Like a stripped down Whole Foods cafeteria.
Except Native Foods Café has cash registers by the entrance and runners delivering its faux-meat comfort dishes. And--Is that the faint smell of vegetable musk?
Native Foods is vegan-no meat, no dairy, no eggs. It's a franchise from Palm Springs now found in Chicago, Portland, Boulder and SoCal pockets where a steak sandwich might be expected to show compassion toward animals.
At San Diego County's first Native Foods, in a shopping plaza in Encinitas, you'll find the signature Bistro Steak Sandwich ($9.95): Subbing for beef is seitan--a protein-rich, wheat-gluten product that's thinly sliced, seared and stacked on a baguette here. On a recent dip into the café, the cashier talked me out of getting that sandwich.
"It's just a LOT of seitan."
So I ordered the Portobello and Sausage Burger (a sheet of house-made seitan simulates sausage), plus the Native Chicken Wings and a dairy-free carrot cupcake. Then I settled into a table to take in the spartan dining room.
Painted above a semi-open kitchen is Native Foods' motto: "In photosynthesis we trust." Cookbooks by Native Foods' founder Tanya Petrovna rested near the dessert display case. And the clientele that night could appear in a "Portlandia" skit: Above 40; with sensible shoes, nubby fleeces and graying pony tails (even the men).
My dinner soon arrived. Disclosure: I'm an omnivore, and I think the dilemma with most faux meat is it's usually an awful parody of real meat. Also, it seems perverse to call the practice of killing animals for food cruel, and still pay homage to animal meats on vegan menus. Why does Native Foods feel the need to do a "Classic Deli Reuben" (seitan in place of corned beef)? To indulge the phantom cravings of a former carnivore? To convert current ones?
For the Chicken Wings, Native batters and fries tubes made of free-range soy, wheat and pea protein.
Ignoring the shape for a sec (wings=tubes?), these vegan sticks had the plumpness of white chicken meat. Inside the hot crispy golden crust I found layers and tatters of satisfying flavor. Think chicken tenders...but without the chicken murdering guilt. Only toward the finish of each wing bite do you get a hint of soybean curd.
I'll make my issue with the Portobello and Sausage Burger quick: sliced mushrooms, ribbons of romaine lettuce, a smoky patty of seitan, sweet condiments (roasted garlic, creamy pumpkin-seed pesto and mayo) and cubes of flat, mealy tomatoes in the salsa pomodoro topping.
All these liquidy things soak through the whole grain buns (whole portobellos might improve the situation). But for $9.95 (sides like sweet potato fries are $1.95 extra) I kinda expect a burger beyond criticism, be it animal or plant-based.
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Read more food news from Keli Dailey on utsandiego.com