Before Russell opened SunCafe he worked nearly every job in a kitchen. His self-described ‘aha moment’ came when he was cooking fatty foods with grease dripping everywhere and he thought, ‘Why am I cooking and eating this?’ Since then, he hasn’t touched meat. He never craves or misses it either.
SunCafe first opened down the street from its current location and sat only 36 guests. To create the initial menu, Russell and Smith created a panel of six members (including two meat eaters). Russell reminisces that getting a dish on the menu then was so tough, as each member had to say the dish was exceptional, not just good. After creating the menu, the location was chosen. Originally conceived as a food-to-go establishment with a small café, Russell noticed that the café far surpassed the food line. On July 2, 2014, SunCafe moved to its current location, which seats 130.
The restaurant is now continually filled with regulars. Russell notes that more than a dozen or so people come three or more times per week and that more than half of his customers are meat eaters. This is music to his ears, as he didn’t want SunCafe to be just another vegan restaurant where people come to ‘feel healthy.’ Russell says he wants people to leave SunCafe thinking that coming to his restaurant doesn’t have to be a one-time thing, and that diners should leave feeling inspired after eating a meal.
One story that immediately popped into his head that echoed this sentiment was when a customer ‘oohed and ahhed’ over his meal and asked to speak with the owner. He told Russell that he was a carnivore, and remembered exactly the last meal that was this special: “It was two-and-a-half years ago in Paris, at La Tour d’Argent, a three Michelin Star restaurant. This SunCafe meal is an equal to that meal.”
This has motivated him to create a delicious and organically-sourced menu that is unmatched in vision and flavor across all vegan restaurants in Los Angeles. Each dish has its own delightful quality, while showcasing SunCafe’s commitment to providing its guests with outstanding food coupled with a beautiful presentation.
Russell’s self-proclaimed love of ‘wow’ flavors makes its way into all dishes, but here are some of the most popular:
French onion soup: classic French Onion topped with cashew cheese and croutons
BBQ cauliflower: pan-seared cauliflower with house BBQ sauce, dill pickles, Santa Barbara pistachios, green onions and basil ranch
The Kale Colossus: massaged kale, SunChorizo, mushrooms, bell peppers, pico de gallo, three dressings, raisins and bananas. Russell says to think of the Kale Colossus as his bid to make the biggest combination of a pizza and salad with kale.
Cornmeal Tempeh Burger: JJ’s LDR avocado, pickled radish, arugula, chipotle mayo on Rising Hearts brioche bun
Farmers Market: Chef’s selection of local, organic and seasonal ingredients from SunCafe’s double pizza oven with selection of rice flour crust or raw suncrust
Mac & Cheese: Andean Dream quinoa pasta with tomato and cashew Mac sauce cooked in a cast iron skillet. Russell dares anyone to find a better-tasting vegan Mac & cheese! (SunCafe won the ‘People’s Choice’ award in 2012 for LA’s Best Vegan Mac-n-Cheese)
Zucchini Lasagna: slices of zucchini layered with pesto, spinach, cashew ricotta, SunChorizo, marinara & cashew cheese. Raw.
Guests shouldn’t leave without trying an amazing shake, juice or other beverage. Try the Sweet Kale Shake (which includes kale, bananas, cashew and agave) or the Mint Shamrock Shake (spinach, bananas, cacao, cashews and agave). SunCafe also offers five different options of cold-pressed juices, as well as Oogave Sodas and various flavors of Kombucha Dog on tap. Furthermore, SunCafe also boasts one of the largest organic beer and wine menus in Los Angeles. Through the creation of SunCafe, Russell wanted to reinvent food (and how people think about food) while also breaking the mould of what people eat.
Along with developing vegan and raw food recipes to substitute for ‘normal’ dishes, Russell gives lectures and weekly food preparation classes at SunCafe. On Saturdays, 15 to 20 people show up to learn how to make strong tasting sauces, as well as learn about the importance vegan food has on our health and environment. He is very proud that SunCafe was named one of the two most sustainable restaurants in Los Angeles, as the restaurant has saved over 100 million gallons of water, 200 million gallons of CO2 and over 20,000 animals.
Russell starts each day with a large 40-ounce green smoothie and can be seen a couple of times a day either walking through the restaurants talking to customers or on one of the café’s three separate outdoor patios. Russell is a total foodie and mentioned that at one point he ate at every vegan restaurant in Los Angeles. He then quickly followed up that he is so happy that new vegan restaurants are sprouting up all over the state, but he hasn’t been able to keep up and eat at each lately…