I’ve never had anything against vegans; it’s just that growing up in a traditional Midwest meat-eating family, that lifestyle was not even on my culinary radar until I moved to California. Currently, it’s not realistic for me to write and talk about food and limit my diet to plant-based cuisine.That said, a few recent trips to the new Native Foods Café in Encinitas has convinced me that I will definitely find a place for a weekly meal or two of their tasty vegan fare. I wanted to learn more about how they pull this off so I contacted one of the founding partners, Andrea McGinty, to get some insight.
Lick the Plate: My perception of vegan restaurants prior to eating at Native Foods was that of a hippie shack frequented by yoga types and smelling of patchouli … maybe an exaggeration, but in general, not very welcoming to non-vegan types. Native Foods Café is not like that at all and is very inclusive. Was that part of your strategy in designing your restaurants and menus?
Andrea McGinty: Vegan food is for everyone! Because the truth is, everyone loves delicious food. When you walk into any of our locations, we want you to feel immediately welcome, not only by the amazing smells coming out of the kitchen, but also by our wonderful staff and comfortable surroundings. Our menus were designed to introduce Native newbies to delicious and fresh plant-based cuisine using familiar terms with unique ingredients.
LTP: You even have suggestions on the menu for first-time guests. That is a brilliant touch and a great way to introduce people to plant-based dining. Can you give me a few examples of those dishes and why you selected them?
AM: We selected certain items as suggestions for first-timers because they are our best-selling items, and make a great introduction to the varied flavors and textures at Native Foods Cafe. The Super Italian Meatball Sub is a great example as people are already familiar with meatball subs, so when they order it, most people say “wait … this is vegan?” The meatballs made out of our homemade sausage seitan and fresh herbs and spices are amazing. And then we top them with marinara, fresh grilled peppers and onions and our signature pumpkin seed pesto with a drizzle of dairy-free ranch on top and cashew parmesan. The Ensalada Azteca is our most popular salad … and for good reason. Not only are you going to find a ton of fresh vegetables like crisp romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocado and jicama, but there is also quinoa for complete protein and an amazing mango lime vinaigrette
LTP: The foundation of your plant-based “meats” revolve around tempeh, seitan, Native Chicken, and Native Bacon. Can you describe these and how you prepare them to satisfy a meat eater without using meat?
AM: Tempeh is a delicately cultured protein that is made up of organic soybeans and millet. It is delicious with a slightly nutty flavor and is loaded with iron and great for digestion. We make many, many different kinds of Native Seitan. Seitan is the protein from wheat and it has a great meaty texture and is extremely versatile. You will find it in our Portobello & Sausage Burger, Greek Gyro veggie bowl, Bistro Steak Sandwich, Classic Deli Reuben and many more. Native Chicken is a blend of soy, wheat and pea protein that tastes very close to the real deal. Native Bacon is organic tofu that is thinly slice then smoked in house on our special marinade. It is really that balance of texture and flavor that keep our guests coming back.
LTP: There are no traditional sodas at Native Foods, but a selection of delicious made from scratch drinks that are quite delicious. There is also a nice selection of organic beer and wine. How did you come up with your beverage mix and does that vary in each restaurant?
AM: At all of our locations we serve Watermelon Agua Fresca, Lavender Lemonade and Native Iced Tea (which is a wildberry-infused herbal tea). Like our food, we wanted to serve three unique homemade beverages that people would love, and they do. The organic beers and wines are unique to each location, as we source locally in each area.
LTP: Your desserts are all dairy and cholesterol-free. Based on my sampling of the peanut butter parfait and chocolate cupcake, I was amazed that you are able to create such tasty treats. What are some of the secrets to pulling this off?
AM: Dairy-free can be just as rich and creamy, and throw in some fair trade chocolate, organic peanut butter and organic tofu or for the creamy and you have got it made.
So there you have it, a vegan restaurant that works for everyone. Well done Native Foods Café! Check them out at nativefoods.com and in Encinitas at 127 N. El Camino Real.