Vegan Barbecue Is So Much Better Than You Think
This time last year, Toriano Gordon was working as an Uber driver, zigzagging around the Bay Area attempting to make ends meet. Today, less than one year later, he owns one of the city’s most successful barbecue spots that just so happens to be completely meat-free. Called Vegan Mob, the restaurant, with an unmissable neon green exterior, sits on a busy stretch in Oakland, California, and is, well, perpetually mobbed. “On opening day, there were hundreds of people in line,” says Gordon. “There were even people from Seattle, Portland, and New York.” Even on a brisk November day, as I sat waiting for my Mob Plate, the line moved quickly but never managed to actually shorten. And nowadays, the line at Vegan Mob is spaced out in approved socially distant fashion—and the place is still busy.
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Gordon, who grew up in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, went vegan three years ago for health reasons. While he felt better, there was one thing he loved that he could no longer eat: barbecue. After struggling to find a satisfying meatless take, he decided to make a plant-based version himself. The 40-year-old chef had toyed with culinary school in his early 20s but dropped out due to addiction, learning instead to cook from watching years of Food Network. He began selling his vegan barbecue out of the trunk of his car by posting on Instagram and going to farmers markets, quickly building a loyal following. While working toward starting his own food truck, he received an opportunity to open a brick-and-mortar location on Lake Park Avenue.
Though Vegan Mob was built to function as a takeout operation, Gordon also launched a delivery arm to better serve customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The kitchen, staffed mostly by people from the local community, turns out plate after plate of food at a steady clip. Scoops of Gordon’s signature Smackaroni, which gets its creamy texture from pea protein milk, and piles of smoky collard greens spiked with bacon bits (which are, of course, vegan) come out of the kitchen. Trays are stacked with bowls of gumbo, which take on oceanic depth through a clever deployment of seaweed. The real stars of the show, however, are the brisket and ribs, which arrive slathered in a tangy Texas-inspired barbecue sauce and remain texturally appealing, despite being plant-based.
While Gordon’s ultimate goal is to make incredible food for vegans and non-vegans alike—“I want every item on the menu to be like a dope-ass song,” he says—he also has high hopes for his food’s ability to prompt meaningful change in the Black community. “If I can convince somebody to try this healthier lifestyle, I will be proud.”
Gordon’s success is, in many ways, unsurprising. By blending the historically Black tradition of barbecue with veganism, which has strong roots in the Black community, he’s creating a delicious new tradition. And though he isn’t the first person to dish out plant-based barbecue—it’s a growing trend in cities like Portland, Oregon; NYC; and Houston—his plans might be the most ambitious. Gordon currently sources many of his vegan proteins from Oakland chef GW Chew but has his sights set on making his own. “I want to be a bigger chain than McDonald’s; that’s my vision. I want to be all over the world.” For now, however, he is focused on finding a new home for Vegan Mob once his 18-month lease is finished. One contender? A vacant KFC just down the street.