for meat-free meat shows no sign of slowing. This year, Impossible Foods is shifting its attention to pork while Beyond Meats eyes chicken as its next big game. Last summer, the latter teased a fried-chicken product at a KFC in Atlanta, which sold out in five hours. As consumers wait and see what new batches of meat-free alternatives these large-scale companies cook up, Bay Area residents can revisit some old, faithful favorites that serve vegan and vegetarian proteins with flavors from across the world.

San Francisco

Rhea’s Deli, the Mission district deli and sandwich shop, offers two meat-free options, including a marinated “vege-beef” steak sandwich. Their beloved vegan BBQ chicken sandwich features Layonna’s chicken drumsticks dressed with plenty of pickled fixings and chili sauce. 

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Love N’ Haight, the Lower Haight family-run institution, has been serving meat-free dutch crunch sandwiches, salads and various deli sundries for over two decades. Owner Fey Chao and her family, who converted the deli’s menu to fully vegetarian in 2013 according to Hoodline, have kept their prices very accessible.

Golden Era Vegan Restaurant opened in 1999, making it a veteran in the fake meat game. The restaurant serves up dishes with Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Thai influences and totally free of any animal products. 

Oakland

Vegan Mob, the much buzzed-about Oakland soul food restaurant, boasts hour-long lines even months after its opening last October. The plant-based menu of chef and owner Toriano Gordon features brisket, gumbo and fried chicken.  

Gay 4 U, the second incarnation of Hella Vegan Eats, features a few “meat” products, including a chickpea and seitan burger patty and a non-GMO soy chicken and waffle burger. Chef Sofi Espice, who offers free meals for trans people of color, also uses jackfruit in their taco dish at Gay 4 U. 

Aburaya, the Japanese punk-themed fried chicken spot, has always had a soft spot for vegans since its opening in 2014. All of the restaurant's fried combos come in both cauliflower and Layonna soy-chicken versions with an egg-free miso ranch dressing. 

Berkeley

Flacos has been serving up delicious vegan Mexican food since 2010 (and might soon be moving pending a housing development that’s set to take over their lot). Animal-free proteins sourced from Layonna’s can be found in their delicious mole and crispy taquitos.

The Butcher’s Son quickly outgrew its outpost on University Avenue and moved up the street to a bigger storefront with a deli market on top of their sandwich operation. According to Berkeleyside, the owners of the restaurant are also planning to take over Pizza Moda, converting it into a vegan Italian restaurant set to open this winter. 

Long Live Vegi House’s lunch specials have made loyal fans of East Bay residents. The long-running restaurant recently moved to a new location but has kept the same menu featuring Mongolian beef, Kung Pao chicken and sweet and sour pork, all served with plenty of vegetables. Beware that while the restaurant’s meats are vegetarian, its seafood offerings are really seafood.