I have to remind myself: these are make-believe cheeses.
The Widow, with black garlic, red peppers, date puree – surprisingly tasty.
Wow. Red peppers in the sunset! They shine scarlet in the late afternoon light. Calabrian chile. The peppers are about the only “real” thing in this vegan meal I’m eating. But the rest of the ingredients do a pretty good job of imitating meats, eggs, cheeses. The pastry dough that isn’t dough is basically high-gluten flour with yeast. The “ricotta cheese” doesn’t come from the usual cashew nut mush, but rather, rice and potato starch, emulsified with spices. “It’s great for people who are allergic to tree nuts,” says my main squeeze Diane.
We’re at Donna Jean’s, next to “The World’s First Drive-In Vegan Restaurant.” It’s at a well-known vegan place called Evolution. The two eateries work together as an island of plant-based foods in the middle of meat-loving Bankers Hill. Of course, I never meant to stop. I was taking Diane up to see Mr. Bassam Shamma, my Palestinian friend who has the distinction of opening the first real coffee bar in downtown San Diego, back in 1991. Except Diane’s thinking vegan. “One thing about me is I am basically organic, keto, pescatarian…”
“Insectarian?” I say.
Mexican Pepper Leaf grows like Jack’s beanstalk.
“Haha, darling, but yes. I eat crickets. No biggie! You are so-oo 1990s. And vegan is so-oo in!”
“Well, crickets are…” I start to say, except I know I’m on a losing line of conversation here. Hmm. Vegan…oh yeah. This is when I remember the place a block back down Fifth, at Quince: the two vegan places, “Evolution” and “Donna Jean.”
So ten minutes later we’re standing outside this leafy garden. I spot a red sign saying, “Lindfors Farms, Blossom Valley. Sign up for produce boxes.” Then I notice people driving up and onto this broad corner parking lot. “Welcome to the World’s First Vegan Drive-Thru,” it says. Huh. Just like at a McDonald’s, cars are lining up to order lunches through a small hatch.
In the end, Diane and I go to the place next door, because they have a garden with tables scattered among the trees, and actual edible salad plants growing live out of garden boxes. Donna Jean’s. We finally get seats (it takes a while) right beside a giant plant that looks like Jack’s Beanstalk, about 10 feet high, with massive heart-shaped leaves.
“Go ahead and rip off a bit of leaf. You can eat it. That’s what it’s here for.” This is Joseph, the server. “It’s an Hoja Santa, or Yerba Santa,” he says. “‘Holy Leaf.’ Mexican Pepper Leaf. Good for breathing problems like bronchitis.”
Cast Iron Mac & Cheese, $17, but prizewinning.
The menu seems to be more about pizzas and pasta than anything else. There’s a lasagna with fennel “sausage” spiced tempeh for $27, twelve inch pizza pies made from “organic fermented whole wheat dough.” They mostly cost $20, and range from “Fungazi” with mushrooms (okay, $22), to “The Black Widow,” which sounds interesting, with heavy duty black garlic (now we know where the pizza’s name came from), coupled with a puree of dates. Or “Four Horsemen,” with four different “cheeses” (including hard and soft mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan). I have to remind myself: these are make-believe cheeses. Cashew nuts in disguise.
“You need to talk to Chef Tony,” Joseph says, when I ask how the alchemy happens. “He used to be a chef here, but he has now started his own business, making vegan alternatives to cheese.”
The menu also offers non-pizza, non-pasta dishes: mostly comfort food. Uh, not the most exciting. Like “House bread, with butter, or California balsamic and olive oil, $8.” “Cucumber and tomato,” with strawberry puree and Fresno jack “cheese,” $12. Or “Really Good Salad,” with potentially interesting items like pickled raisins and potentially less interesting items like shaved carrots. Cost: $15. Or, the Cast Iron Mac’n Cheese, with smoked cheddar, Gouda, green onions and bread crumbs for $17.
This is food for the rich and the timid, I’m thinking. But Diane is in vegan heaven. “Oh look! Tofu scramble, only $18.” Man. A lifetime of tofu scramble? Is this marriage going to work? We settle on sharing the Widow ($20), but only after Joseph promises that the sweet date-taste is stronger than the taste of the black garlic.
Joseph explains advantages of veganism.
I have to ask him. “Why are you vegan?”
“I’m the son of a Sicilian fisherman,” Joseph says. “I just didn’t like killing things when I didn’t have to. Besides, I was influenced by Chef Tony.”
Turns out Chef Tony Howe is a pioneer of vegan cheese-making. Has been a chef for 15 years, six of those vegan. “Vegan doesn’t have to be this big scary thing,” he says on his website. “If I can make these cheeses and they achieve all the flavor points and the texture points… like when you shred Parmesan on a pasta, it’s not the Parmesan. You’re adding acids, you’re adding tang, you’re adding ‘salt.’ If I can create that same thing in a vegan Parmesan, and put it on your pasta, it’s just as good. So you don’t have to give anything up to be a vegan.”
“I like the smoked date puree and black garlic as a base. The sweet/tart thing,” Diane says. “Also the Calabrian chile’s heat, and how the kale cools it. And how the ‘ricotta’ cools it in another way.”
So many food items in quotes. But whatever, I guess I’m warming to the idea. Specially, I have to admit, after I spot a spinach and potato (or is it “spinach” and “potato”?) frittata that passes by. Costs $20, but looks delicious.
And bottom line, nice to be able to say: “No animals were killed in the writing of this column.”
- The Place: Donna Jean Vegan Restaurant 2949 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill, 619-299-5500. Hours: 12pm-3pm, 5-9pm, Saturday, Sunday; 5-9pm, Wednesday – Friday; closed Monday, Tuesday
- Prices: 12-inch pizzas include Four Horsemen, (with four different “cheeses”), $20; Fungazi, with mushrooms, $22; The Widow, with black garlic, date puree, $20; House bread, with butter, or California balsamic and olive oil, $8; Cucumber and tomato, with strawberry puree and fresno jack “cheese”, $12; Really Good Salad, with pickled raisins, shaved carrots, $15; Cast Iron Mac’n Cheese, with smoked cheddar, Gouda, green onions, $17; tofu scramble, $18
- Buses: 3, 120
- Nearest Bus Stops: 5th and Nutmeg (#3); 5th and Laurel (#120)