In a year that was more notable for restaurant closures and struggles than for hip and trendy openings, any talk of a cool new spot is both notable and a little surprising. That Chikyu, the new sushi bar/izakaya in Henderson’s Silverado Ranch neighborhood, could break through the depressing din of negative news with a glimmer of positivity, even as it spent most of the year adapting its gorgeous presentations for takeout service, is encouraging and inspiring.
An even more remarkable aspect of Chikyu’s success, however, is the cuisine. In a town once known for steakhouses and endless shrimp, the restaurant serves no animal products. Moreover, it maintains that plant-based menu while serving a cuisine known primarily for raw fish.
If you think the idea of vegan sushi sounds counterintuitive, you aren’t alone. When California restaurateur and Chikyu partner Casson Trenor hired sushi chef John Le to help create a vegan sushi menu at San Francisco’s Shizen in 2015, they knew they were venturing into uncharted waters.
“(John) came from a more conventional sushi background, like everybody, because there was no background in what we were doing with contemporary sushi,” Trenor says. “And during that time, he really came to be one of our leaders in pushing the envelope.”
The concept was a hit, and when Le relocated to Las Vegas in 2018, he already was pondering how to introduce it to the valley. So when Trenor got a call in 2019 about partnering on Chikyu, he was ready to go — despite knowing very little about the local vegan community.
The restaurant was never intended to appeal solely to vegans. Nonetheless, when they opened their doors during a pandemic, Trenor was surprised to find a thriving community of vegans who excitedly welcomed them to the valley.
“I have been super-impressed and very, very grateful for the way the Las Vegas vegan community has come out and supported us, celebrated us and helped us spread the word,” Trenor says.
An astronomic rise
Chikyu’s success, and the buzz it has generated during one of the most difficult years imaginable for the restaurant community, is just one indication of how plant-based dining in Las Vegas has grown into more than just a quaint culinary niche.
In May, chef Kenny Chye, a fixture in the vegan community, opened the doors to Chef Kenny’s Dim Sum, a 130-seat eatery billed as the largest vegan dim sum restaurant in the country, and the only one in the Western United States. In January, Truth & Tonic in The Venetian’s Canyon Ranch Spa celebrated its first anniversary as the Strip’s only 100 percent plant-based eatery. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The 2021 e-book edition of the “Las Vegas Vegan Dining Guide” by Diana Edelman highlights more than 100 vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants, bars and businesses in 46 categories, including best fast food, best hot dog, best ice cream, best date night, best steakhouse and best tasting menu. While most of its entries are for restaurants offering quality vegan options in addition to meat, fish and poultry, more than two dozen are 100 percent plant-based businesses.
Edelman, who reports on local plant-based dining on her website Vegans, Baby, says options have exploded in the past few years.
“It’s blown up,” she says. “The sheer amount of restaurants, even in the last three years, has just seen this astronomic rise.”
When she launched her website five year ago, Edelman could count Las Vegas’ completely plant-based eateries on the fingers of one hand.
“There was Simply Pure. There was Violette’s Vegan. There was VegeNation. There was Go Vegan. And there was Go Raw,” she says. “And that was it.”
Go Raw Cafe and Go Vegan Cafe were owned and operated by Lu Vu, one of the pioneers of the local vegan dining scene, who opened Go Raw in the Lakes community in 2002.
At the time, Vu knew of only one other completely vegan restaurant in the valley. When that spot (known as Raw Truth) closed down, she and her partner took over its location.
“For the longest time we were the only game in town as far as vegan, vegetarian, paleo,” Vu says.
While she managed to find customers for those raw-food locations, and open the Go Vegan Cafe on Rainbow Boulevard, vegan cuisine remained largely a niche market for quite some time. Even after Wynn Las Vegas made national headlines for unveiling vegan menus at all Wynn and Encore restaurants in 2010, plant-based dining still was viewed as an anomaly here.
“I had to be an undercover vegan,” says VegeNation’s chef/owner Donald Lemperle, whose employer, China Grill Management, moved him from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Las Vegas that year to work at Red Square in Mandalay Bay.
“I would taste the sauces with a spoon … and I would check the meat, and spit it out in a napkin. That’s the way I went about it, because I don’t think anyone would have hired me if they would have known I was vegan.”
When he dined out, Lemperle said, finding a good meal was difficult.
“A lot of restaurants had some vegan options, but sadly, it was kind of an afterthought, and you’d get like steamed vegetables or a salad.”
The chef was inspired by the popularity of a weekly farmers market that Mario Batali was operating on Dean Martin Drive.
“I said, ‘Wow, this place is really crowded! I think there might be a good market for what I would like to do here,’ ” he recalls.
When Lemperle opened the first VegeNation on Earth Day 2015, he was nervous about its location on Carson Avenue, which then was considered a bit sketchy by some. So he was surprised by the wide variety of customers who turned out to support the restaurant, almost immediately.
“I’m really impressed,” he says of customers’ diversity. “We get, like, a lot of hipsters. We get older couples who are trying to look after their health. We’ll see lawyers come in from downtown. We get a lot of Black customers. So it’s a whole assortment, and I pinch myself because I really feel fortunate about that.”
Chef Stacey Dougan also found a market for her vegan cuisine in the emerging downtown scene, with a few hiccups along the way. After catering some events for Tony Hsieh and members of The Downtown Project, the former Wynn/Encore chef was offered a loan by the group to open Simply Pure in Downtown Container Park in December 2013. She struggled, until a visit from former President Bill Clinton landed it in the headlines in early 2016.
“That was like a miracle,” Dougan says of Clinton’s visit. “That was just God saying, ‘OK, you’re going to stay open.’ (Because) I was legit about to close … because I was three months behind on the rent.”
‘Good, healthy food’
Quite a bit has changed in the five years since then for Dougan and the local vegan scene. On April 9, she hosted a “grand closing, next chapter celebration” as she prepared to shutter Simply Pure and move on to other projects, including catering, personal meal prep, meal delivery and new restaurant concepts. Dozens of well-wishers attended the party where, along with Dougan’s food, they enjoyed dishes from Tacotarian and Pots Egyptian — two vegan brands that didn’t exist when Simply Pure opened. Their success, and the success of many other new vegan spots, is a testament to the growing demand for, and availability of, plant-based cuisine in the valley.
“Per capita, I think we’re way ahead — way, way ahead – of other cities,” Vu says. “Even L.A. They do have a lot of options, but I think that per capita, we’re ahead.
Edelman attributes some of this growth to sophisticated diners who, while not strictly vegan, have added plant-based meals to their dining rotation.
“There’s a lot of people in this city who are foodies, and just want to eat plant-based food,” she explains. “Yes, they understand the implications of having meat on the plate, and they know about the health factors. But they’re really in it because they just want to experience really good, healthy food.”
Trenor says reaching that audience is essential to Chikyu’s mission.
“Our restaurant is about being a part of change,” he says. “I don’t think we can accomplish that by feeding vegan food to vegans. For us to be successful, we need to feed vegan food to omnivores. We need to replace meals that would have otherwise been conventional beef, conventional pork, conventional seafood — things that have a heavy footprint on the planet and on human health. That’s how I define success.”
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