The Purple Mint Vegan Bistro (San Diego, CA)

Summer Rolls are one of the great culinary inventions in the history of man. A perfect package of crunchy vegetables, fragrant herbs, and the soft but snappy bite of rice paper enriched with the sweetness of some sort of sauce. At Purple Mint Vegetarian Bistro I appreciate that they don’t dilute the rolls with extra noodles, offering rice paper stuffed with tofu, purple mint, lettuces, basil, jicama, and carrots.  The sauce, although spiked with crushed peanuts and pickled carrots, runs bland and benefits greatly from a kick of hoisin ($5.95).
Purple Mint ups the anti on summer rolls with the Double Delight Spring Rolls ($6.25). A crispy egg-less roll bisected and wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, bean sprouts, pickled daikon, carrots, and cucumbers. Served with a light and thin sweet vinaigrette that is apparently unladylike to slurp directly from the cup.
Doubling down, the free-range Satay “Chicken” Lettuce Wraps ($12.95) is a DIY adventure of marinated chicken strips, bean-sprouts, coconut curry vermicelli, pickled daikon and carrots. Served with the same peanut sauce as the Summer Rolls, the neutral nature the sauce is bolstered with the selection of well-seasoned lettuce fillers.
Fiery “Shrimp” ($9.95) was order and enjoyed by the rest of the table. The lightly battered soy shrimp are smothered in a nightmare of sweet and sour spicy-pineapple vegan mayonnaise that everyone but me thought sounded appealing. My parents claim they taste just like the real shrimp… the exact reason I can not stomach it.
A temple of iceberg and romaine lettuce serve as the base of the Asian Chicken Salad ($11.95). Glazed with grilled soy chicken and accented with the juicy crunch of bean sprouts, slivered snow peas, tiny mandarin oranges, almonds, and crispy vermicelli, the confetti of toppings are finished with a light plum-sesame dressing.
For those avoiding protein, the Chinese Broccoli & Shitake Mushrooms ($11.50) serves simple vegetables in a light brown sauce. A few sharp onions and a mound of rice flush out the bowl.
In an industry where consistency is key, I’m caught in the conundrum that is the Kung Pao “Chicken” ($11.95)—the dish comes out different every time. Battered hunks of deep fried soy proteins come drenched with a sauce that is sometimes sticky, sometimes muggy, but somehow always good. I’m guess it’s the high salt content with the light crunch of scallions mix in pungent garlic, seared cashews, and ornamental dried chilies. The pile of steamed broccoli and jasmine rice offer respite from the salty richness of this dish that I order almost every time I’m here.
Soy shrimp, mock chicken, tofu, cashews, and tiny vegetables make up the House Combination Fried Rice ($11.75). Luckily for me there was only one shrimp, but I guess the other three people found this offerings stingy. I gnawed on the chicken while rest of the table divide up the shrimp into tiny morsels of sadness. *
Tender medallions of Japanese eggplant and sugar-cube sized nuggets of tofu under way too much sauce manages to be my second go-to dish. Be ready to eat all the rice with the saucy Eggplant & Tofu Delight ($9.95).
The fresh oranges sing with the battered Orange “Chicken” ($11.50) but the dish begs for a vegetable… so I add broccoli and $2 to my bill. Because this dish doesn’t warren broccoli, compared to the complex King Pao which does include broccoli, it prevents me from ordering it more.
Yam & Sweet Potato Curry ($10.95) with taro and king trumpet mushrooms in a thin coconut broth is a straight forward dish which offers much more flavor then is expected from its watery consistency. Served with choice of French baguette, jasmine rice or vermicelli noodles—I personally go for the rice.
If you’ve made it this far through this rambling review, here is your prize: The Lemongrass Chicken Banh Mi ($7.95). Confidently the best item on the menu (this statement applies to all of their Banh Mis). Warm soy hunks fragrant with lemongrass sauce are served warm saturating the thin walled baguette. Twisted with threads of cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon that offer more texture then flavor. But that’s alright. Against the meager offering of vegan Banh Mis in San Diego, this is the standout of the city.

The Purple Mint Vegetarian Bistro
6171 Mission Gorge Rd
San Diego, CA 92120

ThePurpleMint.com

*We did complain and ask for more shrimp—offering to pay for it—and were told no.

Garden Kitchen (San Diego, CA)

On the edge of residential Rolando, far from the sparkle of coastal locations, chef Coral Strong’s Garden Kitchen pulls from San Diego’s soil and presents the treasures in their naked glory and preserved peaks. No dish captures this as well as the Kitchen Sink ($16).

On menu it is a meat and cheese plate—but I rolled the dice on Coral’s veganization and won a bonanza. The dairy cheeses were replaced with luscious sunflower seed pate and a lemon and chive spiked cashew cheese. Served alongside spicy picked beet stem (a scrumptious no-waste solution), strawberries, blackberries, cherry tomatoes, avocado, gherkins, radish, pickled cherries, curry hummus, strawberry sage jam, strawberry rhubarb compote, smokey grilled bread, and glossy Surinam cherries from La Vigne Organics in Fallbrook (distributed via @wesavegoodfood). But the pot that I wished to drown in was the sweet and earthy fennel carrot marmalade. Assuming all vegan variations of this dish provide this level of quality and innovative, I’d say this is THE must order item in this restaurant.

The beverage menu is short and well curated. We diversified the table with a Benchmark Brewing Brown Ale and a glass of Chuparosa Vineyards (Ramona) 2016 Albarino ($12). I took a shot of the South Coast Winery (Temecula) California Girl Table White midway through the evening, but I stuck with the Albarino for the meal.

Sometime when a item is marked “vegan option” you look at the subtracts need and wonder if it will still be good. Such was the case when I eyed the Greek Artichokes ($10). Described as “baby artichokes with arugula, feta, roasted red bell pepper, tzatziki, and grilled lemon” I took the risk and ordered it. The result exceeded expectation. Feta was replaced with an invisible to the eye, but not to the tongue, sage oil and the tzatziki gave way to a rich thai coconut curry. I filled the crevasses with drippings of charred citrus and devoured the entire flower, including its carefully dissected heart.

Waves made still in the mire of Cream of Butternut Squash ($8). Pureed squash with a modest amount of house-made vegetable broth and topped with crisp sage leaves.

Berry Goat ($14) arugula, strawberries, blackberries, roasted fennel,  candied pecans, shaved radish, and red onion in a strawberry champagne vinaigrette. In lieu of goat cheese, chef Strong offers up avocado and radishes. Roughage was needs for this meal, but the avocado didn’t temper the tart of the berries they way a cheese would. But having just indulged ourselves in the Kitchen Sink, I understand the chef’s attempt to not repeat herself with a cashew cheese.

Tacos–especially those filled with mushrooms–are never my first pick. But that was the vegan option my night at Garden Kitchen. Double stacked, scratch-made, corn tortillas could not contain the heaping base of finely ground cremini “Chorizo,” nugs of hass avocado, cabbage, carrot and fennel slaw finished off with a strawberry pico de gallo ($20). As I’ve always complained about tacos, a fork was necessary to transport these into my mouth. But while I may lament form, I am thrilled to encounter fruit in unexpected places. Here, strawberries got to expose their savory side–tart and crunch twinkled in the forefront as sweetness slid behind the scenes. The pot of black beans were rich with seasonings of the southern islands and I feel eminently guilty for having not scraped that ramekin completely clean.

With one vegan dessert option listed, Chocolate Mousse ($9), the waitress let us know the kitchen could also make us a Peach & Blueberry Crisp ($9). Stuffed silly and unable to reach a conclusion, we let the kitchen choose: The kitchen chose both. The base of summer fruit, tart with lemon zest, lies hidden under a crisp on top and oatmeal gooey below cinnamon and steel cut streusel. Mildly sweet, as fruits should be, it was no match for the luscious glass of chocolate-whipped avocado and coconut cream, grounded by base notes of mocha powder and tart cymbals of strawberries.

Beyond the thoughtful vegan options, Garden Kitchen stands as my ideal restaurant. A space build without pretension–a renovated home patio made cozy with awnings and heat lamps and the occasional wail of a babe living next door–Chef Coral’s presence screams sincerity. She takes each table to heart, serving her talents without ego, and enabling her staff to funnel the kitchens graces through attentive service and culinary accommodation. It kills me to think there are people missing out of this restaurant simply because of its location.  But on a random week night the house seems full enough to keep a smile on chef Coral’s face and my table full of wine and surprise vegan dishes beyond what the menu promises. If I had the means, I’d eat here regularity. But till then, I’ll be directing as many as I can to come to Rolando for what is truly a taste of San Diego.

Garden Kitchen
4204 Rolando Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92175

gardenkitchensd.com

Fairouz Cafe and Gallery (San Diego, CA)

Art filled walls surround diners in San Diego’s Fairouz Cafe & Gallery, by owner Ibrahim Al Nashashibi, and numerous vegan options fill the hot and cold trays of the all day Greek and Lebanese buffet (Lunch $12.99 / Dinner $15.99).  All clearly marked and generous, the buffet makes for an easy-to-dine-together meal for difficult groups—but for those not partial to food sitting out all day, there is table service as well.

And the table service is exquisite. Cafe level friendliness with handsomely plated portions of masterfully executed Mediterranean favorites. The Hummus (Small $5.99 / Large $7.99)—rich and creamy with nutty tahini, a splash of lemon, and a drizzle of olive oil—is a lovely as can be found in San Diego. The Falafel (Small $5.99 / Large $7.99), golden and pale with more chickpea then herb, comes with marinated red cabbage and a knob of salad.


Large chunks of baked eggplant, mixed with tomatoes, parsley, and garlic, all marinated in lemon juice and olive oil make up the Mufasakh (Small $6.99 / Large $8.99). Generous and easy to share but still, I’d probably skip this dish in the future.

A Fatoosh Salad ($6.99) is a welcomed addition to any meal. A crisp pile of chopped romaine lettuce, tomatoes, onion, cucumber, mint, and parsley with crisps of toasted pita and tossed with lemon juice and olive oil.


The Baba Ghanouj (Small $5.99 / Large $7.99) is top of the line. A luscious puree of smokey eggplant,  tahineh, lemon juice and garlic that is a must order.

Perhaps the best dish is the Dolmathes ($7.99). Brined grapeleaves rolled up with rice, chopped tomatoes, onions and parsley that taste like kisses of Mediterranean sea air in a San Diego strip mall. In fact, it may be worth getting the buffet just to gorge on this fat thumbs of joy.

Fairouz Cafe & Gallery
3166 Midway Dr
Ste 102
San Diego, CA 92110

fairouzcafeandgallery.com