Attempting to Recreate the Magic of the Love N' Haight Sandwich at Home

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My DIY Love N' Haight sandwich with one of the vegetarian smoked drumsticks that went into it. (Rae Alexandra)

About a year and a half ago, smoked veggie duck unceremoniously disappeared from Love N' Haight's menu. At first, the disappearance of one of the vegetarian sandwich shop's most popular items seemed like a temporary blip. Owner Fey Chao wasn't sure what had happened—the vegan specialty just stopped arriving one day. Two months into the duck's disappearance, and tired of answering questions about it, she managed to update the menu board, hanging high on the wall above the order counter. "OUT DUCK," she wrote in almost illegible Sharpie—the end of an era announced in a low key characteristic of the shop's general ethos.

The absence of the smoked veggie duck was upsetting for those of us who had eaten it with almost religious fervor for years. Over the last six months, each time I stepped through Love N' Haight's door, bell ringing above me, I checked to see if "OUT DUCK" was still on the board, then muttered the same thing. "Man. That duck really is gone forever. But it's okay. As long as Love N' Haight stays open, everything is okay."

As you probably know by now, everything is not okay—Love N' Haight permanently closed its Lower Haight St. doors on Oct. 1, 2020. And it wasn't the "OUT DUCK" that was the problem. (We'd all just switched to the vegan chicken.) Like hundreds of businesses around the Bay Area, its closure was a side effect of the pandemic, exacerbated by an expiring lease.

Losing Love N' Haight represents more than just the loss of a long-time veggie favorite. Its closure means the loss of a time capsule; a constant; a very special hole in the wall that steadfastly refused to change over the course of its 21 years in business. (Unless you count the one time prices went up by a dollar, or the disappearance of real meat from the menu in 2013.)

Make no mistake: Love N' Haight was weird in a quintessentially San Francisco way. Its interior walls and ceiling were decorated with a painting of the lost city of Atlantis, specifically designed to make you feel like you were underwater. The shop never played music, preferring instead to blast droning Buddhist chants, some of which were layered to the point of anxiety-inducing. The chairs and tables were mismatched and rickety. Inside, the only truly aesthetically pleasing sight was the immaculate Buddhist shrine, always replete with offerings. Love N' Haight stayed this way the entire time it was open, despite the gentrification going on outside its front door.

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The reason Love N' Haight didn't need to fuss, or create a fancy decor to keep its customers coming, was because its sandwiches were unmatched. (Yes, even in a region as vegetarian-friendly as the Bay Area.) Now that the shop has closed, those sandwiches remain unmatched. (Though it's worth noting that Rhea's Deli in the Mission comes close.) This leaves many of its patrons in the predicament of trying to recreate Love N' Haight sandwiches at home. And this week, I did just that.

Much of the initial battle revolved around locating the right kind of soy meat. Love N' Haight's was special—thick steaks that offered a chew much closer to real meat than the average seitan. This is not meat you can pick up in any regular supermarket, and it's not readily available within the confines of San Francisco. A pilgrimage to Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Market in Oakland’s Chinatown (accessible via BART), or to Saudagar Cash & Carry in Hayward is first necessary. Both carry the Meatless Smoked Drumsticks that most closely resemble the smoked veggie duck of old.

Through a process of trial and error, I found that the only way to get them cooked to Love N' Haight perfection is to first defrost them, then throw them in the oven at 375° for 12-15 minutes. (The package suggests frying, sautéing, or grilling—none of which gave me an even cook because of the drumsticks' awkward shape.) After that, it's just about replicating your order (mine was always on sliced wheat with extra avocado and cucumber) and doing it with the care and meticulous attention that Fey Chao used to give it. Evenly layer those veggies like your life depends on it!

The sandwich I made, it turns out, was great. Extremely similar to the ones Chao used to make for me. It filled the hole in my stomach just fine—but the one in my heart still remains. Because never again will I eat one while chatting across the counter to Chao's sweet daughter, Virginia. Never again will my friends attempt to FedEx me a sandwich on my birthday because I'm out of town and they know it's my favorite. (This really happened.) And never again will I drunkenly leave Molotov's at 1am and fall into the comfort of a sober-up sandwich right across the street.

At the time of Love N' Haight's closing, Fey Chao told SF Gate that she intends to re-open in a new location once conditions return to normal. "I can’t retire," she said, "but right now it’s very difficult to open a new shop. This year, I will relax for a couple months, but I’ll find something to do for next year." Chao should relax while she can. As delicious as my home sandwich was, if and when Love N' Haight opens in a new location, I, and countless others like me, will enthusiastically return, "OUT DUCK" or not.