Clad in a gray sweatsuit, chef Toriano Gordon of Vegan Mob stared into the camera, raising his eyebrows, sticking out his tongue, shimmying his shoulders back and forth, and swiveling his hips in his restaurant's kitchen, all while holding a takeout container full of crispy tacos.
"Pull up on us, baby!" he said in a sing-song voice. "You know I got those tacos, those Impossible tacooooos!" Returning to his sing-song voice, Gordon closed with the restaurant's signature tagline: "It's da mob!"
Instagram posts like this, along with food photos and motivational quotes, are par for the course for Vegan Mob. The restaurant has amassed nearly 20,000 followers, even though the brick-and mortar location in the former Kwik-Way building has been open for only two months. Gordon is certainly a social media personality, but he's also a rapper and a chef. He grew up in the Fillmore district of San Francisco among a family of food lovers and restaurateurs, though he didn't always picture himself as a restaurant owner. After a struggle with addiction, Gordon had been studying to become a hip-hop therapist so that he could use his love for hip-hop to help young people. But after some introspection, Gordon had a change of heart.
Gordon's family is from Houston, and he recalled his uncle lamenting that there was no good barbecue in the Bay Area. After his uncle passed away, Gordon wanted to honor his legacy by serving a healthier version of barbecue made using organic meat. But both Gordon and his wife are vegan — him mainly for health reasons, and her mostly for ethical reasons — and serving something they wouldn't eat themselves didn't feel right to them. Together, they came up with a brilliant idea: Why not make vegan barbecue?
That's how the concept for Vegan Mob was born. Gordon started selling plates of vegan barbecue out of his car, then began doing farmers market pop-ups, all while growing his social media following. When Vegan Mob opened in the Lakeshore District, the line stretched down the block, and it sold out of food on its very first day.
After the initial hype had calmed down a bit, I bundled up for the chilly weather, since Vegan Mob offers outdoor seating and takeout only, and waits can be a bit long. I started with the combo plate, which provided an opportunity to try several of the smoked vegan meats on offer, plus four different sides — and it was big enough for two people to share. The barbecue sauce was the star of the plate — spicy, slightly sweet, and smoky, made using Gordon's twist on what he calls a Houston-style recipe. After months of tinkering in the kitchen to create his sauce, Gordon said, "I did a dance in my kitchen and I never turned back."
The soy-based, non-GMO brisket came from Better Chew, owned by GW Chew of the Veg Hub in Oakland. The plant-based meat was tender, and the texture was porous, allowing it to soak up the excellent barbecue sauce. Even better was the Mob Link, made using Beyond sausage. The sausage had a snappy casing and similar bite to sausage made with meat, with a deep peppery flavor. The fried shrimp was drizzled in a creamy, aioli-like sauce, and the meat had a mild sweetness reminiscent of real shrimp. I loved the crunchy exterior of the fried shrimp, though the shrimp themselves had a springiness to them that took a little getting used to.
The mac and cheese — or "smackaroni," as Gordon calls it — was smooth, creamy, and sharp, with a flavor that was actually reminiscent of cheese rather than nutritional yeast. The baked beans were sweetened just right, and the light, creamy, and crunchy coleslaw was indistinguishable from its non-vegan counterpart. I also enjoyed the collard greens, which packed a surprising amount of heat along with a little savory flavor from bits of vegan meat.
On a wintry evening, I returned for the gumbo in a bread bowl after being lured in by a photo on Instagram. The gumbo looked just like a traditional gumbo, down to the orangey-striped shrimp and the slices of sausage. But when I took my first bite, I was surprised to find a deeply flavorful, spicy, umami-laden gumbo that surpassed many of the meat versions I've had in the Bay Area. The key, Gordon said, is actually seaweed, which gives the gumbo a leafy-green look and a rich seafood flavor. Even the bread bowl tasted buttery and was perfectly toasted around the edges.
Along with a more traditional barbecue and soul food menu, Vegan Mob also offers a "fusion" menu with Mexican and Asian inspired flavors. "Being from San Francisco ... I just love all different types of food," Gordon said. On one visit, I tried the barbequito, in which brisket, coleslaw, smackaroni, and baked beans are rolled up in a flour tortilla with guacamole, sour cream, and jalapeños. At first bite, I liked how the sweetness of the barbecue sauce and baked beans contrasted with the saltiness of the smackaroni, the cooling sour cream, and the spicy, vinegary jalapeños, but after a while, the flavors started to taste muddled. I preferred the mob tacos, which stuffed Impossible meat, lettuce, tomatoes, melted cheese, guacamole, and sour cream into crispy taco shells. It reminded me in the best way possible of the tacos you'd make from a boxed taco kit — satisfying, simple, and nostalgic.
Along with good food, Vegan Mob has already gained a reputation as somewhat of a celebrity hotspot. Danny Glover stopped by for some Vegan Mob, and Andre Nickatina came by to film a music video. Soon, Vegan Mob is going to be the star of its own music video, "It's Da Mob," featuring Gordon along with B-Legit, a fellow vegan rapper from Vallejo. Gordon hopes that Vegan Mob will be more than a restaurant — that it'll be a destination.
"It's another vision [of mine] to be a must-see place when you come to Oakland," Gordon said. "That starts with having good-ass food."