Meet the rapper-turned-restaurateur bringing beats (but not meats) to the East Bay
This post has been updated.
Its bright green cantilever roof invites 1950s fast-food comparisons, but Oakland, California-based barbecue and soul-food joint Vegan Mob is squarely a modern creation. Vegan Mob is the brainchild of San Francisco hip-hop artist Toriano Gordon, who grew up nourished by some of the Lone Star State’s better barbecue. Gordon says that he initially ditched meat to improve his health, but going vegan has opened his eyes to the burgeoning climate crisis and made him realize that promoting a delicious alternative might convert even the most steadfast carnivore to a less meat-centric lifestyle. Vegan Mob launched as a pop-up and expanded to a permanent space last October, attracting crowds of both foodies and locals with sub-$20 plates overflowing with brisket, BBQ shrimp, and greens — all without animal protein. We spoke to Gordon about life without meat, how to update meat’s masculine image, and why he thinks that the future is vegan.
Gordon’s remarks have been edited for clarity and length.
Faux meat, real Texas flavor
“I ate meat my whole life. My grandmother is from Houston, so I grew up eating Texas barbecue, which is some of the best barbecue out there. When I told my wife that I wanted to open a barbecue restaurant and serve only organic meat there, she told me that it was unethical to do so, no matter where the meat came from. Then I went vegan for health reasons. And so Vegan Mob was born.
When people eat my barbecue, I want for them to taste Houston. I work really hard at matching the taste and the texture of the meat I was used to eating. In the beginning, I had to convince people they would be surprised by how much my food tastes like meat, and that they were not gonna know the difference, you know? But then people try it and then they are sold.
To replace traditional barbecue meat, I use soy and pea proteins, and protein from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. And I get shrimp from a vegan shrimp company that makes them with sweet potato starch — they are really good. I also use a soybean protein from an Oakland-based company called Better Chew. It has good texture. I like texture, and I think that’s what people who used to eat meat want. Great texture, great flavor, and great presentation. And that’s Vegan Mob in a nutshell.
We are working on expanding our footprint. We have a space on Divisadero Street in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood, which will hopefully open in the next six months. And starting soon we will also have a “cloud kitchen,” basically a delivery service, based in San Jose, that will deliver to anywhere in the Santa Clara area. In general, we plan on focusing on the West Coast first and then we definitely want to expand to the East and the South.
Meatless meets macho
Meat has a “masculine” reputation. Real men eat meat and all that. But I also think being healthy is also masculine. There are a lot of vegan bodybuilders and football players, and they are some of the strongest people on Earth. And they seem pretty masculine to me. Hip-hop is also pretty masculine, and I’m a hip-hop artist. And that helps give Vegan Mob some authenticity. I’m a confident person, and people see how I promote the food. It’s cool and it’s hip to be vegan.
To be perfectly honest, I stopped eating meat and cheese for health reasons, not for the environment. But over time, it became normal for me to not eat meat and to try to contribute to the future of the planet. I think that people should stay away from meat for health reasons but also climate reasons. I’m living out my dream right now, and the fact that I’m not just trying to be successful but also doing something that can help a lot of people, and also better the environment, makes me feel good. I definitely think that the future is vegan, and if we did these things the right way, it could help fix a lot of our problems.