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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarians in Paradise
 Dining in Paradise

In most restaurant reviews the reader sees the restaurant experience from one person's point of view. In the reviews of the Vegetarians in Paradise, the reader experiences the eatery from the point of view of two people in dialogue form. Vegetarians in Paradise brings you those two intrepid restaurant aficionados, Zel and Reuben Allen, who will take you along as they eat a swath across the Los Angeles environs.

R. When we meet vegetarians lately we keep hearing, "You've got to try Native Foods. It's a great!" The word-of-mouth buzz has all been raves. We decided not to visit during their opening month so they could work out any problems a new restaurant encounters. The time had come for us to see for ourselves.

Native Foods Z: It was Saturday night, and we knew that parking in Westwood would be a challenge. To our surprise, we found the perfect space about three parking meters away from their front door. That was the first good omen. The second was the overflowing crowd gathered outside the entrance.

R: The place is unique, funky, and lively from their decor to their fast-food style of operation. Their attractive storefront window displays a table laden with colorful foods flanked by two, heaping fruit-filled plate racks imported from France.

Z: We squeezed into the entrance and immediately noticed the enticing aromas, the sizzling sound of foods on the grill, and the bustling activity. We watched dishes being carried from the kitchen to awaiting diners seated in a tiny open dining area on a balcony above the kitchen.

R: To our right was Kate at the cash register. After studying the extensive menu, we placed our orders with her and noticed the open kitchen and the colorful cathedral-height wall behind her that touted, "don't panic - it's organic!" and "vegetarian the way it should be," and "NATIVE FOODS" painted in large, thick, black earthy style lettering. A small blackboard posted their special soup of the day which was White Bean Leek. Did we pass on that temptation? Absolutely not. Kate gave us our soups in paper cartons.

Z: It's certainly is a friendly place. It's only been open two months, but already they've established a regular clientele of vegan devotees who eat there two, three, or even four times a week. These customers are eager to tell you, "Order the Bongo Congo. It's great," or "You gotta try the Rockin' Moroccan. It's my favorite."

R: We walked past the kitchen and up the grass-mat covered stairs to the only empty table in a petite room that holds about 16 or so diners. We started right in on the soup which was thick and full of white beans, well seasoned, and steamy hot. While we waited for our food, we reread the menu thinking that there are so many tempting choices, one could easily come back again and again.

Z: Kate brought a selection of Flatwraps to the table next to us. Those folks, friendly, of course, ordered the Spike's BBQ and The Greek. What aromas! Soon, very soon, we noticed their empty plates. That's a good sign, we thought. The Flatwraps are grilled flatbreads with a multitude of toppings. The Greek is topped with marinara sauce, mushrooms, carmelized onions, pomodoro (plum tomatoes), sliced Kalamata olives, seitan (gluten, often called wheat meat), pesto, and Native cheese (vegan, of course). Topping the Spike's BBQ are generous portions of barbecued veggie chicken, carmelized onions, cilantro, and Native cheese. It beckoned. Hmmm, next time, perhaps.

R: I took the advice of an experienced Native Foods regular and ordered the Bongo Congo and Zel selected the Kyoto. We had enjoyed Native Foods at their Palm Springs and Palm Desert locations and fondly remembered their delicious Indonesian Tempeh Chips which we ordered to satisfy our hunger pangs. Our appetizer soon came up the stairs via Kate who set a basked filled with their homemade, four-inch-long, one-half inch thick tempeh chips covered with a thick breading, and deep fried. These are served with a lightly sweetened soy-based dipping sauce, the perfect accompaniment. When we complimented Tanya Petrovna, the energetic, friendly owner, she confessed that she, too, loves these and was quick to point out that the Tempeh Chips were one of the very few dishes on her menu that were fried.

Z: At this point I must sound trite. The Tempeh Chips are a standout item. Under the crispy layer of breading is a tender, delicately flavored fermented soybean cake that melts in the mouth and leaves one wanting more. The dipping sauce adds a delightful sweet/salty balance to the appetizer. I might add that these "chips" are quite substantial and don't fall apart, even down to the finger-licking stage.

R: Kate served us our entrees with a smile and was eager to bring us anything else we cared to order. Set before us were two bowls dramatically garnished and brimming with steaming vittles and inviting aromas. Mine, the Bongo Congo, was topped with two thick 4" strips of curried and grilled soy chicken threaded onto a sturdy skewer that lay across the top of the bowl. Underneath was a heaping combination of steamed vegetables that included spinach, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and celery. The delightful flavor accents came from raisins, dried cranberries, chunks of sweet yam, and angle cut slices of banana. And that wasn't all. At the bottom of the bowl was a hearty portion of jasmine rice with a zesty ginger flavor.

Z: Of course, I had to taste Reuben's dish, more than once. My Kyoto assembled the flavors of the Far East with the brown rice noodles and generous portions of bok choy, green onions, and snow peas. This was all bathed in a sesame ginger sauce and garnished with black and white toasted sesame seeds and thinly sliced, fried gobo root. Placed across the top of the bowl were two skewers of thick, perfectly grilled tofu. For a moment I felt I was in Japan. The first taste called out for a touch of seasoning. Close by was a container of soy sauce that provided the perfect enhancement.

R: Hungry as we were, the generous portions exceeded our capacity, which is often the case in vegetarian restaurants. We brought home half of Zel's Kyoto, a bit of my Bongo Congo, and two Tempeh Chips for an enjoyable lunch the next day.

Chefbird Z: Tanya says her restaurant features "vegan fast food." However, it's apparent that many hours of testing, planning, and staff training brought her concept to fruition. We observed other dishes as they emerged from the kitchen. Each was attractively garnished, featured fresh organic fruits and vegetables, and offered generous portions.

R: Our entrees were ordered from the hot side of the menu. The cool side had items that were equally tempting. Next time I'll try the Iron Yam, a baked yam on salad greens, dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with steamed vegetables and a baked tofu garnish.

Z: That does sound good, but I might try the Soy Cool, a combo of chopped cabbage, cucumbers, greens, and carrots topped with tempeh, tofu, soynuts, and green soybeans. All of this is dressed in a soy citrus coating.

R: There's something here for everyone. If you're a raw foodist, you'll enjoy the Eat-It-Raw Mama, a finely chopped vegetable medley on salad greens with sprouts, beet twirls, and avocado as a garnish. It comes with garlic dressing on the side, and is served with Mama's Manna Bread.

Z: Anyone wanting a sandwich has 16 "Handholds" to choose from, all served with Thai Slaw. Their famous Bali Surf Burger packs Tanya's homemade tempeh, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo into a delicious bun. If that's not enough, you can choose some extras to add, such as carmelized onions, mushrooms, Native cheese, or guacamole.

R: On my next visit I'd like to try the Ciao Chow Burger with grilled portabella mushrooms, Italian salsa, carmelized onions, sun sprouts, and mayo.

Z: Other offerings on the menu include Native Iced Tea made from hibiscus tea sweetened with apple juice, Guru Chai, Native Chili served with corn bread, Thai Sticks which are a tempeh satay in a peanut sauce, and Native Nachos which sound like a meal in itself.

R: A pleasant dining atmosphere certainly does enhance the experience. Native Foods has it all from the skylight over the dining area and the large windows bringing in natural light to the ceiling spots for nighttime lighting. The ambiance is stimulating yet comfortable with its earthy pumpkin, cinnamon, and olive colored wall sections enhanced with mirrors, native art designs, and attractive woodwork.

Z: I noticed that as soon as one table emptied, it was immediately cleared and new diners were seated.

R: If it sounds like we're raving too much, you're right. We really liked this place. Both of us raised our thumbs up. Prices are very reasonable. Anyone could enjoy a hearty, healthy meal from between $4.95 to $8.50. My only reservation is the place is too small to accommodate the crowds who want to eat there.

Native Foods
1110 1/2 Gayley Avenue, Westwood CA 90025
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Closed Sunday

Reviewed May 2000

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