“Hold the eggs, honey, and no grated cheese, please—there is no meat in this, right?” This may sound like a high-maintenance date, but followers of a vegan diet are forced to scour menus and interrogate waiters as to specific ingredients. Many find it difficult to commit to such a source-conscious lifestyle, particularly foodies. While numerous restaurants are increasingly accommodating alternative food philosophies—with creative chefs deftly countering the claims that vegan dishes must be bland and boring—it’s still difficult to be certain of what comes out from the kitchen.
Today, however, vegans can finally rejoice, as three new restaurants have opened in Santa Barbara where a step through the front door ensures that vegan diners can choose from an entire menu. Alchemy Arts Café, Adama Vegan Comfort Cuisine, and Vegan Mario’s may differ in execution and style, yet each shares a common philosophy: to offer vegan-focused menus and to emphasize clean, healthful ingredients.
The Alchemy Arts Café (35 West Haley, 899-8811, alchemyartscenter.com) is part of the Alchemy Arts Center, a wellness spa that ties the café into the sum of its holistic parts. An airy interior boasts wood-woven chairs, high ceilings, and a beautifully crafted chalkboard wall that lists daily specials. The menu is vegan, with the only exceptions being a poached-egg dish, and a choice of goat’s milk or yogurt. It reflects the modern California movement toward using local ingredients and farmers’ market foods, fused with Asian flavors in a way that is both satisfying and cleansing. Owner Emma Narachi met Executive Chef Kai Mueller in Thailand, and urged him to come with her to Santa Barbara.
À la carte breakfast items are supplemented by fruit and vegetable coolers, sources of detoxifying hydration. Pancake lovers can indulge in buckwheat pancakes, cooked in a richly satisfying coconut oil, garnished with seeds, and served with sliced bananas and a fresh-fruit compote. Those who prefer to personalize their meals can order the Alchemy breakfast bowl and choose quinoa, buckwheat, or granola cereal, moistened with milk or yogurt, from almond to pumpkin seed, and topped by up to three toppings of fruits, nuts, seeds, and bee pollen.
Smoothies, salads, noodles, soups, and larger entrées are available for afternoon and evening dining. The Alchemy Salad is a compelling choice, made with light butter lettuce, rocket leaves, spinach, wakame, avocado, beetroot, Asian pear, goji berries, and sprouted pumpkin, sunflower, and flax seed. If vegan diets are bland, according to some, this colorful combination demonstrates that this diet can be anything but.
Half a block down Chapala is Adama (428 Chapala St., 560-1348, adamavegan.com), in the former home of Sevilla. Cozy and warm, Adama offers vegan comfort cuisine with both a bakery and sit-down restaurant in a coffee-shop-like space, where visitors can sip on organic espresso or juices while using the restaurant’s Wi-Fi. Adama aptly demonstrates a vegan’s ability to indulge in breakfast burritos, “meatball” subs, and quesadillas. Non-dairy and non-meat alternatives are used to make these comfort dishes fit the 100-percent vegan menu.
The restaurant offers homey and secluded booths to enjoy a meal from 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. A breakfast favorite is the tofu ranchero, a heaping plate of two corn tortillas, grated cashew cheddar cheese, black beans, ranchero sauce, and choice of rice, quinoa, or kasha. Scrambled egg fans can rejoice in the tofu scramble, with a texture that mimics egg while absorbing flavors of onion, broccoli, mushrooms, zucchini, and bell peppers. Lunch is based around sandwiches, from a soy-free grilled cheese to French dip seitan au jus to the Gardein chipotle panini. Meat loaf, a nostalgic go-to comfort food, is, of course, meatless and served with Russian dressing, lettuce, and onion on sourdough or whole wheat bread. Also offered are a soup of the day, pastas, salads, quiche, and cashew cheddar nachos.
Vegan Mario’s (205 Santa Barbara St., 500-EATS, veganmario.com) operates inside of the Events Unlimited organic commercial kitchen space, which opens onto a delightful outdoor patio in the Funk Zone. Mario makes small amounts of vegan, raw, sugar- and oil-free goodies just a few days a week, and is open to eat in or take out Wednesday-Saturday, noon-2:30 p.m.
Artful creations include zucchini lasagna with pesto ricotta and marinara, raw chanterelle Caprese salad, and strawberry pressed cookies with no added sugar. At the kitchen, pick up a container of No No No Pesto, a triple no for salt, dairy, or oil. Also for sale are containers of Rawlfredo and Rawinera, raw takes on classic Alfredo and marinara pasta sauces. Mario’s takes orders online, but order at least 90 minutes ahead to avoid a wait. A $25 prix fixe menu is available for walk-ins, including a beverage, three dishes, and a dessert.
From frothed coconut juice to quinoa, from meatless meatballs to No No No Pesto, it’s clear that with these new hot spots, veganism may finally be starting to thrive in Santa Barbara.