Walking in the doors of Happy Veggie is like walking through a portal-one minute you’re in the parking lot of a South Bay strip mall, the next you’re in a simple, serene little alcove bustling with positive energy and old-school charm.
Pam Cote, a beautiful, delicate Vietnamese woman on the verge of 70-years-old, rushes around the tiny dining room of about eight tables, greeting her regulars and insisting on refilling teas and refreshing rice papers. She is the sole owner, the chef, and the heart of this vegan Mecca.
The kitchen is upstairs and Pam is up and down, delivering her dishes and running back up to finish the next round. Today she has the assistance of a couple of prep cooks upstairs, a sweet server, and an earnest busboy, but when she first opened the location six years ago, she had to rely on the kindness of friends and local students who worked for free. She spends her early mornings at farmers markets and the Asian grocers, her days meticulously prepping for service, and her remaining hours serving her loyal following; days that would tire someone half her age.
The appeal of Happy Veggie is not just the story of a dedicated, kind-hearted proprietor. It also happens to have the best vegan food in the South Bay. Period. The pièce de résistance is the Grilled Fish Dinner, meant to be shared. You assemble the dish yourself, dipping rice paper in water, adding soy whey that’s been wrapped in seaweed, grilled, and topped with peanuts. Then you add the herbs: you’re presented with a plate of Thai mint, Japanese basil, lemon sorrel, fresh cilantro and all sorts of crazy other greens that create flavors in your mouth that absolutely burst. Japanese noodles finish the wraps, and then you roll the little wonders up and dip them in a tangy sauce. Pam might stand over you and give you step by step instructions, or, like she did for me, grab some herbs and help a rookie out with the assemblage.
The wraps make carnivores and vegans swoon equally. Don’t miss Pam’s pho either – it was just written up in LA Weekly and is greatly worthy of the nod.
“I am grateful to all my customers, my friends, they are good to me…[I am] so grateful to serve the local vegans and the meat eaters too,” Pam says.
You can feel the love in the restaurant. The waitress is pushing for Happy Veggie to get a spot on the mall’s marquee, the busboy barely looks up as he rushes from one table to the next, and Pam visits tables acting like she has all the time in the world to make sure everyone is happy. The menu is long and diverse for such a small operation but even though it would make her days much more manageable, Pam refuses to cut it down. “It would break my heart if someone couldn’t order their favorite dish.”
Happy Veggie, 709 North Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo. Dinner only Mon-Thurs (5-9pm). Lunch and dinner Fri (11am-3pm, 5-9pm) and Sat (11am-9pm). Closed Sun.