I confess: I was a lousy vegetarian. I clearly didn't take it seriously enough because when I drank too much, I forgot my best intentions and dashed to White Castle faster than I could say double cheeseburger. Even when I was working at a very good macrobiotic restaurant, I'd fall off the meatless wagon every so often and gleefully eat fried chicken or a slab of lasagna. Finally, I gave up trying to repress my carnivorous instincts. I fully embraced my passion for red meat and, one day, vowing that God was my witness, I swore I'd never eat a tempeh burger again.
I do have a fondness for vegetarian restaurants, however. Just not the humorless and self-righteous ones, where proud and pious patrons pick at tofu paella and nibble on nut burgers as if they're eating in a solemn temple where the concept of animal flesh is a carnal — if not cardinal — sin and the devotion to raw carrots and organic juices is a step closer to nirvana. Who knows, maybe it is. But as I go dancing merrily to hell, I want more out of life than a bowl of brown rice and the sage wisdom of Michio Kushi.
Heidi VanPelt-Belle, the waifish celebrity vegan who was tabloid fodder for a brief period after she married and divorced a once-famous, former child star (I never watched Home Improvement, so I probably couldn't pick out Taran Noah Smith out of a police lineup), understands my reservations about boring vegetarian restaurants.
"They're beige," she said. That day she was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, a miniskirt and splashes of gold, indigo and hot-pink eye shadow. Beige, she is not. Nor is her restaurant, Füd, which she recently opened with her second husband, a lanky guy named Jerimiah Rozzo-Belle, who apparently is good with his hands: He crafted the wooden tabletops in the narrow storefront space (the former Sun Ray restaurant), and he and VanPelt-Belle are the parents of 22-month-old Vox. Rozzo-Belle helps out in the kitchen, too.
The fully outfitted kitchen in this brightly colored restaurant certainly wasn't there in the space's previous incarnation. VanPelt-Belle whirls around it with various assistants, including the bohemian — but former square, according to his own narrative — Devlon, who has become adept at making some of this restaurant's signature dishes himself. The menu here isn't elaborate; it consists of a dozen or so dishes. The menu is handwritten in colored chalk on a blackboard. VanPelt-Belle and her employees happily explain the ingredients because not everyone understands what a "Rainbow Wrap" is supposed to be. After eating one, I'm still not sure. Salad tucked into a collard green leaf, I guess.
The owners insist that Füd is a work-in-progress. Yes, there will be a credit-card machine soon (the restaurant only accepts cash), there will be a real menu printed and, at some point, real servers instead of counter service. The staff members deliver the food to patrons, who order right on the edge of the open kitchen. The process is both fascinating and irritating.
The place has its distinct charm, however. I've now eaten lunch, dinner and Saturday brunch there, bringing with me a vegetarian for one meal, a vegetable hater for another, and an adventurous eater for the brunch. They all liked their experiences (the vegetarian, interestingly enough, was the fussiest, but that's his nature), and my friend Truman, whom I predicted might detest the cozy eccentricities of Füd, absolutely adored it. Who knew?
VanPelt-Belle says her claim to fame, in California's vegan community, was her vegan tacos, so not surprisingly, the current lunch-dinner menu is heavy on meatless Mexican creations, such as chalupas, tacos, tostados and the like. The day I dined with vegetarian Scott, he couldn't decide between the jackphish chalupa and the wild-rice tostada, so he ordered both so we could share them. I suddenly craved a fried-tofu sandwich — there's a choice between spicy or locally produced smoked tofu — because, damn it, in my obsession with traditionally unhealthy eating, I wanted something fried.