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Get a Taste of Las Vegas' Over-the-top Vegan Scene

Viva Las Vegan: Our writer takes a plant-based trip off the Strip.

Las Vegas

Excess is king (or President?) in Las Vegas, the Mojave Desert oasis that’s home to bottomless margaritas and half-pound burgers topped with six-cheese mac ’n’ cheese. The other times I’ve been here, for conventions and junkets and tasteless friends’ weddings, good intentions paved the road to prime-rib brunches and chicken-waffled everything. But this time I’m here by choice, and I’m celebrating, too: Las Vegas is going excessively vegan.

I want to taste it all, so the minute I’m in my rental, I’m plugging Pizza Company into Waze. This pizzeria (OMG, the garlic knots with vegan ranch sauce) joins ranks with cult fave Ronald’s Donuts, Panacea (makers of a 25-centimetre-tall double-decker vegan burger) and many more omni restaurants that now cater – generously – to vegans. VegNews magazine ranks Las Vegas the ninth most vegan city in the U.S., but unlike L.A. or Portland, the focus isn’t health. This is the decadent side of veganism; veggies exist here mainly as tools used to mimic the most deep-fried, carbed-up versions of American comfort foods. Who comes to Vegas for green smoothies, anyway?

We may have Steve Wynn to thank for the vegan wave: The passionately meat-free magnate insists on a plant-based menu in all the Wynn and Encore property restaurants. When I tell the host at the Wynn buffet I’m vegan, I get the rock-star treatment, including a personalized chef tour of the many herbivorous items and an ice-cream scoop of vegan butter for my rosemary and lemon rolls. But there are also local organizations like Vegans, Baby that mobilize restaurants to offer vegan options – and in Vegas, if someone’s buying, everyone’s selling, which means 152 vegan restaurants listed to date on HappyCow.com.

Las Vegas vegan

On foot, amid the throng of merry day drinkers, it can take hours to walk the two-and-a-half-kilometre stretch of the Strip that separates the Luxor and the Flamingo. But within a 10-minute drive from Las Vegas Boulevard, you’ll feel what daily life is actually like in this sun-bleached, spread-out town. The fun stuff (read: food) is in strip malls, like Vege-Way, the vegan answer to In-N-Out Burger. The drive-thru mini-chain has a lineup six cars deep when I roll through on a Tuesday. The dense, juicy patty made with 10 ingredients, including soy, cabbage and rice – do I detect a pinch of nutmeg? – is stacked high on a toasted eggless brioche, the perfect mix of pillowy and crunchy, luscious with a shmear of eggless mayo. And the popcorn chicken: goddamn. Plump little morsels of bouncy fried dough with a central nugget of toothsome, tender soy-based goodness.

From my high stool at the barn-wood communal table at VegeNation in the hipster arts district downtown, 15 minutes from the Strip, I catch wafts from the plates around me – hello, jackfruit tacos. I’ve worked up an appetite checking out the gallery scene, and rubbing shoulders with braless, bespectacled cuties with tasteful tattoos in the many vintage clothes stores – this could be Williamsburg or Montreal’s Mile End. I start with the Bao Wow buns, plump clouds of godliness stuffed with a salty-sweet centre of steamed tofu and sautéed shiitakes, as I ponder what’s next. I go for the chicken pot pie gnocchi, a bowlful of creamy (but not cloying, thanks to a cauliflower base) sauced gnocchi with all the fixin’s: a textural trip of poppy green peas, crunchy carrots, translucent onion and paper-thin cremini mushroom slices against the soft potato dumplings and resistant soy-based “chicken” cubes. Holy cluck.

I can’t explain what woke me up at 4 a.m. with a yen to go to the hotel casino (I won $284), but I can say the brownie I tucked into while watching SpongeBob in my king-size afterward was the sweetest celebration of my winnings. I’d grabbed it as a takeaway from plant-based cinnamon-bun house Cinnaholic days ago and forgotten it in my mini-fridge. With a thick chocolatey crust crunchy with sugar crystals and a gooey, fudgy interior, it’s a metaphor for my relationship with this surreal city: It’s taken me a decade to break through its shell, but now that I’m in the sweet spot, I never want to leave.

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