Last week, Oakland got a new destination for vegan barbecue and soul food — and it's proven to be an instant hit.
Vegan Mob opened for business in the former Kwik-Way building at 500 Lake Park Ave. on Oct.5. On its first day in business, the brand new restaurant fulfilled over 900 orders, selling out entirely.
Part of Vegan Mob's immediate popularity might be due to its friendly and charismatic owner and chef, Toriano Gordon. Born and raised in the Fillmore, Gordon started cooking at the age of 5 and grew up in a family of San Francisco restaurateurs.
But he's also equal parts chef and rapper. "I don't know what came first — rapping or cooking," he said. Prior to opening Vegan Mob, Gordon was in graduate school studying psychotherapy with a focus on hip-hop therapy. But some self-reflection led Gordon to leave graduate school and pursue a career in the restaurant industry instead.
"I was doing some soul searching, because in psychotherapy programs, they make you think and check in a lot," Gordon said. "I came to the conclusion that I didn't want to do that anymore. I wanted to do barbecue because my uncle, who passed away, always said ... San Francisco doesn't have real barbecue. He's from Houston. And so I said, you know what, I want to do some barbecue. But then I realized, I don't eat meat!" Gordon laughed.
That's how the concept for Vegan Mob was born. Gordon opened his first pop-up in April. Gordon himself is vegan for health reasons, and at Vegan Mob, he wants to promote healthy eating in his community and beyond.
"We grew up eating things that killed us," Gordon said. "I could bring the ... food [that] my people and other people are used to eating and just make it healthier, make it easier to transition to a better life."
Vegan Mob's most popular menu items include vegan gumbo made with vegan shrimp and sausage; combination plates with vegan brisket, ribs, or fried shrimp plus sides including vegan "smackaroni and cheese," collard greens, and slaw; and a fried shrimp po-boy. The menu also features a number of "fusion" items like the barbequito — a burrito stuffed with vegan brisket and smackaroni — and fried spring rolls stuffed with Impossible burger meat and vegan cheese.
Eventually, Gordon hopes that Vegan Mob will grow into an international chain, where he can spread not only his love for hip-hop and plant-based diets, but also a message of positivity and hope. Gordon has struggled with addiction in the past, and though he's no longer planning to pursue a career as a therapist, he still wants to help young people.
"I'm not just serving food, but I'm serving Oakland," Gordon said. "I want people to know that they can do this. I was an Uber driver six months ago, and I was not rich ... and I believed in myself and had faith — and guess what happened?"
"I want to not only spread around Vegan Mob, but the energy of Vegan Mob."