Liza Monroy is an author and freelance writer living in downtown Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is the essay collection Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon To Be On Fire (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press). Her essays, articles, and fiction have appeared in local and national publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, O, Newsweek, Longreads, Marie Claire, Catamaran, The Best American Food Writing 2021, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University in 2010 and previously taught writing at UCSC. Visit her at lizamonroy.com.
From breakfast through after-dinner dessert and just about every other eating and drinking opportunity in between, Santa Cruz County has a wealth of options for anyone eating vegan or curious about trying it.
A perfect day of vegan eating — a trend that has grown surprisingly mainstream — can be every day in Santa Cruz.
Here are multiple ideas for an ideal agenda, followed by further options for your every taste and craving. Try a vegan challenge: Eat your way through a plant-based day, and let us know how it went.
Caution: Reading the following may cause hunger.
The Bonita plate at Cafe Gratitude — a Mexican breakfast plate with black beans and brown rice topped with salsa verde, spicy cashew chipotle queso, avocado, pickled jalapeños and pumpkin seeds, with a tortilla on the side. Adding tempeh is an option — go for it.
Veg on the Edge’s Roasted Scramble Stack: a light and fluffy tofu scramble accompanied by a generous portion of Beyond Sausage, roasted potatoes, and sourdough toast with a West African-inspired pumpkin seed sauce. Dash across Abbott Square for an oat milk latte at Cat & Cloud.
A number of Santa Cruz County nonprofits are teaching kids how to grow and cook food, and develop stronger connections...
The vegan breakfast burrito by the Point Markets (available at all three locations) — potatoes, avocado, beans, artichoke, and spinach combine with a salsa of your choosing (hot, mild, or fresca) for a total flavor experience. Recommended: Add soyrizo for an extra kick.
The Windmill Cafe offers ample vegan options: muffins and tofu scrambles, burritos and smoothies.
At Harbor Cafe, go for the tofu scramble or customize the Harbor Bowl by removing the feta, add extra avocado and/or tofu. The Lime-Avocado salad is a lighter option.
El Palomar has a full vegetarian all-day menu. The non-vegan ingredients on these dishes are dairy-based cheese and sour cream, which can easily be omitted. Even better news is that tequila is always vegan, so your margarita is in the clear!
Hit up Pretty Good Advice for a patio-picnic feel. The Vegan burger is about as good as it gets, and the Tom’s Bright Eyes Surprise is technically a breakfast sandwich but available all day. Dharma’s in Capitola is a classic and can satisfy any craving with its extensive menu. Both Pretty Good Advice and Dharma’s are all-vegetarian with ample vegan options.
At Flower Bar, you can enjoy a light nosh with apps like pickled vegetables and olives, dairy-free heirloom tomato salad, market salad with avocado, and herbed quinoa. For sweets, the passion fruit dark chocolate is vegan, and when we visited a vegan carrot peach and raisin muffin was freshly available. Coffee and tea drinks can be made non-dairy, or quench your thirst with sparkling CBD drinks, kombuchas, and craft sodas with flavors like guava orange strawberry and rose. And/or a glass of local (vegan) wine.
On the fancy front, Oswald’s Grilled Portobello Mushroom Sandwich is customizable in a vegan version — just be sure to specify sourdough rather than the brioche bun, leave off cheese, and substitute ketchup or another dressing for aioli. (Brioche is one of the few breads containing egg and dairy.)
NahNa Eritrean food kiosk on Pacific Avenue and at the Wednesday downtown farmers market is a can’t-miss, even between meals. The vegan wrap on healthy, nutritious injera flatbread with any of the veggie filling options — mushrooms, lentils, okra, greens and others seasonally (tough decision to pick two) — makes for a fantastic snack. Be sure to specify vegan, as coconut oil will be substituted for ghee (clarified butter).
RIP Saturn Cafe, of course, but there’s one new game in town: Radhe Radhe Cafe just opened in the space formerly occupied by Buttercup Cakes on Pacific Avenue. Bagels and vegan cream cheese, lemony chickpea sandwiches and pulled jackfruit bowls are on the menu’s first iteration.
The institution that is Charlie Hong Kong is perfect for a vegan meal any time of day. Many bowls and dishes are “vegan-based” with options for meat-eaters to add on, a refreshing change for the usual needing-to-subtract meat/dairy items.
Soul Salad offers an array of options for a refreshing veggie fill-up: The Shanti and Soulful are vegan and others can be made so by omitting cheese.
Toya Sushi is a quick stop on Mission Street for a Lemon Light Roll with carrot, cucumber, mushroom and lemon; the Lemon-Avocado, Sesame Yamor Mango Yam rolls, omitting the cream cheese. There’s an array of other vegan or customizable vegan sushi options, non-dairy boba tea, and coffee.
Design your own Korean bowl at HOM Korean Kitchen, with tofu and veggie options like flavorful green beans, broccoli, mushrooms, and kimchi.
And of course, the local grocery-store takeout staples Staff of Life, New Leaf, and Trader Joe’s are stocked with vegan items: wraps, sushi, salad bar, and more. Staff of Life has a particularly impressive plant-based selection, including a tempeh reuben.
Feeling something sweet? Local institution Samba Rock has been serving up classic acai bowls since 2009. For a protein boost, try the Ayrton Senna, blended with peanut butter. Roxa Hammock Cafe offers creative acai bowls with add-ons like acerola and edible flowers.
Were there a best-ever Crispy Brussels Sprouts award, Venus Cocktails and Kitchen would win hands-down. The Brussels sprouts come with date jalapeño cashew cream, black garlic sauce, rose pickled onions, curry leaves, and nori sprinkles. There’s a vegan Caesar salad (baby gem, radicchio, easter radishes, crispy chickpeas, nori sprinkles). The spirits here are vegan, and if ever in doubt, you can always Barnivore your booze.
Happy Hour is every weekday from 3-6 p.m. at Makai Island Kitchen and Groggery on the wharf. Grab an outdoor table on the ocean-view side and go straight for the tofu lettuce wraps, teriyaki veggie skewers, and a classic or Hawaiian mai tai. While we’re on the Hawaiian front, Hula’s wins for having a full vegan/vegetarian pull-out menu.
At Vim, chef Jesikah Stolaroff makes a point to create a vegan appetizer, entree, and dessert for the ever-changing, always creative menu. Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Bar? Yes, please. At Bantam, in addition to the great atmosphere you’ll find a delicious marinara (cheeseless) pizza (add rocket for an extra bite) and vegan options for appetizers and (typically) entree.
Barceloneta is finally open for indoor dining, and the unmissable veggie paella is vegan so long as you leave off the aioli (it comes on the side anyway). Oaxacan gem Copal is attentive to vegans with several mole options. The coloradito is especially bright and savory, with garbanzo beans, chayote, and sweet potato. There’s a portobello and garbanzo vegan option, too. Mezcal is vegan, natch.
Heading to Midtown, Ayoma Wilen, owner of Sri Lankan staple Pearl of the Ocean, uses fresh, farmers’ market-sourced plant-based ingredients to create dishes that are an adventure for the palate. Deviled Soya — soya protein nuggets sauteed with onions, pineapple, and triple bell peppers — come with a veggie side dish, brown or ginger rice and a side of dhal, papadam, and chutney.
The Triple Mushroom Curry features grilled portobello, button, and shiitake mushrooms sauteed in olive oil, tossed with fresh parsley, bell peppers and spices, with a veggie side, brown or ginger rice, dhal, papadam, and chutney. Or sample many choices at once by ordering the Sri Lankan Vegetable Plate, where a selection of flavorful vegan sides come together around rice for a tasty sampler platter.
The Crepe Place deserves an award: Nearly any crepe on the menu can be made in a vegan version, with plant-based crepe batter, vegan cheese, even Gardein vegan chicken. Fried cauliflower “buffalo” wings are a spicy, satisfying app; just ask for the vegan ranch.
Just down the block on Soquel Avenue is the newer Italian spot Sugo (Italian for “sauce”), opened by former owners of Abbot Square’s Pizzeria La Bufala. Its casual-looking small indoor space is a front for the romantic, lovely back patio dining experience available out back. Sugo’s central concept is a build-your-own pasta plate — choose a pasta type, sauce, and toppings. Vegan options of “aglio, olio, e peperoncino,” a spicy olive oil, or tomato-basil “pomodoro,” topped with veggies makes for a fresh and delicious dish, but it’s the vegan ravioli — beet, roasted vegetables, sundried tomato, and basil — that steals the plant-based show.
Mediterranean craving? Try a falafel wrap and hummus with salad at Mozaic. It’s closed temporarily at the moment, but Laili has one of the most memorable vegan entrees in Santa Cruz, pomegranate eggplant, hold the yogurt sauce. Roasted cauliflower with chickpeas, tomato ginger sauce, saffron basmati rice, and salata is another stellar selection.
Get your 100% vegan desserts: Vim needs to be mentioned again, here. Chef Stolaroff specializes in desserts, and hers are a must-try. Orders-only My Cupcake Corner, Pretty Good Advice’s soft-serve ice cream, and dessert-like coconut caramel iced coffee won’t disappoint a sweet tooth. For more ice cream, the Penny Ice Creamery and Mission Hill Creamery have dairy-free options in the rotation. Pacific Cookie Company offers vegan chocolate chip, lemon drop, and oatmeal raisin cookies. Finally, Cafe Gratitude’s avocado-based key-lime pie is to die for.
I’m craving plant-based …
Geisha: Geisha boasts the most creative of the vegan rolls, such as “The South Gate” and “The Willow Garden,” with ingredients like baked walnuts, pickled burdock, and spicy vegan mayo.
Akira: A full vegetarian sushi menu, with nearly everything customizable as vegan. The “Veggie Dragon” with tempura green beans and yam is a fun way to eat your veg.
Mobo: Try the “Emerald City,” with avocado, shiitake, carrot, daikon sprouts and black goma (sesame seed paste)
Shogun: The “Castroville,” with marinated artichoke hearts, is a standout in the world of veggie rolls.
Toya Sushi: (see the “Casual bites” section)
Totoro: The “One Night Stand” roll, without cream cheese, and the massive classic vegetarian roll compensate for there being fewer options than other sushi outposts.
The quintessential ingredients in Mexican cuisine — rice, beans, avocado, pico de gallo, salsas -— are naturally vegan. These institutions take it further.
Hacienda: The off-menu vegan burrito that comes with flavorful pinto beans, avocado, cabbage, salsa fresca is one of the best in town. You won’t see it listed, but just say “vegan burrito” and Alejandro has got you covered.
Vivas Organic Mexican Restaurant: Vegan burrito, straight up and simple.
Salsa’s Taco Bar: Salsa’s developed an entirely vegan menu insert. Fajita vegan enchilada, here we come.
La Cabaña Taqueria: Nopales and artichoke hearts grace the ingredient options — go ahead, combine ‘em.
Palomar: A full vegetarian menu insert, just omit cheese and crema and you’ve got yourself a vegan one.
Planet Fresh: More eclectic than classic Mexican, four vegan options (including teriyaki pineapple) can be enhanced by adding organic tofu.
Pizza My Heart: Using Miyoko’s special pizza mozzarella, which is a different consistency than the Miyoko mozz sold in grocery stores, PMH has an incredible amount of plant-based options including the Vegan Sur, a version of one of the most popular pies. Meatless sausage is also available.
Woodstock Pizza: Using Daiya cheese for vegan pizza, the options are endless.
Bantam: Upscale wood-oven fired pizza, the marinara with “rocket” (arugula) is one of the tastiest.
Engfer Pizza Works: Offering a house-made tofu spread for customizing any pizza option.
Blaze Pizza: This chain quick-pizzeria is a dream to grab a vegan pizza speedily.
Upper Crust: No vegan cheese option (yet) for these Sicilian-style squares, but there is Impossible meat as a topping.
Burger: The house-made black bean veggie patty is refreshing in the age of so many burgers replicating the taste and consistency of meat.
Betty Burgers: The Beyond Burger comes with a secret vegan “lube.”
Pretty Good Advice: (see the “Lunch” section)
Jack O’Neill Restaurant: The Beyond Burger isn’t listed on the menu, but when asked, it was available, and cooked to perfection.
Belly Goat Burgers: On a meat-based menu, the vegan burger stands out. The Forager is a vegan option of a blackened sous-vide portobello with avocado mash, chimichurri-marinated tomatoes, sunflower sprouts and sriracha pimento olive aioli. Partner Greg Crema even says it’s his favorite.
THAI is an always excellent option for vegan food. Much of the cuisine is naturally plant-based, with animal or vegan protein add-on options. Tofu/veggie pad Thai, eggplant, basil, ginger, sweet and sour plates, and coconut-milk-based curries are standard on almost all Thai food menus, as are appetizers such as fresh spring rolls and papaya salad.
Santa Cruz swims with delectable Thai options, all of which serve versions of the classics. Choosing a Thai restaurant here is more a matter of what’s immediately convenient (neighborhood) rather than a choice made based on quality. Nearly all will boast the “best Thai food in Santa Cruz.” And nobody’s lying. It’s all good.
Downtown Pacific Thai is notable for dairy-free boba tea choices. In Seabright, Real Thai Kitchen gets raves from locals. Sawasdee has two locations — in Soquel and By The Sea, the latter with a view of Main Beach and the wharf. Across town and oceanside is My Thai Beach in Capitola Village. Sabieng on Mission Street serves a next-level green curry, and Sala Thai at Soquel Avenue and Ocean Street offers plant-based chicken and duck protein options.
‘Secret’ vegan items
In the end, eating out while vegan often means carrying a sense of creativity. You can discover or “create” vegan items in most restaurants, even ones that aren’t particularly attentive to providing animal-free options. At Jack O’Neill in the Dream Inn, the breakfast burrito without eggs or cheese leaves you with a perfect vegan BB: It came chock full of spinach, potatoes and mushrooms in a wrap with local salsa. Voila — a secret vegan menu item.
Similarly, while you won’t see a vegan section on popular taqueria Hacienda’s menu, “Vegan Burrito” actually is a menu item and staff is familiar with it. Whether asking if a chef can prepare a vegan entree when there isn’t one on the menu, substituting, or omitting items to craft a DIY vegan menu item, most restaurants are at least willing to try.
Finally, a note on forgiveness. If eating out in any establishment other than a 100% vegan one, be prepared for encounters with human error. The culinary world is still evolving to higher vegan-friendly standards. Sometimes your burrito contains sour cream no matter how clear you were, or the pizza order gets mixed up and there’s dairy cheese. The food service industry successfully accommodating veganism is a work in progress, and kindness is the best choice on any menu as things continue to evolve.