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Vegetable Bliss at Butterleaf 

Irvine has few culinary establishments that are fully vegan meaning no animal products are used in the food or beverages served. Although the city of Irvine is growing rapidly, the plant-based food craze is taking its time getting to the bustling city of opportunity. The few places Irvine does have, however, are outstanding and offer something for vegans and vegetarians in the area, as well as the omnivores who want to try their hat at reducing the meat and dairy in their lives. Luckily, just down the street from John Wayne Airport, vegans and non-vegans alike can find satisfying hearty grub at Butterleaf in the Trade Food Hall on Michelson Drive in Irvine. 

Butterleaf is a gem of a casual counter café inside the Trade Food Hall, which is kind of like a chic contemporary food court for the area. Honestly, Butterleaf offers something for everybody; whether you’re in the mood for burritos, tostadas, burgers, salads, bowls, fries, soup or deep-fried treats, Butterleaf’s got you covered. Owned by chef Andrew Gruel and Lauren Gruel, Butterleaf is their newest addition to their restaurant family, and comes from a place of true food love. They own Slapfish and Two Birds Chicken, both of which are neither vegan nor vegetarian, and Andrew Gruel is also a judge on the Food Network and a host for the AM radio show SoCal Restaurant Show. The fact that the owners are not vegans is a little disheartening to the plant-based community since it shows us that they are not in this business for the health and promotion of a plant-based diet, but their food does tell us that they sure love vegetables.

In the last decade, veganism and vegetarianism have been gaining steam all over the world. There are many ways that going vegan can help the planet, as we now know that animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all transport combined. Raising animals for food requires massive amounts of land, food, energy and water — the byproducts of animal agriculture pollute our air and waterways.  Compared to meat-eaters, vegans also weigh less, have lower cholesterol, blood pressure and rates of type 2 diabetes. They have a 30 percent lower risk of heart disease and lower cancer rates. 

Southern California has become a Mecca for vegans and vegetarians, and with hundreds of different styles, types, price-points and tastes for plant-based cuisine, you’ve really got to make something top shelf in order to last in this competitive environment. Thankfully, Butterleaf is sticking around. Its perfect combination of veggie-heavy, nutrient-dense dishes are not only tasty choices for anybody, but they are created in a way that leaves diners full and satisfied. 

The food at Butterleaf is simple and satisfying, but something to note is that this is a restaurant that is definitely created with the non-vegan in mind. This isn’t vegan food for vegan people, this is plant-based food for non-vegetarians looking to expand their diet to include more veggies and less meat. The dishes at Butterleaf don’t offer much in the way of high protein options, but do offer complete protein sources in small quantities and do so in a way that can satisfy your hunger with added fiber, seasoning, healthy fats and oils. 

This writer’s personal favorite, the Avocado Bombs are the light, crispy and fluffy cousin to boring old avocado toast. These little bombs are whole pieces of avocado covered in a seasoned panko breading and served with a sweet and spicy sauce that makes them irresistible. This is not their healthiest option, but is much healthier than some deep-fried something you could find anywhere else. 

Their tacos or tostadas (depending on the season) are simple yet decadent. The flavorful veggie-loaded tacos or tostadas are stuffed with sauce, avocado, perfectly cooked seasonal veggies, spices and herbs and have a perfect crunch to them. There is no need a side dish with these tostadas (or tacos), although they have amazing sweet potato fries, guacamole and chips, umami chips, veggie chowder and sometimes even have vegan poutine.

Now, the burger is a local favorite. With a decently-sized homemade hearty black bean and quinoa patty, a fluffy and tasty wheat bun, a perfect combination of ketchup and secret sauce, and the traditional butterleaf lettuce, tomato and smashed avocado, it seems pretty straightforward. But, this burger patty is one of the tastiest house patties we’ve had. People will order two of these at a time they’re so good. The burrito, on the other hand, should not be order in pairs. This massive baby is a beast that is jam-packed with veggies, quinoa, avocado, sauce and seeds, but it so hearty we’ve yet to finish one in entirety. 

The bowl and the salad are very similar, with minimal differences between the two. The salad offers more raw veggies and smaller chops, while the bowl has a pile of grilled and sautéed veggies with quinoa and smashed avocado, and garnished with a variety of seeds; both are topped with a delicious carrot vinaigrette or salsa.

The food court style of eatery is popping up all over SoCal, and although the ambience is lacking slightly, most people forget all about it once they start chowing down on the delicious food options at their disposal. Although it feels more like a lunch spot, Butterleaf stays open until 8 or 9 p.m. and is open seven days a week. It also offers natural sodas, kombuchas and waters. The Trade Food Hall is a very busy center, especially around lunch time, so parking is a big issue that this shopping center has not seemed to have worked out yet. But it’s packed for a reason: The offerings inside this center and especially inside the Trade Food Hall are outstanding. 

Butterleaf, 2222 Michelson Drive, Irvine. butterleaf.co., @butterleafeats.