Have you ever played restaurant roulette? You’re going about your day and you find yourself getting hungry, so you look at a random restaurant with nothing on the outside to indicate what sort of food they might serve, and you think to yourself why not?
While driving north on Santa Fe Avenue, I started feeling like I was up for a game of restaurant roulette. I drove past 21st Street, and then Hill Street, and then 23rd Street, keeping my eyes open for something that would be a complete mystery when I spotted it.
At the corner of Santa Fe and Burnett Street was just such a restaurant, no name anywhere, and the white storefront would otherwise be invisible if it wasn’t beside a turquoise wall with monarch butterfly wings painted for a photo-op.
The last thing I expected to find was a sushi restaurant, but that’s what restaurant roulette is all about.
After a quick consultation with the extremely polite person tending to the walkup counter, I settled on the volcano roll ($13), “shrimp,” “spicy tuna,” jalapeno, avocado and cucumber. The nori is coated with panko, and the entire roll is quickly deep-fried to crisp it up. Once sliced, the roll is sprinkled with scallions, then drizzled in sauces, one slightly spicy and creamy, the other delicately sweet and tangy.
It was only after I placed my order, took my seat at one of the small two-person booths toward the back of the dining area that I looked at my receipt and saw the name of the restaurant is Vegan Castle.
I’m not vegan. While a new vegan place on Santa Fe had entered my radar, having opened in July of last year, I didn’t know the name or location.
With the new discovery that this is not just sushi, but vegan sushi, I had to see a vegan spider roll ($13): Nori wrapping rice, surrounding julienned carrots and cucumbers, with a touch of the soy-based “spicy tuna” and avocado with deep-fried enoki mushrooms poking out either end. Enokis are very small long-stemmed, tiny capped white mushrooms that when fried take on a soft-shell crab look, texture and taste.
Sprinkled with scallions and drizzled with a creamy sauce, if I didn’t know this sushi was vegan, I would have been totally fooled.
And to top it all off, both rolls are served with a garnish of edible orchids. How can you not love that?
Other notable items on the menu include rainbow roll: ($14) spicy tuna, avocado, and cucumber topped with Ahimi (vegan) tuna, avocado, daikon and banana.
Or the sherry roll ($14) soy paper deep-fried with banana cream cheese, avocado and strawberry.
They also serve vegan shrimp and fish tacos ($5.50).
I think unfortunately most vegan places fall into two categories: Either the food is obviously very healthy, dense with grains and fermentations, but lacking in that true comfort food feeling; or everything is deep-fried or ultra-processed and not even remotely healthy, but still vegan.
This is neither.
Vegan Castle is amazing in that every texture is mimicked perfectly, from the texture of the “spicy tuna” to the slightly overcooked rubbery bite of shrimp we all know so well. The delicate crunch of fried panko, the freshness of the vegetables, the toothsome rice, and the chew of the nori are all factors that bring the illusion together.
This is the first time in a long time I didn’t want to dip my sushi in soy sauce with enough wasabi to blow the back of my head off because I wanted to taste every complex flavor rolled up into each perfect bite.
If you don’t live on the west side of Long Beach, Vegan Castle is worth the trip across the river. Maybe multiple times a week.
Two people can eat for under $30
Vibe: neighborhood, walkup counter with seating.
Go-to Dish: “spider roll” ($13)
Drinks: Beer, soft drinks, coconut water, juice, bottled water.
Vegan Castle: 2400 Santa Fe Ave. 562-726-1722 Instagram: @vegancastlelb