From the vegan fried chicken and waffles to the pink cocktail umbrellas that adorned each dish, eating at the now-defunct Hella Vegan Eats felt like a party. Though light on the vegetables and heavy on the tater tots, faux meats, and fried foods, it was the kind of place you could take non-vegans to prove that plant-based eating was about fun, not sacrifice.
The ability to enjoy a vegan brunch along with a beer on the sunny patio at Classic Cars West certainly contributed to the festive atmosphere, too — that is, until Classic Cars West and Hella Vegan Eats parted ways last February, citing difficulty working together. Hella Vegan Eats co-owners Sofi Espice and Tiff Esquivel also ended their partnership.
After raising money through Go Fund Me and holding a series of pop-ups, Espice returned in October with a brand new vegan restaurant: Gay4U. Sharing a kitchen with Garden House, Gay4U pops up a few times a week for dinner and brunch. Some variants of popular items from Hella Vegan Eats remain, like the fried chicken and waffle burger and the potsticker burrito. But the rest of the menu is noticeably more health-conscious.
“Hella Vegan Eats … [served] very fun food, and stuff you probably shouldn’t eat all the time — like once-a-month kind of food,” Espice explained. At Gay4U, Espice wants to ensure a healthier future for themself by eating healthy, while also serving healthier food to customers. Fermented, probiotic ingredients like sauerkraut and cashew-coconut cheese permeate the menu, even in the chicken and waffle burger. Lighter items like rice bowls and salad bowls share the limelight alongside deep-fried foods.
“I think [the menu will] always be a mixture of ‘party’ and ‘future’ — taking care of yourself,” Espice said. After all, Espice originally went vegan over a decade ago as a form of healing and self-care.
“I grew up with really bad eating habits,” Espice recounted. “My parents sometimes wouldn’t cook, and there’d be a fridge full of hot dogs or random stuff, deli meat and cheese. I think from eating so poorly, and being a weird depressed teenager… I was super big at the time.” Espice struggled with drug use and an eating disorder. “I lost like 100 pounds and was just like, ‘How do I maintain this? How do I teach myself to eat and have a better relationship with food?'”
Though Espice had been cooking for most of their life — some of their first jobs were in the fast food industry — they started teaching themselves to make all kinds of vegan food. Ingredients from various cultures, including Espice’s own Mexican heritage, make their way into the food at Gay4U.
Case in point: the vegan fried chicken, made with non-GMO soy, was coated in gluten-free breading made with masa harina and seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns. The adorably named Lucid Dream Chicken & Waffle Burger was topped with a cheese-like sauce made with fermented cashews and housemade coconut yogurt, seasoned with bell peppers for all the wonderful flavor and gooeyness of nacho cheese. It came with a healthy dose of the usual accoutrements, including onions, cherry tomatoes, greens, and pickles. It was all sandwiched between a gluten-free cornmeal waffle — which was disappointingly soft rather than crispy, but had a pleasantly yeasty, slightly sweet flavor. The sandwich hit the same satisfying, umami notes as a fast food fried chicken sandwich, without any greasy, heavy feeling afterward.
The Gay4U burger was especially compelling. The key was the housemade veggie patty, which when I visited was made with a blend of chickpeas, seitan, onions, fennel, and beets, which gave the burger a bright, juicy, and slightly sweet flavor. The patty was deep-fried and pan-seared, giving it a delectable crunch around the edges and a caramelized flavor. On top were more of those veggies and that irresistible cashew-coconut sauce, all between a whole-wheat bun. The burger came with a choice of tater tots, fried to a delicate crisp with a sprinkling of Espice’s own “Sofi Spice” on top, or salad, which when I visited was a blend of greens dressed in a refreshingly tart housemade cranberry-tamarind dressing and topped with thinly sliced crispy parsnips.
On another visit, I tried an entrée salad with delicata squash, crispy shiitake mushrooms, red onions, cherry tomatoes, and crunchy pepitas, all dressed in a mojito-inspired mint-lime vinaigrette and dusted with crumbled cashews. While it seems obvious that a vegan place could make a good salad, I particularly enjoyed this one since it let the vegetables shine — no meat or dairy substitutes necessary.
Burritos are another holdover from the Hella Vegan Eats days. The potsticker burrito was a carb-heavy log of brown rice, hoisin sauce, and deep-fried potstickers stuffed with leeks, veggies, and soy protein. While it was a little too starchy for my taste, I enjoyed the inclusion of red sauerkraut, which added crunch and tang. The breakfast burrito struck a better balance. On my visit, it was filled with delicata squash, tater tots, mung bean egg substitute, and a creamy coconut dressing.
When Espice isn’t busy roller skating, walking their dogs, or playing cumbia punk music, they’re in the kitchen tinkering with new recipes. They’re currently working on housemade ramen noodles made of hominy, an intriguing cultural mash-up that I’m excited to try. They’re also dedicated to doing what they can about the Bay Area housing crisis, making food and delivering it to unhoused people in need or inviting them in for a meal.
Gay4U is obviously a labor of love for reasons that extend beyond food. Trans restaurant owners are scarce nationwide, at least when it comes to owners who are out and have received media attention. Espice is currently the only trans restaurant owner they know of in the Bay Area.
“It’s been really cool to be … a face of owning a business and being trans and in the food industry,” Espice said. As a trans person in the food industry, Espice has showed up for job interviews, only to be immediately turned away. At Gay4U, they aim to create a welcoming space for trans people and offer free meals to trans people of color.
“I’m like, ‘Please … let’s meet each other and let’s support each other. For me, [finding a job was] really hard, but for you, it doesn’t have to be,'” Espice said. “The person who I was who went to interviews just to be shut down, I would have loved to see a place that had space for me. Part of my mission … is to heal that part of myself.”