It's difficult to describe yourself to someone you're going to meet in person in a public place for the first time. Most people figure if they depict themselves accurately, they'll probably scare others away. Instead, it'll be: "I look like exactly like Britney Spears, only, like, way more hot, like if she had a mole on her face and if she were 41. Like, for real."
Good thing, then, that Josh Miller, Webmaster of TechnoTofu.com, a rad little Web site that offers capsule reviews of dozens of local eateries from a vegan perspective, had e-mailed me his photo. When he strolled in, it was late afternoon, and Gaylord's Cafe in Oakland was a veritable coolbed of activity. All the tables were occupied by the usual self-important writers, artists, and coffee swillers laboriously pecking important thoughts into laptops or penning sodden love letters to the comely Gaylord's employees.
After the pleasantries, Miller explained how it all began. "I had the Web site just for e-mail purposes," he recalls, carefully sipping an espresso. "Then I stopped the whole e-mail thing and started the Web site thing because I wanted to rail on that restaurant."
He's talking about his admittedly one-sided crusade against Battambang, the beloved Oakland Cambodian eatery. The episode that launched scores of vegan reviews took place in 2000 when Miller and his wife first visited the restaurant. "I went there and it says that there's a huge vegetarian section," he says.
But how could that be? Fish sauce, a cooking staple in many Asian cuisines, is a no-no for vegans and hard-core vegetarians because yes, it's made of fish. At first, Miller was skeptical the restaurant could deliver true vegetarian food, but he says he was assured by a server that that the dishes they ordered were prepared without fish sauce. Impressed, he and his wife phoned in an order a month later, and requested no fish sauce. "They said, 'We can't make those dishes without fish sauce, no way,'" he recalls.
Miller sent the restaurant a terse letter announcing his displeasure and then posted it on his Web site. An excerpt: "Fish is not a vegetable, and it is neither right nor legal for you to sell it as such." On its home page, under the heading "F**k Ups," his site warns vegans to avoid the place: "Veggie haters -- fer reals!" it says. "I at least want to be on the front page of Google when you do a search for them," Miller says. He can die a happy man, since this is how Food Fetish found TechnoTofu in the first place.
(For the record, Battambang says some of its "vegetarian" items contain fish sauce, and some of those, but not all, can be prepared without it on request.)
But TechnoTofu isn't all about dissing Battambang; the Web site does provide a useful service to those who actually care whether a tortilla is made with lard on the downlow. The capsule reviews are well written, contain all the basic info, and even use a five-point scale to rate the vegan-ness of each restaurant. Eateries are scored in slices of tofu from zero to five.
For example, under "Breakfast," Rudy's Can't Fail Cafe, the cutesy Emeryville diner named for the Clash song, was given just two paltry slices of tofu: "I've only had the vegan burger for lunch, which was passable. The wait staff can be a bit spacy, but that's ok, cuz they're cooler than you. UPDATE: I recently got some to-go lunch from Rudy's. I tried the veggie taco salad which was about $8 for what amounted to a smallish salad with some serrano chiles and a handful of black beans. WEAK!!!"
Yuppie burrito chain High Tech Burrito got just one slice: "When you live where we do," Miller wrote, "why would you eat a crackerized version of a burrito when you can have a really good one for a couple dollars less? I would venture to say that these guys are selling "wraps," not burritos. I was psyched when these guys opened a location near my old place in Berkeley. Even more so when I saw they had a tofu burrito! Then I tasted it. It was foul. I went back there last year cuz my co-worker swears by the place and I was too lazy to argue. I tried the tofu burrito again and this time I actually got sick from it. Never again, High Tech Burrito, never again."
Besides coining classy words such as "crackerized" to dis restaurants, TechnoTofu can be generous with the love when Miller thinks it's deserved. Oakland's Golden Lotus, one of his favorites, scored four slices of tofu: Miller thinks it has some of the best vegan food around. His favorites include the fried imperial rolls, any of the pho, the sautéed garlic beef, and the sliced fish claypot. Please note that all of the "meat" involved in these dishes is as fake as the breasts at a Texas titty bar.
TechnoTofu is also a good place to research stores that specialize in vegan and/or vegetarian foods. Miller highly recommends the venerable Oakland Food Mill for products you can't find elsewhere. "I love the Loma Linda dried, gravy, and they also have vegan doughnuts!" he exclaims. If you fail to understand his excitement, it's because normal doughnuts are fried in a vat of lard. Yummmm.
Miller regrets that he can't devote as much time to the site as he'd like, but a family and a full-time job put limits on his labor of love. And that's a shame, truth be told, 'cause the world needs more vengeful vegans fighting fish sauce and lashing out at lard. Like, for real.
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