Favorite SD Spot: Nature’s Express

I never explored San Diego that much when I was living there, and certainly not the handful of vegetarian restaurants but! Whenever I visit now I try to fit them in. On my vacation week down there I had so much good veg food, which my pals were sweet enough to indulge me in.

The restaurant has two buildings - one for takeout and hot food, like veggie burgers and delectable sweet potato fries (with homemade ketchup) and the other with the salad bar, desserts, dining area, etc.

The restaurant has two buildings - one for takeout and hot food, like veggie burgers and delectable sweet potato fries (with homemade ketchup) and the other with the salad bar, desserts, dining area, etc.

The location of this place is superb, on 5th Ave. next to Balboa Park near Hillcrest (my regular haunt) and right next to Extraordinary Desserts, which is its own SD legend.

Everything on the menu looks delicious and vegan, if you don’t count certain burgers at the drive thru – and it is EXTENSIVE. Check it: faux meats, vegan soft serve, tempeh, pies and cakes, italian-style veggie bakes, veg indian food, wraps, soups, “chick’n” and gravy, brunch food like waffles/pancakes, etc. etc. etc.

1/3 of the salad bar. The prices are kind of unbelievable. 3 for a small plate that you can pack up to 2 inches (who ever follows that rule) and larger ones for 7.50

1/3 of the salad bar. The prices are kind of unbelievable. 3 for a small plate that you can pack up to 2 inches (who ever follows that rule) and larger ones for 7.50

I don’t know how popular the raw food lifestyle is everywhere else, but it’s had a huge growth where I live and on food blogs on-line. In the Bay Area it’s really hard on the wallet to eat at raw restaurants all the time, but I could not believe how affordable Nature’s Express was. They have an entire section of the salad bar dedicated to raw/live foods, which often takes a lot of intense prep work/exotic ingredients if you’re trying to replicate it at home. I came mostly to eat the raw food, like raw hummus, tabbouleh, zucchini noodles with creamy marinara, sea veggie salad, and so on. But I also tried some sweet potato fries. And a baked spinach square. And gravy. Aaaand chocolate “cheese”cake.

Is this not glorious. I am an engineer of record-breaking towers of food

Is this not glorious. I am an engineer of record-breaking towers of food. It was NOT 2 inches...if you know what I mean.

I loved everything. Every component was its own unique dish, fresh, flavorful, with the perfect amount of seasoning to make it sing. The condiment bar also had amazing raw food staples such as shoyu sauce, nutritional yeast, bragg’s, agave, and so on. I could not have been more excited and I scared myself as well the others inside. The waiter was unflappable though, prob because of all his spiritual enlightenment, which can also be yours if you sign up for classes he teaches on the side. I’m pretty fascinated by this amusing lifestyle they always try to market. I totally believe in the health benefits of raw veganism but I’m kind of spiritually barren and not sure if even an avocado can change that.

raw and cooked desserts! most run for 5 a piece, compared to 8 in my area

raw and cooked desserts! most run for 5 a piece, compared to 8 in my area

I think I took a picture of the chocolate cheesecake I had, but didn’t get it from my friend. I’m not a huge fan of cheesecake, but I thought it was raw so I tried it, but now I’m not so sure it was. Anyway, it was very delicious but I was in a delusional state of rapture and everything I ate tasted like manna. Which I would also be interested in eating. Manna party!

I love the enthusiastic signs. I feel them!

I love the enthusiastic signs. I feel them!

They seriously discount their already cheap food? I am ready to drop out and move across the street from this place. Those bottles you see below this shelf is kombucha! I have mixed feelings about kombucha, but I know if I drank it more often we’d have an addiction in our hands. I don’t know anything else that tastes so nasty/delicious. Maybe it’s like cheese for some folks.

I ate until I could eat no more and then was rolled to Ex. Desserts

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Cafe Gratitude

           I finally got to try Cafe Gratitude a couple weeks ago with C! It took us years to finally take the plunge simply because there are too many good restaurants around that area but I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t escpecially surprised either, though. One of those places I’ll think fondly of but because of the prices I might not go back for quite a while. I wrote a piece about the experience so I’m posting excerpts of that. From this point on I’ll just be posting to this blog exclusively and I won’t have to write so formally. Apologies for the mediocre pictures – I wasn’t planning to share them at the time! Also researching better cameras as we speak.

 

“…I genuinely perked when we walked into Cafe Gratitude. We can’t really be blamed for postponing it for three years – Café Gratitude’s just the place you walk past on the way to Cheeseboard, or, if you’ve won the lotto, Chez Panisse. The adventurous might stop to scan a menu. A peek inside the Café at the svelte clientele donning dreads and earth-toned frocks doesn’t exactly get the mouth watering. No aromas of roasted chicken or garlic naan waft out of the kitchen, like the restaurants on either side of it, but spurts of singing often do. The veggie enthusiast in me anticipated a refreshing meal, while the first-generation immigrant loomed over her waving a cleaver, demanding to know what establishment could justify charging Ritz prices for backyard salads.

            We walked in early for dinner and physically prepared, that is to say famished, to give the food a generous handicap. The hostess greeted us naturally and innocuously enough, seating us at the best table in the house – a heavy wood table carved with designs that looked like it could have been shipped from Asia. It was nestled into a corner with brightly cushioned benches and throw pillows made of the same gauzy cotton many of the clients wore. A couple glass beakers of water and glasses with what appeared to be threadbare dish rags shoved inside them show up at our table. I looked around for diners using new napkins, without success. I imagined a room in the back where, in a fit of glee, they dance upon crisp new napkins until satisfied with their degree of dilapidation, so as to uphold the euphemistically “rustic” décor. Perhaps they coerced a mechanic into donating his used cloth wipers. Actually, according to their website this is not too far from the truth, as Café Gratitude orders them from auto suppliers and later sends them on to their intended resting place among dipsticks and spark plugs.

            The waitress approaches, looking conventional her attire of plain black pants and t-shirt. Her plump, shiny cheeks indicate she’s been well-fed her entire life and bolsters my hope for the meal to come.

            “We’d like to split the I Am Abundant appetizer sampler…”

            “You ARE abundant!” She insists.

            What faith! No one had supported a decision of mine so wholeheartedly, not even when I promised my parents at five that I wasn’t going to swallow any more shiny objects. I chuckle to show I’m comfortable, and so she won’t feel the need to do it again.

            “…and the I Am Whole microbiotic bowl.”

            “You ARE whole!”

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A modest-sized plate held I Am Abundant, piled high with colors and textures resembling potpourri, perfect for a lover of exotic medleys and flavors like myself. A kaleidoscope of julienned vegetables wrapped in spinach and smeared with avocado-cilantro sauce towered over the other appetizers – their vegan raw version of sushi. It tasted like green and not much else. A sprig of basil in the center overpowered the other flavors except the creamy, nutty sauce, and I eagerly moved on.

            Their nacho reinvention included two sesame seed crackers, gold and almost translucent, with the creamy sauce drizzled in crisscross over them. The textures combined flawlessly, though like most cheese imitations, the sauce fooled no one. The hummus dip and olive tapenade accompanied brown crackers that  tasted like burned coffee and crumbled into ash upon contact with saliva. Despite my disappointment, I would’ve eaten as many as they put on the plate. I couldn’t forgive them for providing only two crackers for two different dips the size of billiard balls.

            My favorite sample on the plate was the forest-green salad, with what I could identify as seaweed, mushrooms, kale, and perfectly toasted teriyaki almonds on top. A thimble-sized container in the center – typically used for condiments – held a  lumpy liquid that I took for yet another dip. Instead it was a lukewarm sample of their azuki soup, less than the amount of cough syrup I’d drink in a rush. Unfortunately, the only thing abundant on this plate, and the entree, was the salt content. Perhaps it was a slip of the hand, or the cook – would you call her that? – truly believes the flavors of natural produce require the bombastic enhancement of salt. I felt patronized for the excess and even worse, felt like I’d swallowed an ocean by the end of the night after guzzling both beakers of water.

 

 

who could resist a yellow bowl with pea sprouts

who could resist a yellow bowl with pea sprouts

 

 

 

 

            Though aggressively salted, the I Am Whole bowl had a myriad of fresh and fancy ingredients to make me want to return for more and go lighter on the cilantro-tahini sauce. Arranged tediously in a beautiful array like a Korean bibimbap with a pile of perky pea sprouts on top, as if they had just been plucked from the ground. We chose the particular bowl for its unique combination of flavors: red rice, quinoa, kale, various seaweeds, “kimchee”– though without chili or the amazing fizzy, fermented quality of its Korean counterpart – and a generous handful of the same almonds I hogged in the appetizer. Both their sweet flavor and crunch accentuated all the other components.

            Unsurprisingly, nuts, seeds and avocado lend themselves to almost every dish with their high protein and fat content and ability to resemble dairy products, at least to raw foodists. They’re featured heavily in everything from cheesecakes, burgers, and mayonnaise, proving that followers aren’t subsisting only on salads. Dates, bananas and agave nectar substitute sugar and eggs in desserts, while nutritional yeast, a complete protein and high in B-vitamins, adds the tang to most “cheeze” recipes.

            Preparing these snacks to resemble their cooked counterparts requires a tedious and lengthy process. Indispensable techniques include juicing, sprouting, blending, and, in the case of crackers, dehydrating. When you go to Cafe Gratitude, don’t expect to tuck into an Italian nonna’s hundred-year-old recipe. Go to see hip, bubbly chefs grind up some seeds, spread them in a dehydrator, spread it with some nut cheeze and fresh vegetables and call it “live pizza!” I go to taste innovation. Every component takes time to perfect under the strict regulations, and they know that diners come for the experience and philosophy behind it as much as the food.

            With a rough tidal wave in my stomach, I waddled out of Cafe Gratitude, surprisingly cheery. I’d savored every bite of the bowl and prohibited myself from feeling conned into someone else’s commoditization of “natural” or “spiritual.” Cafe Gratitude has opened five locations in the Bay Area so far, and perhaps the idea of selling a culture founded upon nature and spirituality is baffling to some, but the founders know how to fill a niche while staying sensitive and respectful of the environment. For this, they should be unapologetic for the recognition and profit they’ve earned. The experience may be off-putting to skeptics, but they convinced this one to believe that happiness comes in all forms and is highly contagious. Despite the prices and kooky atmosphere, I couldn’t find much to complain about, and that was the point.”

Ranzan Organic Kitchen tonight!

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