Longtime fans might know them as S+M Vegan, but all roads to Lion Dance Cafe, the wildly popular plant-based pop-up and catering operation, now lead to the same place: 380 17th Street, an already-built-out restaurant space in Uptown Oakland. Lion Dance’s co-owners, partners in business and life Marie Chia and Shane Stanbridge, say they just need to raise $50,000 to get over the finish line and start serving dishes like its beloved-by-critics shaobing sandwich to hungry patrons.
While diners have more and more vegan options these days, Lion Dance is notable for its Singaporean style. Its menu is a marriage between meatless versions of the foods Chia grew up with, other Chinese-American diaspora faves (think Kung Pao mushrooms and General Tso’s fried vegetables), and Singaporean street food like laksa and char kway teow.
The venture started as a pop-up at East Bay spots like Eli’s Mile High Club under the moniker S+M Vegan. They made the name change last fall, during an (eventually unsuccessful) first attempt to open a permanent space in Oakland’s Dimond District.
The name change, and first attempt toward a place of their own, came just weeks after SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho declared their shaobing sandwich — housemade sesame flatbread, a patty of Hodo tofu, and red cabbage slaw — “the best sandwich in the Bay Area.” It’s a claim Ho reaffirmed to Eater SF at the end of 2019, saying that Lion Dance “completely blew me away” with “a totally unique take on vegan food that felt fresh and new.”
Negotiations with that landlord fell through, however, and Lion Dance was back to looking at listings. Chia tells Eater SF that they put their search on pause as word of a possible pandemic began to spread. “We were actually kind of relieved” that the opening plan had fallen through, Chia says, because “we figure it would have been a bad time to open.”
But a good time to operate a pop-up and look for commercial real estate, or so it appears. Chia says that Lion Dance launched a pop-up business out of Temescal shipping container taco and quesadilla spot Tacos Oscar, which had temporarily closed during the pandemic. Almost immediately, they were crushed by the crowds, at one point selling out of all 400 dishes within eight minutes.
Clearly, they had enough of a customer base to expand, but they’d need to make a hire to prepare and serve even more goods. That wasn’t an option in Tacos Oscar’s tight kitchen, so Chia and Stanbridge started another hunt for a spot with a kitchen built for social distancing.
They found that at the former site of fast-casual falafel bar Liba, which closed in June. Their pandemic-era hunt was “definitely a more pleasant experience than the previous couple,” Stanbridge says, with landlords eager to make deals and work with the fledgling restaurateurs. “The pandemic definitely helped our negotiating position,” Stanbridge says. (Aspiring cafe owners take note: The same has been said of San Francisco property owners.)
Fans of Lion Dance’s food will have to hang in there for now, as Chia and Stanbridge say they’ll be putting all their focus toward opening the brick and mortar — which means no more pop-ups. Their next big battle is to raise enough money to get the business off the ground: While equipment and fixtures are included in their new place, there are loads of nickel-and-dime expenses that come with opening a business. The plan was the cover those costs with their savings, a nest egg built by a year of catering gigs. But with the pandemic, that catering money went toward sustaining the pop-up, and they’ve turned to crowdfunding to fill the $50,000 or so gap between dream and reality, in a campaign that launched at noon today.
While typically, restaurant Kickstarters offer intimate tasting dinners or one-on-one experiences with chefs as incentives to give, that’s clearly off the table in the COVID-19 age. Instead, Chia says, they’re offering things like a year of shaobing sandwiches for a $500 pledge, or for $100 one can cover two meals for frontline workers.
If all goes well, the plan is to open in September for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday takeout dinner (not delivery, as “we just can’t justify the costs of the third party apps,” Stanbridge says). And, eventually, when it’s safe and allowed, meals can be enjoyed in-house, as “we’ll actually have a dining room,” Chia says, a bit of wonder in her voice. “It’s small, but it’ll be ours.”