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Food & Drink

SF chefs think outside the bun with plant-based protein dishes

Mass-produced imitation ground beef may be good enough for American fast-food chains or frying up a quick meal after a long day at work, but for San Francisco chefs, industrial-scale faux-meat is a lot like industrial-scale real meat: sub par.

While major players in plant-based protein like Silicon Valley’s Impossible Foods and Los Angeles’ Beyond Meat continue to expand their market share — and, as Emeryville’s Upside Foods hurdles toward its goal of producing FDA-approved “cultivated meat” — plenty of local culinary creators are forging their own path into the burgeoning space.

Here are a handful of local restaurants who are pushing the art of fake meat to the next level—either with the help of local boutique producers, or by taking it upon themselves to think beyond the Beyond Burger.

Indigenous & Inclusive: Molcaxitl

About a year ago, Nomar Ramirez (pictured above) and his girlfriend crept into his father’s house at 2 a.m. There, Ramirez and his companion discovered two enormous steaks. His dad knew the two were coming and had decided to leave them a midnight snack.

“Growing up in a super Mexican family, it’s ingrained in me to eat meat,” Ramirez says. 

These days Ramirez is known as the owner and founder of Molcaxitl Kitchen, where he cooks Mexican food with an eye toward honoring the indigenous elements of the cuisine. He has built a following serving his delicious dishes at the Outer Sunset Farmer’s Market, where you can find him most weeks.

One of Nomar Ramirez's vegan dishes. | Elliott Alexander

Molcaxitl’s ayotli, a Nahuatl word for squash, is a grilled zucchini dish that doubles as Ramirez’s signature addition to the plant-based movement in the Bay. He came up with the item on a whim, something to grill for his vegetarian girlfriend while charring pork for the family.

The sugar rub on the zucchini sings. The umami is powerful. But in this chef’s mind, there is no reason to market his ayotli as a “meat alternative.” For him, plants are the only real alternative—nothing he cooks is an imitation of anything else.

“It’s not meat. It’s not trying to be meat. But it’s something meat eaters would also eat,” Ramirez explains. “Why do we have to process the plants? You can make good plant-based food without making it imitate something.”

In addition to ayotli, Ramirez also makes a roasted Maitake mushroom taco as another veggie option. The mushrooms are marinated in a tomatillo sauce and served with a sprinkling of microgreens and a dash of garlic. 

Handheld & Healthy: Nixta

Gabriel Ventura’s business, Nixta, is an entirely plant-based ode to El Salvador. He got his start making pupusas for his friends who can’t handle dairy. Pupusas, which some identify as the national dish of El Salvador, are frequently stuffed with cheese and meat, but at Nixta they are fully vegan.

Now, Ventura says, he isn’t just feeding friends with dietary restrictions—he’s showing the broader community that burgers and burritos aren’t the only option for quick, handheld, hot meals.

“I want to show people our culture in the healthiest way possible,” Ventura said. “I love the way I feel when I eat real food.”

Every Tuesday he delivers his pupusas to a growing list of customers. Nixta may just be the only Salvadoran vegan food company providing pre-made pupusas to reheat at home.

Gabriel Ventura forms his vegan pupusas. | Elliott Alexander

“You can enjoy them in less than seven minutes,” Ventura says. He hopes his meals will one day be available in the freezer aisle of Whole Foods.

While his competitors assemble pork-and-cheese pupusas, Ventura—working out of his commissary space in Bayview Maker’s Kitchen—uses only veggies and legumes. Like the rest of the innovative cooks on this list, Ventura doesn’t use corporate-processed plants. All of his ingredients are natural, organic and fresh. 

He is particularly proud of the cheese and crema he created. It took him nine months of experimenting, but now he has the formula down. After soaking cashews in water overnight, he cooks the nuts in cashew milk and coconut milk. He’s currently toying around with a pulled chicken imitation made from king oyster mushrooms. 

“I want to grow,” Ventura says. “I want my own restaurant someday so I can really show people my culture.” 

Having A Moment: Souvla 

Hate it or love it, no conversation about plant-based meat and San Francisco would be complete without mention of Souvla.

The “fast-fine” Greek restaurant might come knocking on Ventura’s door someday. Founder and CEO Charles Bililies says they’re open to plant-based chicken now that they’ve added Black Sheep’s vegan lamb to their menu. They may eventually add a vegan Greek yogurt, too.

“We’ve always been exploring the plant-based meat space,” Bililies says. “It’s always just finding the right product and the right fit.”

While plant-based beef has been around for years, he says it never seemed right for Souvla since they didn’t serve soutzoukakia to begin with. Soulva’s signature protein has been lamb since they opened in 2014 and their menu hasn’t changed in nearly eight years. But Black Sheep impressed Bililies and the rest of the team so much that they decided to change things up a bit.

Souvla's plant-based lamb is made from the local food tech startup Black Sheep Food. | Elliott Alexander

“We all genuinely liked the product,” Bililies said. “It felt genuine.” 

The reception has been tremendously positive. Bililies thinks that because they didn’t add an entirely new dish, customers who still eat and enjoy lamb are now opting for the alternative, while retaining the taste and sensation of their usual order. This is because Black Sheep worked with Souvla chefs to create a signature version of their faux lamb. It’s almost all pea protein, but with Souvla’s own spices and flavors.

“Plant-based meats often taste highly processed because they actually are,” Bililies explains, adding that industrial alternatives can be hard on people’s systems.

The team is glad to keep the soul of their cooking alive while bringing in new customers and adding variety for their longtime fans. 

“It just tastes good,” Bililies said.

Keeping It Exclusive: Beach’n

For Michael Petite, vegan food is just like any other food—he stumbled into cooking plant-based food in the same way many cooks stumble into a kitchen, looking for a job. 

“I guess it’s my thing now,” Petite shrugs. 

Seems like it. He’s the manager at Judahlicious, one of the only corner cafes in the city serving exclusively vegan and raw food. And a month ago, he launched Beach’n, a vegan comfort food restaurant just three blocks down the street. At both locations he wants to offer vegan food that nourishes the spirit.

“A lot of people have leaned into the processed stuff. Beyond and Impossible,” Petite says. “That stuff never inspired me. It’s a way to get around making actual food.”

Mike Petite poses in front of Beach'n in the Outer Sunset. | Elliott Alexander

Petite likes making food from scratch. He’s got whipped cream he makes from Flora’s lentil milk and fava beans, using it for waffles and making drinks. Their in-house “cheezn sauce” uses the lentil milk, as does their mac ’n’ cheese. It’s featured in their upcoming crunch wrap, too.

“It’s freaking good,” Petite said of his concoction.

That’s not to say that he’s not a fan of many common vegan products on the market. Some of their items use Mykonos and Kite Hill products, two companies Petite supports. His pretzels are more or less the same ingredients as your run-of-the-mill pretzel, save for Earth Balance soy butter rather than the classic stuff. 

Honorable Mentions

The future for plant-based food in San Francisco certainly looks dynamic.

Baia is doling out delicious vegan-Italian cuisine. Wholesome Bakery has more vegan and gluten-free items than any other bakery in the city, and they’re expanding. The Michelin-recommended izakaya and sushi spot Shizen serves salads, soups and sushi—all vegan.

Throw a baseball in San Francisco and not only will you hit vegan food, but you’ll hit something more creative and more flavorful than any of Burger King’s mealy vegan sandwiches.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified Shizen as “Michelin-starred.” It is, in fact, only “Michelin-recommended.”