We approached Native Foods Café with a bit of trepidation because our previous encounters with faux meats had been regrettable. However, word-of-mouth has been very good for this casual vegan restaurant, so we headed for the Camp in Costa Mesa and miraculously found a parking space in the always-crowded lot. There is now valet parking for $3 if you're not as lucky as we were.
Located in the center of a cluster of restaurants and shops in this attractively landscaped venue is a round structure shaped like a circus tent. Simple booths line most of the walls and a large, round eat-at bar dominates the center of the room.
The menu is completely vegan, and most of the food is natural, organic or local, and uses only non-GMO soy. They make their own "cheeses, chicken, steak, sausage, bacon and meatballs." You order and pay at the front counter, but very personable servers bring the food to your table.
Our first starter knocked us out! Native chicken wings made from soy, wheat and pea protein really tasted a lot like chicken, with a very authentic texture. These "fingers" were battered and deep-fried and were more moist and tender than many a chicken breast we've had in our dining experiences. The batter was on the thicker side but quite crispy, very tasty and not a bit greasy. The "wings" were served with a nice "ranch" dressing and a mild Buffalo sauce.
We also enjoyed the butternut polenta bites. The dense, pesto-flavored cornmeal rounds made a tasty bed for the tiny cubes of sweet, roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions and toasted pumpkin seeds, all drizzled with a balsamic reduction. A scattering of peppery arugula provided contrast and color.
The soup of the evening was mild black bean with some dried cornbread crumbles on top. We wished for deeper flavor and more spice.
The Rockin' Moroccan bowl comes with your choice of tofu or Native chicken served over quinoa with bite-sized pieces of carrot, sweet potato, zucchini, cauliflower and broccoli, all nicely crunchy. Toasted almonds and currants provided the topping. The Moroccan marinade that sauced the two small skewered "chicken breasts" and the rest of the ingredients didn't really taste Moroccan or have enough distinctive seasoning of any kind.
Listed on the menu as a good choice for first-time guests is the Portobello sausage burger, which is quite delicious. The sausage patty had a meaty texture and a generic meaty taste. It didn't really taste like sausage, but that was OK because it was topped with a big, juicy Portobello mushroom, a mess of caramelized onions, sweet roasted garlic and mild tomato salsa. In addition, it was slathered with creamy pumpkin-seed pesto and mayo (vegenaise) and served on an excellent, slightly sweet hamburger bun.
Other recommended dishes for first-timers are Ensalada Azteca, the super Italian meatball sub, the Chicken Run Ranch Burger and the Twister Wrap (Native chicken in a whole-wheat wrap).
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the plant-based proteins that make the "meaty" ingredients in vegan cuisine, here is a little list of what Native Foods Café makes daily:
Native chicken is made from "free-range" soy, wheat and pea protein.
Native bacon, the restaurant's proprietary recipe, is thinly sliced and tofu-marinated in the chef's secret smoke-house sauce, then baked to a firm texture.
Seitan, also known as wheat meat, is the substitute for meat in sausage, Reuben sandwich, steak and meatballs, etc.
Tempeh is made with cultured soybeans and millet.
Our only real disappointment was with the pumpkin cheesecake and the peanut-butter parfait. Desserts are a real challenge in vegan cookery except for ones with fruit. Most regular desserts depend on eggs and cream, and we have yet to experience anything that replicates that mouth-feel or flavor.
For vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, Native Foods Café serves some tasty vittles in this offbeat dining complex.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Native Foods Cafe
Where: 2937 Bristol St. (in the Camp), Costa Mesa
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily