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

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Pokez (San Diego, CA)

One thing I know to be true about San Diego vegans: You are either a Rancho’s person or a Pokez person (plus a few Liticker’s punks). Me, I give all my marbles to Pokez. One of the few quantifiable reasons I can understand people preferring Rancho’s is their vegan cheese. But a dusting of unmelted Daiya isn’t going to sway my heart—especially when I can bask in the warmth of Pokez’s Potato Flautas ($8.79).

What do potato flautas have to do with vegan cheese? Well, if you’ve ever been online you’ve probably seen a million links to vegan “potato cheese.” People swear by the gummy, oozing, texture of warm, zealously-whipped, hot potatoes—and when you take that concept and roll it up in a deep-fried flour tortilla and top it with guacamole, pico, and iceberg with a side of rice and beans, you get my favorite San Diego Chicano dish that is not a burrito stuffed with tofu, potato, and mushrooms.

The Tofu, Mushroom, Potato Burrito ($7.75) at is where my Pokez’ affection began. Charred chewy bits and pale hearts ngari-firmed San Diego Soy Dairy tofu clump together in creamy potatoes with chewy sauteed button mushrooms. Wrapped with crisp iceberg and pico, the heft is smothered in (an optional) gravy-like Rancho sauce. Served with a signature scoop of Pokez’ cabbage salad—a crisp collection and simple and mysterious ingredients that gain infamy to all who try it.

 

The Tofu Fajitas ($11.75) are another frequent visitor to my table. Yes, both these plates above make up the single dish. Smoke singles arise from the sizzling cast iron platter of seared tofu with tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions dripping with a glossy, almost teriyaki-style, sauce.  The second plate holds the “garnishes”: guacamole, salsa fresca, the infamous cabbage salad, yellow rice, refined beans and a roll of seamed corn or flour tortillas. There should definitely be leftovers when ordering this dish, if not, I think there maybe something wring with you because no human should be able to consume this much good food in one sitting.

 

Apparently Machaca ($7.25) is a classic thing people ate growing up, or growing out, and still get really excited about. The blend of sauteed onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and crushed tofu is more akin to a scramble in my eye—and as a vegetable laden scramble, it is quite successful.

Every so often I wild flame runs through body and I order something new to me Pokez. I’ve yet to be dissatisfied with any—ANY—choice made. Such as the time I ordered this Tofu Burrito ($7.50)—a girth of refried pinto beans, rice, San Diego Soy Dairy tofu, a cool swath of guacamole, salsa fresca, and lettuce.

One day I was feeling “healthy” and so ordered the Tostada Tofu Salad ($8.75) which I now think is the unhealthiest menu item. The deep fried flour tortilla bowl is layered with beans, tomatoes, lettuce, salsa fresca, and guacamole then topped with a fan of seasoned tofu. Despite feeling engorged before ordering it, I loved the quarter of the bowl that I managed to devour right after this photo was taken and the 3/4 of the bowl I ate for lunch the next day.

Intellectually I understand that there are people who don’t like Pokez–the vote tally on Vegan in San Diego’s Best of SD made the majority opinion all too clear. For those who don’t care for sticker laden bathrooms, kind but non-pandering service, and sharing a dining room with people putting Mitski and Misfits on the jukebox, it’s awesome that San Diego has other vegan friendly Mexican joints for you. But for those of you who value food that tastes good, I’ll see you in one of Pokez’ wooden booths soothing our hunger with cabbage salad and smothered our souls in Ranchera sauce.

Pokez
947 E St.
San Diego, CA 92101

pokezrestaurant.com

Chopsticks Inn (La Mesa, CA)

Swollen with naivety and fortitude, in 2003 I moved in New York City. I knew few people so though nothing of the 90 minute subway ride from Bed Stuy to the Bronx to see a familiar face. The reward for this proved to be much more then conversation, it was my introduction to an iconic NYC dish: General Tso’s Tofu.  A quintessentially Chinese-American sauce—cloyingly sweet and salty with soy—shellacked on cubes of deep fried soft tofu, scattered with ornamental dried chilies, and strewn with lightly steamed broccoli. To be cliche, it was love at first bite.

During my NYC tenure I ate this dish frequently—about 52 times a year—but moving to California killed the affair. Not because my heart no longer yearns for glazed crispy tofu, but because it seems no one else in San Diego’s does. General Tso’s Tofu is near impossible to find*—although I have a good source in Los Angeles, made with soy chicken, if you are so inclined.

Enter Debora, who queued me in on a source to quench my craving: Chopsticks Inn. The restaurant is built on the pan-Asian kitchen of Annie Chui and retains all the charm of it’s 1988 debut. They don’t have General Tso, but it’s close enough. It’s close enough…

Chopsticks Inn (San Diego, CA)

Before we hit fryers, lets take a moment to honor the perfect execution of this classic 1960’s Chinese-American dish: Vegetable Moo Shu ($12.25). Prepared table-side, the thin flour pancakes are spread with sweet and pungent hoisin sauce then stacked with sautéed vegetables and rolled burrito style by the waiter using only a set of spoons. On my last visit the waiter shooed me away from this dish, swearing that commercial hoisin sauce is not vegan. This lead me down an internet rabbit hole of research from which I emerged knowing that in Chinese hoisin literally translates to”seafood” or “sea freshness” but today’s rendition of the sauce contains no seafood nor is it used on seafood. I also scoured the ingredients of various restaurant grade hoisins and could find none that were not nominally** vegan.

No matter how much we insisted we were cool with hoisn the waiter was having none it. Moving on to purer pastures we tried the Vegetarian Dumpling ($6.55). Slicing one open I halted consumption, sure we accidentally got chicken. Waving the waiter over I showed him the interior looking to confirm my suspicion. Instead he explained that their “vegetarian dumplings” are not “vegetable” but are instead filled with minced soy meat mimicking a chicken dumpling. Relieved we devoured them with the fresh ginger laced soy sauce. They were okay, rather bland. I would have preferred a minced vegetable filling… which leads me to believe that maybe vegetable dumplings are simply better then chicken ones, vegan or not.

Although there is no General Tso on the menu, the Sweet and Pungent Chicken ($12.55) keeps me coming back. Battered soy chicken fried crisp and enameled in a sweet pineapple, soy, and chili sauce with chunks of pineapple and broccoli. While I’m not sure what makes this dish pungent, it otherwise hit all my happiness receptors. 

The sticky sweet Orange Flavored Sauce Veggie Chicken ($12.25) is a close second. The same battered and fried soy nuggets are tossed in a glassy orange sauce with chopped celery and plated with charming orange slices and maraschino cherries. 

On one particularly indecisive day, we mulled over the menu unsure of what to get. The waiter saw our fret and recommended the Sauteed Fresh Asparagus with Beef ($12.75). We were hesitant but he insisted, promising this was one if their best vegan dishes. Proudly he presented the wok kissed asparagus tossed with slivers of carrot, onions, and tears of vegan beef glistening in black bean sauce which up until then I thought I hated. But I don’t hate it. At all.

In fact, I now love black bean sauce. Until Chopsticks Inn I assumed the black beans in question were the same kind served with rice at Cuban restaurants or Chipotle–I know, naivety persists. This black bean sauce is composed of pungent salt fermented black soy beans, soy sauce, garlic, and some other wonderful things.

Chopsticks Inn (San Diego, CA)

This is the waiter. I should know his name, but I don’t. I do know his father is vegan (including the omission of onions and garlic) and that no mater how much he huffs about Chopsticks Inn not being a vegan restaurant, he is one of the most accommodating waiters I’ve have the pleasure of dining with.

Chopsticks Inn
8687 La Mesa Blvd.
La Mesa, CA 91942

chopsticksinncuisine.com

*Yes, Spiz has General Tso Tofubut it’s not, ummm, good.

**I say nominally because some have the “may contain” disclaimer. Some also include “red dye 40” which some still think is made of bugs. It is not.

Kafe Sobaka Restoran Pomegranate (San Diego, CA)

I can’t put me finger on it. Kafe Sobaka Restoran Pomegranate‘s blend of dark Communist humor, Soviet hospitality, Georgian wine, topped with a plentiful selections of vegan options  is so uncommon in the restaurant world. It beckons me with charm and salad, while at the same time flippantly tossing my kudos out the door.

The skill of the kitchen, and diversity of the cuisine, dances around the silver dimples of the Zakuski Sampler Platter. Or as Kafe Sobaka puts it, “For those who left their GPS in the car, allow our wait staff to orient you to the possibilities. ($Anarchist).” Our platter included all the vegan salads—plus a few off-menu items. While some salads—like the Lobio: Pâté style red beans with herbs, walnuts, tomatoes, and onions—were better then others, all were full of sharp, fierce flavors. I’m inclined to call it one of the San Diego’s best vegan dishes.

But the star of the platter—and for some crazy reason it’s not on the menu—is the Badridzhani Nigvsit. A thick walnut pate spiked with pungent garlic and cilantro, wrapped in a thin leaf of fried eggplant, and finished off with a tart balsamic reduction. We scraped the bottom of the dish and ordered three more.

Chilled water comes served in spent vodka bottles and the Borscht ($6.75) is a supple specimen of a pervasive Eastern dish.

Anther favorite of the table was the Derevenskaya Skovorodka ($10) “Golden fried potatoes, onions, mushrooms, peppers and herbs served in a cast iron skillet. This sets the stage for gulping beer. For this dish I could easily kill my older brother.” An excellent hash, whose surprisingly savory hunks of mushrooms impressed the mushroom hater that is me. The iron comes with a not at all shy hot sauce and a sprinkle of cilantro. We murdered this pan, but not our brothers.

The special of the night brought on these Vegan Pumpkin Dumplings. Tender eastern European skins are filled with coarsely pureed fresh pumpkin and legions of garlic. Topped with a small pat of fresh dill, these are reminiscent of—but not nearly as good as—the pockets I grew so fond of while in traveling Prague.

Sometime you can just let the dishes describe themselves. Such is the case with the Welcome to the Gulag: “Times are so tuff here they pile your tray with FAKE meat and cabbage!!!!!” the menu exclaimed. The krouted cabbage laced with popping mustard seeds is sauteed with red onion, carrots and what tastes like Trader Joes brand vegan sausages. Paired with roasted red potatoes and finished with fresh cilantro, this ample dish is a curious ménage of east and west.

We had no idea what we were getting into with the Satsivi: “Vegetarian chicken (Beyond Meat) with walnut sauce served with shotis puri (Georgian bread). Satsivi is really a party dish par excellence. Can be served cold or hot. GF bread available.” We missed the part about hot or cold and apparently the default temperature is cold. As we poked at the icy gruel, our eyes fell on the mass beside it. “What is this… a potato?” my dad asked. It sure looked like one and it had the heft of a boiled root. Cracking it open, it was indeed bread. We loved it.

The Carrot Apple “Ice Cream” was an unexpected closer at Kafe Sobaka. Its texture is like a chunky apple sorbet, mixed with a smoothie, with carrot scraps folded in, then all frozen back together again. Neither good nor bad, we ate it (chewed it) in curious silence wishing we had ordered the melon mint sorbet or the poppy seed cake instead.

As we finished this dish, a bald headed gentleman rolled up to the table. “Was the food as terrible as you expected?” We laughed meekly, not sure if this was the owner* or a vagrant.

My dad piped up “This bread is fantastic, I thought it was a potato.” “Ah yes,” he laughed at himself “we make our gluten free bread in house.” A curious kitchen choice as we didn’t request the accommodation—but it was a welcomed modification that made our night.

Kafe Sobaka Restoran Pomegranate
2469 Broadway
San Diego, CA 92102

PomegranateSobaka.com

*Upon Googling I confirmed it was indeed owner Mark Djugashvili

Eclipse Chocolate (San Diego, CA)

An invite to Eclipse Chocolate for dinner was bewildering. Only because I had no idea this chocolate shop—whose bars can be found at shops throughout San Diego—is a full service restaurant with vegan options. From start to finish the menu is sprinkled with hints of a pastry chef—a little coco here, a splash of vanilla there—all in a savory context.

We kicked off the meal with cocktails. As sweet as should be expected in a spot that specializes in chocolate, the Muddled Blood Orange Basil with sparkling cava ($10) and Vanilla Bean Sangria ($8) were too syrupy for my taste.

Pricing are fixed at $12 per entree +$5 per side. After mulling over the choices we started with the Quinoa Stuffed Red Pepper with chives, watercress, and hickory salted avocado plated over cocoa mole plus a Grilled Panini with a dense housemade sage focaccia stuffed with portobello, pesto, tomato, and arugula with a side of rainbow carrot and chocolate sauce. I’m sure the pepper is well intended, but it sorely reminded of a meal a catering crew threw together at a wedding ill prepared for a veg guest. The sandwich was fine, it was all eaten. But I strongly encourage you to consider this next plate:

The Crispy Quinoa Fritter at comes precariously balanced on a roasted tomato and polenta cake crowned with little chives and served in a pool of cocoa mole with a swipe of black garlic puree. I loved this but could have used triple… nay, quadruple the amount of sauce which I’ve since been told they will provide if asked. I didn’t know to ask. Now you do.

On the side is the Beet & Green Apple Salad with baby greens, avocado instead of chevre, and candied cocoa nib tossed in a vanilla vinaigrette. If you are wondering how candied cocoa nibs taste in a salad, the answer is “awesome.”

There is only one vegan dessert at Eclipse Chocolate but the waitress assured me it was not a compromise. She was correct! The Olive Oil Almond Torte, served warm, comes drizzled with a tart strawberry rhubarb compote, fresh strawberries, and vanilla salted pecan granola. Complex, rich, and not too sweet. We may have even ordered another to take home.

Continuing the meal after the fact, we brought home a box of Vegan truffles stuffed with:

  • Coffee Caramel (my favorite)
  • Blood Orange Olive Oil
  • Champagne Cherry
  • Coconut Lime
  • Salted Coconut Caramel

Eclipse Chocolate
2145 Fern St.
San Diego, CA 92104

eclipsechocolate.com

Instagram: @EclipseChocolate
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Mammacoffee (Prague, Czech Republic)

Mello vibes fill the fair-trade cups lingering on the cafe tables at  Mamacoffee on Vodičkova. I order a cup of standard brewed coffee—yes, I like my coffee boring—because it seemed the thing to do; but I was really here for the food.

I’ve always liked dumplings. But the Varenyky se Smazenou Cibulkou, Koprem a Kyanou Smetanou (80czk / $3.25usd) permanently propelled me towards a lifelong infatuation. I seek these dumplings wherever I go, but have yet to find ones to match the majesty of Mamacoffee’s. A wreath of Ukrainian-style dumplings—thin tender sheets of dough stuffed with mashed potatoes and onions—come topped with a delicate pinch of minced caramelized onion and a confetti of fresh dill encircling a dollop of vegan sour cream. Even now, it’s painful to think I only order (and shared!) one serving of these. There are very few item I have 100% confidence recommending to all people—this is one. You would have to be some kind of monster who hates pure joy not to enjoy this dish.

I’m not usually one for veggie burger, yet the V Domaci Housce s Pecenymi Bramborami (135czk / $ 5.49usd) rang my bells. The spinach and barley patty comes topped with confit red onions, buttery red leaf lettuce, and a swab of soy dressing drooling off the sesame hard roll. The spicy baked potatoes come standard with garlic aioli, we sub’ed it out for hummus.

My basic brewed coffee served on a sliver tray with a dainty glass of water.  We sat along the window line, basking in dappled winter light streaming through the greens, at rest with nose-in-book students and politely gabbing girlfriends. Mamacoffee was a sheer delight that I should have punctuated with a double order of dumpling.

MamaCoffee
Vodičkova 674/6
Nové Město, 110 00 Praha

www.mamacoffee.cz

Lehka Hlava “Clear Head” (Prague, Czech Republic)

Drifting through the dusty snow we rounded the corner of Boršov—the shorted street in Prauge—where a small sign waved us into one of Paurge’s premiere vegetarian restaurant, Lehka Hlava. Behind (what an American like me considers) an ancient door this Gothic home opens into a slender atrium where a single wiry tree reaches toward the sky. Confirming our reservation, the hostess draws us into a space where the spirit of Bohemian thrives. Under the fiber optic galaxy an eclectic international menu is served out of the open rainbow kitchen. Vegan items are clearly marked—along with the requisite 14 allergens.

Evoking faux gras, Lehka Hlava’s Smokey Tofu Pâté blends smoked tofu with barley miso and cashews and is topped with a seemingly odd blob of cranberry sauce. Smokey, unami rich, and graced with a broad stroke of sweetness, this dish blows past any other vegan pate/gras dish I’ve tried! This is the best way to invest 100 Kč /$3.98 USD in the city which we did multiple times during our stay.

The Kimchi Tapas (115 Kč / $4.58 USD) offers a bowl of spicy probiotic napa cabbage with a scoop of sticky short grain white rice and seaweed. It’s a sort of build-your-own Korean sushi concept that puzzles after success of the smoked tofu pâté.

The Raw Spaghetti (225 Kč / $8.96 USD) arrives as a mound of spiralized cucumbers topped with a heavy dollop  of avocado and spinach pesto, with ground cashew nuts, garlic and then another heavy dollop of sundried tomato pesto. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and soaked goji berries. An odd combination on paper, but when it’s all mashed up in my mouth, the sweetness of the goji berries and sharpness of pesto sing and dance in harmony.

Tender whole grains cling to each other in the Bulgur Risoto (165 Kč / $6.63 USD). The nutty based is mixed with smoked tempeh, julienne carrot and fennel, and topped with a rich and tart sundried tomato pesto. Hearty and filling for a winter night, singed with the soft smoke of the cracking fire we lit later that night in our hotel room.

For dessert, the Raw Nut Balls (75 Kč / $3 USD)  come dashed with Japanese matcha powder and a side of rosewater dipping chocolate. Floral, delicate, and delicious.

Raw home-made Cheesecake (125 Kč / $5.09 usd) is an 2 inch wedge of fluffy whipped cashews and walnuts doused in vanilla poached raspberries sauce. The finale is loaded with sweetness backed up against the tartness of lemon spiked cream and piquant berries. Our fork tines clinked as we stabbed to the dish, scraping up every last bite.

Lehka Hlava
Boršov 280/2
110 00 Praha
Czech Republic

lehkahlava.cz

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

Awash Market (San Diego, CA)

Awash Market (San Diego, CA)

One of the biggest fights of my life occurred after someone asked “What is your favorite cuisine?”

After a pondering pause—with pizzas, banh mis, and pad see-ew fly through the flavor pockets of my mind—I said:

“Ethiopian”

To which they rebutted, “Ethiopian is not a cuisine.”

Let the gospel rain upon that poor naysayer. Ethiopia, and Ethiopian cuisine is an insanely rich and diverse historical treasure that speaks to my eternal taste buds. If you want to know to know more about the history of Ethiopian food, I recommend checking out Harry Kolman’s book Mesob Across America.

Ethiopian food is a tactile adventure of sour fermented injera, the rich nose-filling spice of berbere, a protein infusion of peas and lentils, sweet turmeric hued potatoes and cabbage, and greens spanning from deeply seasoned collards to bright lemon licked lettuces. The harmonious pallet offer enough diversity to sustain daily indulgence without encouraging food exhaustion… at least for me.

While my favorite spot lives in Los Angeles, San Diego’s Awash Market holds steady at number two.

Awash Market is easy to pass by, as I did, and I did many many times. With booze, coffee, flour, toiletries in the front it’s easy to overlook the outstanding food in the back. Once I overcame my intimidation of the convenience store en suite dining room, I found a kitchen that excels at all the Ethiopian vegan classics. Regarding the vegan options, while some traditional recipes call for clarified butter, the staff here has repeatedly confirmed that they proudly use oil as the fat in all their veggie dishes.

Awash Market (San Diego, CA)

Awash Market (San Diego, CA)

Injera  – Made in house, the tender rolls of sour fermented wheat and teff are some of the freshest I’ve ever encountered. They are available for sale in the front market, and fly off the shelf for good reason. A gluten free, 100% teff, version is available if the kitchen is given a few hours notice.

Miser Wot – Split lentils and spicy red pepper brought together in a coarse and oily stew. The grease soaks through the injera base creating a sodden treat once the bulk is gone.

Kik Alicha – A mild split pea stew with onion, garlic and turmeric that tempers the palate between spicier bites.

Shiro Wot – A gorgeous slurry of ground chickpea flour, berbere, and tomato. Soft and silky on the tongue and by far my favorite dish at Awash. This treat is not usually offered on veggie combinations platters at other restaurants, so I relish receiving it as a baseline selection at Awash.

Ye’abasha Gomen – Spiced collards greens that often taste rather muddy to me at every Ethiopian restaurant. This one is no better or worst that the average gomen offering out there.

Tikel Gomen – Sweetly braised cabbage, potatoes, carrots and onions with cumin, turmeric, and ginger. This is my second favorite dish at Awash.

Green Salad – Sometimes this isn’t on the platter—which is a shame. The light lemon dressing on the romaine, tomatoes and onions is notably more harmonious then the weird Italian dressing so many other Ethiopian restaurants tend to use.

Berbere – Sometimes the kitchen adds a mound of powdered and a dollop of berbere paste to accent the heat of the dish. If you like your food spicy, be sure to request these.

Awash Market (San Diego, CA)

Awash Market
2884 El Cajon Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92104