Good news for vegan food fans, the queer and trans communities, and their allies: Hella Vegan Eats has returned to Oakland, now in the form of a pop-up called Gay4U at Garden House.
Hella Vegan Eats was a trans-queer POC-owned restaurant, founded 10 years ago by Sofi Espice and Tiff Esquivel. It began as a pop-up selling tamales on the streets of San Francisco, and it later operated out of a food truck. Most recently, the eatery operated out of the kitchen at the Classic Cars West Beer Garden in Oakland, where it served vegan dinner and brunch fare for three years. But at the end of February, Hella Vegan Eats was asked to leave, with both parties citing difficulty working together. It was a huge loss for the communities that supported Hella Vegan Eats. Thankfully, those communities rallied behind Hella Vegan Eats, raising over $17,000 in a GoFundMe meant to cover the costs of relocating and supporting employees as they transitioned to new jobs.
In October, Espice went solo and opened Gay4U at Garden House, a woman-owned weekday lunch spot at 380 15th St. in Oakland. Garden House itself recently went through its own transformation, having reopened in mid-October after two years of renovations. It now has a separate kitchen that's home to Aburaya Go, a new takeout outpost of the Japanese fried chicken joint. During evenings and weekends, Espice takes over at Garden House, transforming it into Gay4U. To help cover the costs of business going forward, Espice has also started another GoFundMe for Gay4U.
Espice describes Gay4U as an "evolution" of Hella Vegan Eats. Some of the dishes that Hella Vegan Eats was known and loved for are still on the all-vegan menu, like chicken and waffles — though Espice said many of the recipes are different. Other options include "friendship toast," French toast with strawberry-blueberry compote and cashew-coconut cream cheese, plus a Gay4U burger made with a seitan-chickpea patty.
Gay4U is also turning its focus toward health-conscious options, like a pepito salad and a kale-parsnip quinoa bowl. "[The menu] has a lot of fermented things and sauerkraut," Espice said. "I'm trying to continue what I've been doing, but just make it more health-conscious and make it more sustainable for myself. I want to be eating better than I did when I was 21 when Hella Vegan Eats started." The menu has been changing weekly, with additions like chicken tortilla soup in the increasingly cold weather. Keep your eye out for new additions like ramen, which is expected to arrive on the menu in spring.
What makes the menu stand out perhaps the most, however, is its offer of free meals for trans people of color. "Me being a trans person of color having survived the last 10½ years in the Bay, I know how hard it is. ... I've seen so many people in my community just vanish and have to go somewhere else," Espice said.
"I didn't have a stable mom or dad there for me or anything — my parents split as soon as I came out. So I wanna be there for other people in ways that I wish people could have been there for me."
Gay4U is located at 380 15th St. in Oakland. Hours are Thurs.-Fri. 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and Mon. 6 p.m.-9 p.m.