Diagnosing why Monterey County is so embarrassingly bad when it comes to creative vegetarian fare.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
The last of the Mohicans is long gone.
Only there were never many to start with – so maybe it’s more accurate to say our only Mohican, seemingly ever, has evaporated.
Mon Chay Vietnamese Vegetarian Cuisine, the lone meat-free eatery in the area that doesn’t require a rutted-road trek into the wilderness (Tassajara Zen Mountain Center), is gone from the Barnyard, its golden Buddha looking over a more common restaurant concept.
No more bald Buddhist nuns consciously selecting and preparing nourishing ingredients. No more spiritual-experience salads like the crispy white seaweed number and the majestic green papaya plate. No more crispy basil. No more “flying Buddha” curry with taro root, carrots and coconut curry. No more restaurant where vegetables and tofu are hallmarks, not hiccups.
But it’s not all losses. We do gain another painful reminder that Monterey County is flat-out remedial – at best – when it comes to vegetarian cuisine.
Sure, Chinese and Thai restaurants serve tofu-vegetarian options. Falafel is fresh and flavorful at a few spots, including new House of Gyros in Seaside. The chile relleno burrito at Papa Chevo’s is strong. Indian outlet Ambrosia offers some tasty plays. The two-page vegetarian menu at Ocean Sushi deserves a gold star, Happy Girl Kitchen at least an A-minus. First Awakenings substitutes avocado for bacon for free. Noodle Bar and Hula’s offer legit dishes, as does Chopstix, where I had a yum veggie bahn mi. Il vecchio does robust veggie pastas. Progressive spots like Big Sur Bakery, Passionfish, Lokal and 1833 have very worthy meatless features – but not many (and get pricey pronto for an everyman on an everyday budget).
But I’m talking spots like Dharmas in Santa Cruz, Herbivore in San Francisco and Encuentro in Oakland, where a January meal – with no item more than $12 – meant hazelnut-crusted polenta, celeriac-cauliflower soup and chard rolls stuffed with quinoa, sweet potatoes, caramelized onions, pine nuts and currants baked in a sublime tomato sauce with walnut-kalamata tapenade.
I turned to friend and local scuba pro George Z. Peterson, pal of TV star/chef/sustainable seafood pioneer Alton Brown, and himself a former veg-restaurant owner who’s been scouring the Peninsula for good craft beer and better vegetarian victuals for a decade.
“Even our Whole Foods lacks veg compared with other Whole Foods,” Peterson says. “Go to their cold case and you’ll see all sorts of meat lunches – and the one small section of veggie food is usually sold out. Hint hint.”
His favorite veg-restaurant will surprise only meat heads. (Another hint: It’s not Tillie Gort’s, which, despite winning our readers’ Best Of allegiance – see p. 9 – admits its slim line-up of hippie dishes doesn’t merit true veg status.)
“The best veg in town is at friends’ houses,” Peterson says. “If you want to go out, be prepared for a neverending litany of crappy Garden burgers, burritos, pizza and a few sides and appetizers cobbled together. ‘Sir, your salad and baked potato.’”
He’s got more spicy kale chips where that came from.
“Vegetarians are usually an afterthought with the obligatory meat-free dish that 50 percent of the time is a f**king portobello mushroom – a complete cop-out,” he says. “Oh fantastic, another pasta! ‘We have salads, you can take the chicken off,’ and still get charged the same $14 – or $17 if I want avocado on it. No thanks.”
Mon Chay’s website has evaporated, and the outgoing message (622-7777) mysteriously went from advertising the new tenant (Tran’s Noodle House) to nothing. The bigger mystery lurks: Why is the Salad Bowl of the World so devoid of creatively cheffed veggies?
• Opposite the vegetarian side of the spectrum, we have an old-school, greasy spoon, comfort food alert: Daddy’s Diner (883-0817) opened in Marina in the former Bamboo Pavilion Feb. 1. For those who go crazy for loco moco (rice, 9-ounce hamburger patty, three eggs, $9.65), trip out on Filipino breakfast (marinated pork, longaniza sausage, fried rice, three eggs, $9.75) and send up a flag for SOS ($8.50), this is a great place to head. Much more on the blog – including why the staff looks familiar.
• Nothing gnarlier than taking a hard-core hankering for salmon skin and Philly rolls to a spot like Sushi by the Bay (644-9626) and asking where they get their salmon, only to hear chef say “Alaskan farmed.” Which is… impossible. WTF, SBTB? More on eating to save the oceans on the blog.
• Sal Carbone of Carbone’s (643-9169), home of my favorite pool table in town, is buying the restaurant next door (formerly Zarape’s) to add a food element to his ops.
• Surf N Sand’s (624-1806) spirit showcases still rank among the best the area’s tasted. They turn to wines 6-9pm Thursday, Feb. 21, with more than 200 pours, bubblies, a beer garden, dancing and live music, plus food from the stately hosts at Pasadera. The $35-in-advance sticker is a deal ($50 at the door); all purchases are 25 percent off too.
• This would be one for the ages: Restaurant 1833 (643-1833) hosting Pisoni Vineyards and all of the principal Pisoni playmakers Monday, Feb. 25, for four paired courses from Levi Mezick like scallops with apple jelly, pan-roasted duck breast and 3-year-aged farmhouse cheddar with honey, strawberry and radish ($85).
• The new versatile café-party space at Mundaka (624-7400) – between its O.G. spot and EXPOSED Gallery – was open just in time for AT&T Pro-Am last weekend, brimming with cold tapas, sandwiches, salads, beer, wine, coffee and happy people.
• Like Han Solo says in The Empire Strikes Back, after C-3PO gives him the chances of surviving an asteroid field (3,720 to 1): “Never tell me the odds.”