North Park area explodes with chefs and diners experimenting with vegetarian cuisine
Story and Photos by Katelyn O’Riordan
The past few years have seen a marked shift in the urbanization of North Park. Vibrant culture, active entertainment, stretches of retail shops and an influx of restaurants serve up culturally diverse cuisine with a focus on healthful ingredients and innovative tastes.
North Park, and its surrounding neighborhoods, is quickly developing as a mecca for chefs who are celebrating their culinary roots. So, it should come as no surprise that with eclectic eating establishments arriving on every corner, experimentation with vegetarian cuisine, by both chefs and diners, is becoming more prominent than ever.
The term “vegetarian” was conceived in 1847 by the founders of the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain. Vegetarian simply refers to a person who does not consume animal products, including land and sea animals. Largely, they do consume eggs and dairy products.
Over the years, a number of variations to a vegetarian diet have surfaced, including Lacto-Vegetarian, Ovo-Vegetarian, Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian, and most commonly, Vegan. Vegan diets focus on plant-based foods, excluding all flesh from animal sources — meat, fish or fowl — as well as any item made from animal products, such as dairy, eggs and honey. Vegans also avoid products with animal-derived by-products such as gelatin and beeswax.
Motivations for choosing a vegetarian diet vary: philosophical reasons, religious aims, compassion for animals, ecological purposes or a simple desire for a healthy meal. Whatever the reason may be, all vegetarians have a common awareness for food being put into the body. And North Park chefs are passionately preparing vegetarian dishes that not only meet the dietary requirements, but are delicious, creative and fresh.
Opened in February 2009, Alchemy’s name is its motto: to transmute simple substances, usually of little value, into substances of great value. The menu consists of both non-vegetarian and vegetarian options. “While there are vegetarian restaurants around town, it’s somewhat difficult to convince a non-vegetarian to go to those places, so we offer a standard menu as well so that there is something for everyone,” said co-Owner Ron Troyano.
Alchemy’s Chef, Ricardo Heredia, is inspired by his background, serving up cultural fare using seasonal ingredients. In fact, on Wednesdays, Alchemy serves a three-course Farmer’s Market vegetarian tasting menu based on what’s available from the farms for that week. Heredia creates the three-course menu on a whim, typically on that Wednesday morning, filling your belly with inspired, sustainable creations at a reasonable price of $25.
Most of the vegetarian items can be requested vegan. Items on the tasting menu are rarely repeated, and each week plays host to a new menu with colorful dishes fostering the freshest produce. From the Street Food section of the traditional menu, try the Squash Blossoms, a melt-in-your-mouth blend of lightly tempura battered squash stuffed with herbed ricotta, drizzled with basil oil.
“We have focused a section of the menu on vegetarian cuisine to offer something special for a group that is often underserviced on traditional menus. Our chef (Heredia) works very closely with the local farms to capitalize on the freshest ingredients available,” said Troyano.
The American Dietetic Association affirms that, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases… Well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.”
No stranger to the neighborhood, Harar Ethiopian Restaurant has been serving vegetarian fare for 12 years and is one of North Park’s best-kept secrets, probably because its location is easy to miss. But once you make it in the door, the warm staff welcomes with smiles, and provides a treasure of flavorful, exotic and inexpensive food. Meskerem Bekele, co-owner of Harar, helps navigate the menu if you are new to Ethiopian cuisine.
Another restaurant serving both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, Harar delivers the flavors of East Africa in simple, well-prepared dishes. All meals are served with injera, the spongy, pancake-like bread that is a staple of the Ethiopian diet. Don’t expect silverware at this local haunt; the food is meant to be eaten with your fingers, using the injera bread as a spoon to scoop your meal. Try the crispy lentil sambusa appetizer, and the vegetarian combination plate. On Friday evenings, Harar hosts an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet.
The rise in the number of vegetarian restaurants in San Diego means that eating vegetarian doesn’t require giving up the tastes you love, and dining on vegetarian food has a number of health benefits. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, with higher levels of fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals.
Accordingly, individuals focusing on well-balanced vegetarian diets tend to have lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, lower blood cholesterol levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians also tend to have lower body mass indices and lower overall cancer rates.
At Tao Restaurant, located at 3332 Adams Ave., vegetarian and vegan diners commune over owner and chef Hung “Eric” Tao’s home-made tofu, which he learned to make in China, as well as fresh handmade soymilk and spicy Asian-inspired dishes. The walls are covered in Sharpie at this neighborhood favorite, with hundreds of signatures, reviews and dish recommendations from past diners, only further encouraging your upcoming meal.
Tao Restaurant is committed to their vegetarian cuisine, and use 100 percent soy oil, no MSG, and all vegetarian dishes are prepared in a separate cooking compartment. The smooth, almost creamy, tofu is made fresh daily and is a favorite among diners, attracting not only vegetarians but health-conscious individuals of all stripes. Tao, which opened in July 2009, dedicates an entire page of its menu to a wonderful selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes, with plenty of other options for non-vegetarians as well. Chef Tao likes to keep things spicy, so beware of the numeric value you use to rate desired spiciness. Our waitress, Maggie Wan, explained “level 5 spiciness is hot, hot hot!”
The dining space at Tao is cozy, but fairly limited, and the tables fill up quickly. The portions are substantial, the cuisine is exceptional and the staff is extremely welcoming. Tao even walks the room consistently to engage with customers and to ensure that their meals are satisfying. Meals begin with a complimentary tofu ginger salad dressed in tangy raspberry vinaigrette, a regular sentiment that Tao sends to diners to showcase his famous tofu. For a delicious vegetarian meal, try the tempura vegetables, and Tao’s Handmade Tofu Rice Pot, a mix of tofu, zucchini, shitake mushrooms, onions and rice. If you’re still hungry, the restaurant offers complimentary sorbet ice cream — such as green tea, strawberry or lemon — to finish the meal.
With San Diego’s Veg Week taking place from Oct. 2-9, it’s the perfect time to venture out and sample the array of vegetarian-friendly restaurants that make “America’s Finest City” an ideal place to abstain from meat and concentrate on fresh fruits and veggies. For more information, visit sdvegweek.com.
For some additional vegetarian restaurants to review on your own in the North Park area, try Jyoti Bihanga, an all-vegetarian restaurant owned and operated by the students of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy, the Indian spiritual leader, since 1986; Ranchos Mexican & Vegetarian Cuisine, operating two different locations, with vegan, vegetarian, and non-vegetarian options; Thai Time, a restaurant serving vegetarian dishes with tofu and mock duck.