Andy Nguyen’s Vegetarian Restaurant has been part of Sacramento since 1984 — except for the vegetarian part.
For the first 20 years, it was a traditional Vietnamese food restaurant. Hung and Lien Nguyen fled Vietnam in the 1970s, moving to the Bay Area. Eventually, they wound up in Sacramento, started a restaurant and named it after their 2-year old son, Andy.
Andy Nguyen isn’t entirely sure why his parents named the place after him. He thinks it just sounded right.
“It’s like American-Vietnamese, which is what I am: American-Vietnamese,” he said.
Nguyen grew up eating Vietnamese food — it was all his parents knew how to cook. Pork clay pot with egg. Caramelized shrimp with white rice. Sweet-and-sour soup with white rice.
“Everything had rice in it,” Nguyen remembered. “I’m a big rice addict because of how I grew up on rice.”
The menu always had plenty of meat options. But that all changed in 2004. The family took a trip to meet the Dalai Lama. “When we came back, we were a full vegetarian restaurant,” said Nguyen.
They were in India when they made the decision. The Dalai Lama hadn’t tried to influence them on the issue. In fact, he never even mentioned vegetarianism. It was more about the feeling the Nguyens got from the visit. It was a peaceful experience.
Nguyen, a Buddhist, doesn’t believe in harming any sentient being. “We don’t want to kill anything. Period. Not even an ant,” he said.
Most of the customers accepted the idea. But not everyone.
“Oh man,” remembered Nguyen. “Those people that thought that we were going to reopen and keep on serving the pork chops and grilled beef and everything — they were pissed.”
One furious customer stormed out, saying, “Just because you decide to be vegetarian doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to be!”
“I was like ‘Dude. You have so many other options, man. It’s OK,’” Nguyen remembered.
Changing the menu was relatively easy. “Vietnamese food is very light to begin with,” said Nguyen. “You’ve only got to change one component to take out meat.”
Fish sauce was replaced with soy sauce. Nori (seaweed) was used to “bring in the flavor of the ocean.” Meat was replaced with meat substitutes that mimicked the taste and texture of real meat. The idea is to make it easier for non-vegetarians to become vegetarians. “It’s like a stepping stone,” said Nguyen.
For customers who aren’t sure what to order, Nguyen usually suggests they just pick by the name.
The Karma roll is a popular starter. “The name brings them to the roll first,” Nguyen said. “Then the ingredients pop out next.” It’s a rice paper roll with mango, grilled tofu, lettuce, rice noodles, caramelized onion herbs and pickled carrots.
The Patience Noodle Soup is made with pho noodles, soy beef, soy ham, tofu, Shiitake mushrooms and mixed vegetables in a spicy onion ginger vegetable broth. It’s topped with sprouts, onions, cilantro, basil, jalapeños and lime.
On the “Unique Flavors” portion of the menu is the Limitless Compassion, a spicy Mongolian soy beef sautéed with broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, jalapenos and cilantro.
Pure Soul Plant-Based Eats
Pure Soul Plant-Based Eats is a newcomer to the vegan scene. The East Sacramento restaurant had planned to open its brick-and-mortar location back in March of 2020, but quickly switched to a takeout- and delivery-style menu when COVID-19 struck.
Owner Jamie Cavanaugh went vegan back in 2018. She started looking into it for health reasons. Then she watched one too many documentaries about the plight of farm animals.
“I’ve always been a huge animal lover,” said Cavanaugh. “Once you see certain things, you can’t unsee them.”
Cavanaugh had already been thinking about starting up her own restaurant. Now she decided to go with a vegan concept, so she began figuring out her own recipes.
“I kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be more people like me,’” she said. “You still want to eat the same foods, like burgers and chicken … but you just want them to be vegan.”
Then Cavanaugh learned about Calling All Dreamers, an annual contest to help new businesses gain traction in downtown Sacramento.
She didn’t win, but she made it to the semifinals. It was a start.
“It threw me into a community that was really awesome,” Cavanaugh said. “There were a lot of people who were really jazzed to see this happening.”
Pure Soul sources its meat and cheese substitutes from a few companies, including Atlas Monroe, which they use for their Big Poppa. It’s a $16 vegan fried chicken sandwich and it’s one of the most popular items on the menu.
The restaurant also makes a burger from the company Beyond Meat. It’s made from a pea protein and it’s gluten-free and soy-free.
“We’ve had people come up to us at our pop-ups and say, ‘This is the best burger I’ve ever had. And I eat meat,’” Cavanaugh said.
Pure Soul is working on making its own veggie burger patty. And the restaurant already makes its own chicken substitute for certain menu items, like the Nashville Hottie. It’s made from a gluten base (“meat wheat”), and it takes on a meaty texture when prepared the right way.
Finally, Pure Soul uses jackfruit to create some of its meat substitutes. It’s a large tropical fruit with a neutral flavor and meaty texture. You can shred it or chunk it, and it absorbs the flavors around it. At Pure Soul, the jackfruit is used for carnitas and a pulled pork sandwich with barbecue sauce.
“Luckily, we have really amazing cooks,” said Cavanaugh. “All of my cooks are vegan, and they have fun coming up with recipes. They’re passionate about it. That’s a big thing for me.”
Good Vibes Vegan Cafe & Herbs
The Good Vibes Vegan Cafe & Herbs originally planned to open in March of 2020.
But things had to change when the pandemic hit. Now, the restaurant takes orders online for delivery service. Meals are offered a couple times a month, either for Saturday or Sunday dinners.
The cuisine specializes in healthy comfort food, with items like vegan meatloaf and soy-based tri-tip.
“I create my food for non-vegans to enjoy,” said owner Jaeda Barnes. “My goal is to create really tasty food that’s similar to the foods people were eating before they were vegan.
A lot of times, you wouldn’t notice the food is made without real meat. She uses a variety of faux meat brands to create realistic textures.
“For me it’s all about seasonings,” Barnes said. “I season really heavy with lots of herbs and spices. … So I’m going to take everything and whip it up and make it taste exactly like what people are used to eating.”
Good Vibes has a lot of repeat customers, so they keep things interesting with a constantly changing menu. The service area for meal deliveries includes most Sacramento suburbs, including Citrus Heights, Roseville, Elk Grove and West Sacramento. Folsom and Granite Bay are not currently included.
Andy Nguyen’s Vegetarian Restaurant
2007 Broadway, Sacramento
Phone: (916) 736-1157
Pure Soul Plant-Based Eats
715 56th St., Sacramento
Phone: (916) 476-5705
Good Vibes Vegan Cafe & Herbs