Plant-based Cuisine

Think vegetarian food means only soyrizo and kasha? Think again. A whole new crop of veg eateries is sprouting up across the Central Coast with tasty dishes in every color of the rainbow.

By Jaime Lewis

My brush with vegetarianism began in September of 1994 and ended in November of the same year. (A sandwich made from leftover Thanksgiving turkey, smeared with cranberry sauce, caused my downfall; I remain weak in the face of leftovers sandwiches.) During that short foray into meat-free territory, I’d congratulated myself on consuming bean and cheese burritos, baked Lays potato chips, and fried tofu, with nary a leaf to be seen.

Today I’m a happy omnivore, but I so appreciate the new wave of plant-based dishes and eateries emerging in SLO County. Instead of just excluding meat, these restaurants focus on the inclusion of fruits, vegetables and grains—often locally sourced—and the results are nothing short of culinary alchemy.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, these places are obviously your jam, but even if you’re not, you might be surprised how happy your tummy and taste buds will be after a visit. So what are you waiting for? Let’s get leafy.

Bright, Hip, and Veg-tastic

Walking into Planted Juice Bar & Eatery in the Arroyo Grande Village is not unlike walking into an of-the-moment new-wave bistro like Plant Food & Wine in Venice Beach or Mesa Verde in Santa Barbara: the vibe of this breakfast, lunch, and dinner spot is crisp and modern, yet totally approachable. Kathy and Glenn Essen opened Planted in February after owning another Arroyo Grande staple, CJ’s Cafe, for many years—a surprising move considering CJ’s diner-like atmosphere, menu, and clientele.

“We wanted something different,” says Kathy, who meets with me over lunch. “We like to eat more like this—not exclusively, but we like the option.”

Another impetus for opening Planted was the Essen’s daughter, Jessica, who studied holistic nutrition and culinary arts at Bauman College in Boulder, Colorado. She is responsible for developing Planted’s menu, while the Essen’s other two children, Olivia and CJ, can also be found in the kitchen.

The Essens are proud to offer dishes for any kind of eater, whether vegetarian, vegan, raw, gluten-free or cane-sugar-free. Popular items include the Heavenly Jalapeño Burger, with a black bean patty, caramelized onion, coleslaw, avocado, jalapeño-cashew “cream cheese,” and dijon, on a vegan bun; and the Mother Grain Salad with quinoa, kale, roasted carrot, tamari, crusted tofu, chopped almonds, and a lemon-ginger dressing. But the item I’ll be returning to Planted for is the Chocolate Mousse Pie: creamy, rich and sweet with coconut cream, cocoa, and dates in a nut crust. If even my white-sugar-lusting kids and husband call this dessert delicious—and they do—I consider it a marvel by any standard.

Eastern Vegan Eats

“We were the first one-hundred-percent plant-based menu in SLO County, I think,” says David Fintel, the Cal Poly alum who opened Bliss Cafe in San Luis Obispo in 2011 with Chef Palaka Sauer. “We wanted to make the world a better place, and came to the realization we could do that by serving plant-based cuisine that’s sustainably sourced.”

Surrounded by Bliss Cafe’s goldenrod walls, Tibetan prayer flags, and classical Indian paintings, I enjoy an equally colorful breakfast of grilled tempeh tacos while talking to Fintel about the concept of ahimsa, an Eastern commitment to do no harm to living things. This perspective infuses the menu at Bliss, which is entirely vegan, mostly organic, and operates according to a hybrid of ayurvedic (ancient medicine) principles.

Tucked away from the well-trod sidewalks of Higuera Street, Bliss is easy to overlook (in more ways than one!), but don’t let that happen. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Bliss is great for fresh juices, smoothies, coffee, desserts (try the gluten-free Chai Donut or a nutrient-dense “Bliss Ball”), as well as salads, wraps, soups, and more. Plus, when you leave, you’ll carry the good vibes of knowing you’ve done no harm to any living thing. And how often can you say that?

Business in the Front, (Plant-based Party in the Back)

In some ways, Soto’s True Earth Market in Cambria hasn’t changed much since it opened a century ago—it’s still a pint-sized downtown grocer—but in most ways, it’s a completely different animal. Today, its shelves are packed with a spectacular array of organic ingredients and goods, plus Soto’s now boasts a deli counter in the back, full of nutritious salads, soups, sandwiches, and wraps made from peak produce, proteins, and grains.

“It was a big deal for Cambria to get a health food store,” says Jeanne Brody, Soto’s chef, who studied at the Cordon Bleu and spent time in the kitchen of San Francisco’s famous vegetarian restaurant, Greens. “We wanted to offer a plant-based, whole-food selection that’s elegant and upscale that Cambria didn’t yet have.”

While Soto’s deli isn’t strictly vegetarian (I’m told the chicken bahn mi is to die for) Brody cooks with all sorts of eaters in mind, including vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free, and paleo diners. For lunch, she offers me a piadina (Italian flatbread, almost like a tortilla) folded over charred veggies and melted brie, as well as a trio of colorful plant-based salads: Summer Confetti Quinoa Salad with edamame, fresh corn, and French vinaigrette; Sesame Udon Noodles (commonly known as “Cambria Crack” for the dish’s addictive properties); and Farro Salad with grilled asparagus, portobello mushrooms, and shaved pecorino.

“It’s global comfort food,” says Brody as I chew and nod my head in agreement. Indeed, it is comforting knowing I can nourish myself with colorful, wholesome, delicious plant-based cuisine here on the Central Coast.

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