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Thursday, July 26,2012

Vegan food for meat eaters

By Clay Fong

Meeting up with old friends Michael and Allison, a dining dilemma posed itself. Michael describes himself as the antithesis of a vegan, while Allison is a self-proclaimed picky eater straddling the line between vegetarianism and full-tilt veganism. While there’s more than a few spots that can accommodate vegan dining, some are more compromised than others. In some cases, meatless offerings are nothing more than a thoughtlessly thrown together veggie plate.

A compact florescent light bulb went off above my head. I realized this situation might best be resolved by a dinner visit to the Native Foods Cafe. A new occupant of Boulder’s Twenty Ninth Street mall, this is the first Colorado outpost of a growing fast-casual chain featuring vegan fare. It’s an order-at-the-counter place, and our selections arrived well within the promised 10-minute wait time.

The menu features a battery of salads, pizzas and sandwiches, with a heavy emphasis on meatless equivalents of fare like meatballs, burgers and chicken wings. Rather than offer up an array of cola-anchored fountain beverages, Native Foods offers three unique $2.50 soft drink offerings. These include a berry and hibiscus-based iced tea, a watermelon agua fresca and a lavender lemonade. While floral scents were a bit hard to detect in the lemonade, this beverage was refreshing without being too sweet.

Michael ordered the $9.95 Greek Gyros bowl, featuring seitan, gluten-based protein, in place of the traditional lamb-beef hybrid. The high points included bright-tasting hummus accented by a lemon garlic sauce atop a foundation of fluffy quinoa. Less successful was the truly flat grilled flatbread, which lacked the pillowy appeal of a well-executed pita.

No such concern arose with Allison’s $7.95 seitan meatball sub, which came atop a pleasingly crusty grilled baguette. Texturally, the meatballs were surprisingly true to their animal-based analogue. Fresh flavors of marinara sauce and creamy, dairy-free “cheese” helped amp the satisfaction quotient on this hot sandwich. Additionally, a $1.95 side of sweet potato fries was beyond reproach, arriving hot, crisp and pleasantly sweet.

Another friend had previously recommended the $9.95 Soul Bowl, an inspired take on meatless fried chicken. The faux poultry was darn close to indistinguishable from the real thing, and the seasoning was dead-on. Bits of kale and a generous hunk of cornbread served as a culinary tip of the hat to the dish’s Southern heritage. I’d definitely order this one again.

The $2.95 desserts were more of a mixed bag than the main courses. The cheesecake had a slicker texture than its dairy analogue, although the berry topping helped to distract from the mouthfeel. We sampled three cupcakes,

including a cardamom-scented number that we found overpowering. The chocolate version was comparable to other vegan preparations found in specialty cupcake shops, and Michael’s favorite was the vanilla one. He said, “I’d pay $7 for this one.”

In terms of both concept and execution, Native Foods does a remarkable job of providing tasty vegan fare to the masses, and even an unrepentant carnivore like Michael said he’d likely return.

Each dish we sampled came amply portioned, and all of us were struck by the fresh flavors and quality, which were a noticeable cut above most other fast-casual establishments.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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