Great Sage

Great Sage Restaurant

Lately I have been on a Vegan/Vegetarian kick that is surprising me, not just for the meatless fare that I have been partaking, but also the flavors and the sense of satisfaction that the meals have imparted on me. For some time, many of my acquaintances have been mentioning about a vegan restaurant in Clarksville, near Columbia, MD. Being out of my blogging area, I wouldn’t have considered writing about the place. But with so many accolades that it has garnered, I decided to pay it a couple of visits before penning about the establishment.

Red Peppercorn Beet Salad

Carrot Ginger SoupDriving to Great Sage is relatively easy since it is not too far from the Route 32 that is a major thoroughfare of that part of the boonies. Located in a strip mall, it sits at the end of the parking lot dotted by other vegan and New Age establishments. We decided to sit in its outdoor area so that I could get some good light for the photos. Looking through its rather simple menu, we picked out a couple of openers. I started with the Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad. The plate landed with a melange of colors and shapes. The bed consisted of Boston lettuce, topped with large pieces of beet (tasting mild from being boiled), pieces of colorful and crunchy watermelon radish, a ravishingly ripe avocado, all garnished by some sunflower seeds made savory by a sugar-salt mix, and drizzled with a “creamy” pink peppercorn dressing (vegan – really?). I was impressed by this fresh combination and flavors that just hit the right spots. My BFF’s Carrot Ginger soup was quite tasty from the spice root’s zing quality and slight sweetness from the carrot, with a faint background note of fenugreek, which is a departure from the usual cumin. However, I thought it lacked a bit more body and sweetness, thus left me wanting more in this dish.

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

Vegan Spinach Artichoke DipOn another occasion, we went for the houses signature appetizer – Spinach Artichoke Dip. The rather big platter arrived with some toasted whole wheat baguette, which beckoned our hungry stomachs for an immediate tasting. Boy, was it good! The baby spinach were barely wilted without the bitter aftertaste, the pickled artichoke chunky and lending its vinegary quality to the whole mix, and the dressing and “parmesan” topping tasting so creamy that they fooled my taste buds that the dish was purely vegan. Now with a healthier version like this, I could eat this dish more often, or serve it at parties without anyone noticing the difference. Mushroom Bibimbap

Portabello Panini SandwichOn to the main courses. BFF ordered something usually found in Korean restaurants, but made vegan here – Bibimbap. The bowl arrived with brown rice as its base, topped with strips of Portobello mushroom sautéed with ginger, pickled red ginger, carrots, cabbage, sweet and tangy Wakame seaweed salad, young kale leaves, and white and black sesame seeds. This meal was quite hearty and very tasty according to him, but he was breaking out into sweats with the fiery Sriracha/Hoisin sauce, which could have been served on the side. My order was in the Mediterranean vein – Portobello Panini. The focaccia bread had hints of rosemary, reminding me of the ones I had in Italy. The stuffing was grilled portobello that tasting tangy from a vinaigrette marinade, fresh young spinach leaves, and sweet roasted red peppers. Its tangy note was coupled by a creamy tangy dressing. However, it was the side potato salad that got most of my attention with the textural contrast of potato and celery enveloped by a “creamy” tangy dressing that belied its vegan nature.

Pulled Squash Sandwich

Buffalo "Chicken" WrapOn another visit, we both had sandwiches or wraps. BFF went for the house special that day – Pulled Squash Sandwich. It was an attempt to replicate the barbecued pork version. His sandwich was stuffed with strands of spaghetti squash made sweet sour by a sauce with a hint of cumin, which reminded me of chili con carne. The pickled red onions added more of the sour note to the dish, which, unfortunately, could not be balanced by something meaty, I mean, substantial. Sometimes, an attempt to replicate a known meat dish can fall short as in this case. My order was Buffalo Chicken Wrap. The Chili tortilla encased a filling of “chicken” tasting spicy, lettuce, tomato, red onions, all moistened by a “blue cheese” creamy dressing. Despite the protein being a bit softer in texture, I enjoyed this mix and the different textures necessary to bring about some degree of satisfaction, the very thing that squash sandwich lacked with all its “softness.”

Sin Tres Leches Cake

Organic Coconut WaterI had to try its desserts since that is an area that can be tricky with the lack of egg and butter in vegan cooking. We ordered the Sin Tres Leches, a play of words (“sin” meaning without) on the extremely creamy and rich (and calorie-laden) original version. The plate arrived slightly messier than what I expected but all the elements looked very tempting. The pieces of strawberry were fresh and quite sweet, echoed by the rather sweet strawberry coulis that was proper. However, the cake was a bit off due to the use of unbleached flour and the lack of the non-vegan elements that would have added some more body to it; the use of some decent amount vanilla would have helped it too. The “creamy” sauce didn’t hit it for me, it being made with coconut milk, soy milk, and cashew milk, which didn’t add enough richness to the mix. The side of “whipped cream” tasted of just trapped air which perplexed me with its “nothingness”! Maybe another dessert dish would have been successful with its vegan rendition.

Great Sage RestaurantVegan cooking can be very tricky due to its effort in replicating flavors and textures found in non-vegan versions. What Great Sage falls short on are on the dishes that pretty much fall in the domain of meat and dairy desserts. But what it does best are in those that lean heavily in the vegetarian department. Such was the case in the Pink Peppercorn Salad, the Spinach Artichoke Dip, the Bibimbap, and the Portobello Panini. But, I have to admit that I was satisfied by the Buffalo “Chicken” Wrap which nearly caught all the textures and flavors associated with that dish. The cooking at Great Sage is not short on creativity and flavors, especially the ability to produce creamy dishes with no cream or egg. Now, I understand why they have garnered so many accolades, not only from their customers but also from the press. This is a place that I will be heading back often, especially with my vegan BFF.

Great Sage Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Evolve Vegan

I have been inching down the vegan/vegetarian path for some time now.  Being a Buddhist practitioner, one of the Buddhist aspirations (not a commandment) is to eat vegetarian or vegan to minimize the suffering of sentient beings.  Furthermore, more and more friends and colleagues have taken this step, including my best friend who made that big decision last week. With all these signs around me, I couldn’t help but start focusing on more eating establishments that cater to such meatless cuisine. Recently, an online coupon offer showed up on my computer, and I quickly grabbed that opportunity so that I could visit a vegan Soul food restaurant.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant

Evolve Vegan Restaurant is located in the heart of Takoma Park, NW Washington, merely a few steps from the metro station. It is located in a block of eating establishments that has garnered the recognition as the best vegan eating area in the city. Walking into Evolve, the space appears more spacious than its true real estate due to the storefront windows and the soaring ceiling that add lots of light and an airy feeling. Taking a seat by the window, I perused the one page menu, and it is rather short with only a handful of entrees, a similar amount of sandwiches and salads, followed by an interesting plethora of side dishes. The drinks section was filled with sodas and smoothies, which were not exactly what I was looking for as a thirst quencher. The waiter relayed to me that the restaurant was working on the drinks section which seriously needs more light or fruit-infused liquids. Not letting that be a hindrance, I moved on to the main courses.

Fried Chick-un

Candied Yams, Sweet Maple Kale SaladOnline reviewers made mention of the house’s Southern Fried Chick-un, and that was the first order placed on the initial visit. The dishes picked from the list of fourteen sides were Yams and Sweet Maple Kale Salad. The plate arrived with two fairly large patties encrusted with the traditional-looking batter associated with the real thing. One bite into them was completely revelatory. The texture was akin to that of chicken breast and the flavor replete with the fried chicken seasonings. The first time ordering this was a version with a formidable crust but a slightly dry “meat”, whereas the second had a crumbly crust but a moist inside. Nevertheless, the patties fooled my taste buds with the close texture and unmistakable flavors in the seasoning. The side BBQ sauce was a proper one with its smoky sweet and sour qualities that gave the diner that dipping option.  In addition to the tasty patties, the sides were wrestling my attention away from the protein. The Yams were the candied yams that one would find during a Thanksgiving meal, made with a good hit of cinnamon without overpowering the tubers and sweetened by brown sugar, all tasting good enough to slap your….. But the star for me was the kale salad with the young tender leaves made delectable by a well-balanced combination of maple syrup and toasted sesame oil, making each leaf totally irresistible. Now I can see why the online folks highly recommended this entrée, and deservedly so.

Fried Seaweed Soy Fish

Ratatouille, Ginger Kale SaladWrapped Soyfish was the next main dish. The slices of soy protein arrived battered and perfectly fried, just like the above dish, along with Ratatouille and Ginger Kale Salad as the sides. The “fish” also took me by surprise by the rather firm texture, reminding me of tuna or swordfish steaks. Additionally, the flavors were enhanced by the seaweed wrap that exuded seafood umami-ness, boosted by a hint of Old Bay seasoning in the batter – my dining companion and I were quite satisfied by these “seafood” bites. The sides were equally delectable. The Ratatouille was a melange of zucchini, yellow squash, onions, tomato, and eggplant, all looking and tasting more like stewed yellow squash served in the South due to the lack of enough tomato found in the veritable version. Notwithstanding, this mix was so savory and well cooked with each element holding its own identity and enhanced by a faint hint of dried herbs, perhaps thyme or oregano. The other companion of kale salad literally grabbed my taste buds. The mild leaves were coated by a powerful ginger pesto that had a good bite that made each leaf quite piquant, but balanced by a hint of vinegar and sugar. Needless to say, not a single leaf was left on my plate as this dish combination was also a hit for me.

Vegan Macaroni and Cheese, Beet Salad

Sesame Spinach Salad N'Orleans Macaroni SaladOn the second visit, I had to try another oft-mentioned main – Macaroni and Cheese. The main dish arrived with Beet Salad and Sesame Spinach Salad as their chosen accompaniments. The pasta casserole mix was rather interesting yet tasty at the same time. The macaroni was cooked just right, not al dente, neither too mushy. The mix was quite “creamy” rich yet rather moist, with a crust of gratineed vegan cheese . However, there was slight off note of faint bitterness not usually associated with this dish, but that didn’t deter me from enjoying it since I was not expecting this dish to taste exactly like the original version. The beet salad were julienned strips of raw beets, perhaps lightly boiled due its slightly firmness, mixed with a well-balanced mix of vinegar and sugar, making it tasty beyond its mineral goodness. The spinach salad was a bowlful of young leaves tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and topped with some sesame seeds. I enjoyed the salad for the young tender crisp leaves but I wished the seeds were toasted to bring out more of their nuttiness to add another dimension to the combination. Again, the main and sides shone on this occasion, making them quite worthy of an order. Some sides from my friends’ orders deserve some mention: N’Orleans Macaroni Salad wowed its diner with its creamy flavors and the use of spices and seasonings evoking the Southern city, and a stark Steamed Broccoli that was steamed to perfection with its bright green crunchiness made savory with the use of Amino Liquid for that vegan umami-ness.

Vegan Carrotcake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate CheesecakeOn one occasion, our young waiter highly recommended Vegan Carrot Cake and we took on his advice. The slice arrived with speckles of carrot imbedded in the cake topped with some “icing”. The bite tasted of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves, all the appropriate spices and flavors of the real thing. However it was lacking some rich bits of nuts and it was too dense for my liking. Not totally disappointing, but not really a flying success either. However, the amiable chef owner assured me that he would relay my suggestions to the pastry chef. A waitress’ recommendation on another visit was Raw Chocolate Cheesecake. One bite into it raised my eyebrows as well as those of my fellow diner. My immediate reaction was “creamy dark chocolate ice cream.” There was a lusciousness in each bite that belied its dairy-free nature, slightly bitter from a boost of cocoa with a tinge of sourness to cut through the richness. The crust mixture of crushed cashew nut and coconut flake  fooled me that it was raw and vegan. With each bite, my friend and I were “oohing” and “aahing” and we couldn’t stop until the last morsel, even though we were quite sated from the mains and side dishes. This dessert is a must order in my books.

Evolve Vegan RestaurantVegan food is usually associated with plain, bland, textureless, and perhaps pedestrian, all adjectives enough to kill the enthusiasm even before stepping into such establishment. But what my friends and I ordered here far exceeded that mindset, from the “chick-un” and soy fish that had the right textures, seasoning, and flavors that not only made them palatable but sated all my dining friends, to the Mac and Cheese that was creamy and quite “cheesy”, and to the incredible sides of leaf salads, beet salad, yams, and squash stew (ratatouille) that left us wanting more of these tongue-grabbing veggies. This effusiveness extends to the dessert section with that raw chocolate “cheesecake” that just brought out a level ecstasy in me. Sure that the service is a tad slow and sparse at times, but the congenial servers make up for it with their charming personality, helpful suggestions, and funky hair. But what is served by Evolve Vegan does not need any quotation marks or qualifiers; it is just good, tasty and downright soulful, enough to bring out a smile in both vegan and non-vegan.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Curry Leaf

I currently find myself in the throes of change, a period filled with stress, doubts, hope, excitement, and ultimately a need for relief.  Yes, I am in the process of purchasing a new home that is just 6 miles down the road from my current abode.  I have chosen to stay in Laurel, MD, as I find this township quaint with historic homes and accessible to both Washington DC and Baltimore.  Furthermore, I have been mildly surprised by some real good eats located in this part of the suburbs which some may not expect to find in this rather quiet area.  Recently, I have stumbled across one such Indian delight around the corner from me.

Curry Leaf

Curry Leaf has only been opened since the beginning of summer.  It is located on busy Route 1, in a space once occupied by an all-you-can-eat Korean/Japanese restaurant that had a long stint in the area – I was getting slightly leery of its sushi offerings during its last few weeks.  Not much has changed in the furniture setup but the space is warmer with some nature and spice colors along with some exotic prints on the wall, as well as the sushi bar that has taken on a transformation into a drink bar. Initially, I was quite leery of another Indian eatery in the neighborhood that has seen the demise of a couple of them.  But a few visits to this new establishment has proven that it has injected an infusion of South Asia to the local eating scene. My visits were made during the lunch buffet and during dinner service.

Vegetable Samosas, Tamarind and Coriander Sauces

For dinner, my BFF insisted that we tried the Vegetable Samosa which I was not keen on, having tried many versions of these greasy dough balls that have proven to be lackluster on most occasions.  But this version did pique my interest.  The pastry here was crispy, thin and light, speckled with whole cumin seeds that added interest to the outer shell, perhaps baked judging by no trace of oil on the finger or the serving plate.  The stuffing was a tasty mixture of mash potato and whole peas, made fragrant with whole curry leaves, bits of cumin and coriander, and spiked with a tinge of spice heat.  The accompanying sauces were the obligatory partners to these tasty bites: the tamarind sauce was tangy and slightly sweet with a faint hint of its clove-like aftertaste, and the coriander sauce was bright green, spicy and packed with the herbaceous coriander/cilantro, both tasting home-made and fresh.  A fragrant and spicy start.

Indian Appetizers

For my buffet visit, I sampled the Vegetable Pakoras.  Pieces of zucchini, green pepper, and eggplant have been dipped in a yeasty dahl lentil batter and deep-fried, providing a more mealy dough made quite light with pockets of air from the fermentation, a far cry from the uninspired flour-water combination used by most establishments.  But what really grabbed my attention were the delicate pieces of vegetable made puree-like by the frying and tasting vegetal sweet.  The sides of lemon peel pickles and coconut chutney were well-made and worth sampling, tasting fresh and house-made.

Sambar/Rasam

Another starter served on the buffet line were some traditional soups.  Rasam was a light soup, tasting a bit sour from tamarind, and spiced with whole mustard seeds and curry leaves with a nice backthroat bite from the chili.  However, it tasted a little bit insipid compared to other versions that I have sipped before.  In contrast, the Sambar was more satisfying for me, a soup that carried a similar flavor profile as the above soup, but made more substantial by the addition of bits of squash, and made creamy by lentils pureed into the soup.  If weren’t for the main courses coming up, I would have gulped down a couple more steel cups full of this hot liquid.

Vegetarian Plate

On to the main courses.  For my buffet visit, I decided to make a vegetarian/vegan plate.  Spinach Kofta:  The vegetable-ball consisted of slightly crunchy bits of carrots mixed with semolina-like starch coated with a creamy non-bitter spinach sauce that wowed me with its subtlety and a high level of satisfaction.  Egg Curry:  What I enjoyed about the dish was the light handedness in the spicing of the curry sauce that matched the mild egg whites yet creamy enough to pair with the yolk.  Rajma Masala: Again, I appreciated the under spicing of this green bean and potato dish aided by a fairly subtle use of mustard seeds and cumin, enough to allow the green bean’s natural flavor shine through. Vegetable Korma: a medley of very tender peas, cauliflower, carrots and peas, brought together by cream and turmeric, with a hint of chili heat and fragrant spices. Aloo Beans:  I marvelled at this simple yet savory dish with red beans cooked with the skin intact and starch cooked through with a hint of cinnamon wafting through each bite – who knew cinnamon worked with beans!  Throughout my tasting of this plate, I kept going back to the spinach sauce which I couldn’t get enough of.  The above dishes only reaffirmed my affinity for Indian vegetarian/vegan dishes that when prepared well, they are exciting and satisfying to the omnivore.

Meat Plate

On to the meat dishes.  Goat Curry: the gamey pieces of goat were moist and tender coated by a delectable slightly sweet sauce hinting of dark spices and rich without the use of cream.  Tandoori Chicken: the piece of red-stained meat was slightly firm on the outside encasing a moist and tender interior, made tasty from some proper marination with yogurt and spices, and it was far flung from my expectation of a flavorless piece of dried out meat which I usually encounter on some buffet lines.  Butter Chicken (mislabeled Chicken Tikka Masala): The pieces were moist and tender, paired with a creamy buttery sauce that was slightly tangy and sweet that give me an impression that the dish was prepared with care rather than throwing the elements together.  Vegetable Biryani (ok, I had to balance the meat pieces out): What I truly enjoyed about this “simple” dish is that the pieces of peas and green beans felt integrated with the rice spiced with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and bay leaves, further brought together by a faint hint of butteriness from the use of ghee (clarified butter).  This reminded of my BFF’s order of Shrimp Biryani one night that had a similar profile but richer with more sinfully good buttery rice coating the tender plump shrimp – I was amazed by this seafood dish tasting like a unified dish without any element feeling out-of-place.  No wonder it is BFF’s favorite.

Lamb Vindaloo/Basmati Rice

Lamb Vindaloo was my dish on one night’s visit.  Pieces of lamb were properly cooked to a very tender stage without falling apart and partnered with wedges of potato.  But what brought the pieces of meat to another level is the sauce made fiery by dried chili evidenced by the chili seeds throughout the sauce.  The chili heat was tempered with the use of fresh tomato cooked through leaving behind some of its skin.  What was noticeable with this dish is that a skilful hand was behind the production of the balanced sauce, being not too salty, and the bare hint of oil.  The accompanying Basmati rice was cooked to its perfect fluffy state with the random aroma-popping cumin seed running through the mound of grain. This dish, along with BFF’s Shrimp Biryani and Vegetable Samosa, made it an eventful night.

Suji HalwaFor my sweet craving, I helped myself to some Suji Halwa which was the only dessert offering on the buffet line. Initially, I thought that the pudding was too stiff when I cut into it along with the impression that there was too much of the pungent cardamom with the first spoonful.  With subsequent mouthfuls, all the elements came together with the cream of wheat tasting slightly buttery, spicy from the cardamom, and sweet enough without being cloying.  The pieces of ghee-soaked raisins (wow), pistachios and shards of almond slivers added interest to the sugar-laced starch.  Somehow I made room for this sweet finale despite having ingested the above dishes.

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Curry LeafIn a short period of time, Curry Leaf has already made its presence known in the Laurel area, judging by the filled tables (a noticeable South Asian crowd) during the lunch and dinner services, even despite a torrential rain one night. In my estimation, what stands out in their offerings are dishes that taste freshly made, a judicious hand with the spices and seasoning, and a skilful and knowledgeable kitchen staff that cares about the final product. Yes, Indian cuisine can be tired-tasting and predictable. But I think I can count on this new establishment for something beyond the norm that is exciting and worth looking forward to.

P.S.  I just read that the chef comes from the defunct yet successful vegetarian restaurant, Udupi, which was my favorite for a long time.  Now this explains the exceptional quality in the food.

Curry Leaf on Urbanspoon

Casa Oaxaca

DSC_7519.jpgOK, I hear you loud and clear, and I get it – at least, from some of you.  After posting Elevation Burger in the last blog (see blog) and attempting to balance my postings with those on establishments offering a scant number of vegetarian and vegan dishes, a couple of Facebook friends quickly shot back comments requesting me to write on more eateries that focused on a meatless and vegan lifestyle.  Furthermore, a fellow Buddhist on my mass email list also responded by asking herself to be removed from my notices as she stated that her diet had “changed”, which I was not sure exactly what she was alluding to, perhaps a reaction to the photos of meat dishes that could have been “offending” her sensibilities.  I guess for some, Meat Means Murder!

Being a practising Buddhist, I frequently try to aspire towards the ideal of following a vegetarian diet, albeit a mere recommendation and not a permanent personal practice as of yet (the Buddhist thinking is that strict rules/commandments will only create some form of issues around such restrictions or make one even develop a rebellious attitude).  So, when an online offer popped up on my computer for a Mexican eatery that offered both separate meat and vegan menus, I bought both coupons and decided to explore their meatless selections first.  In addition to the lack of a vegetarian/vegan restaurant on my site, I decided to kill two birds with one stone (oops, that doesn’t sound very Buddhist) by penning my first blog on a Latin American establishment.

DSC_7583.jpgCasa Oaxaca touts itself as a Modern Mexican Restaurant,  located in the busy DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan where the streets are literally jam-packed with different eateries that offer a wide variety to entice the roaming palate.  This area went through what I called the “Adams Morgan effect” in which ethnic eateries managed to keep the level of authenticity in their kitchen only for a short moment before losing its identity due to the hiring of non-native cheap labor.  Like everything in life subject to the process of natural selection (or customer selection, in this case), the fittest restaurants survived and they continue to offer high-quality cooking, as in La Churreria de Madrid (see blog) around the corner. Perusing Casa Oaxaca’s website, I was looking forward to savoring and writing about the vegan dishes offered by this Mexican locale.

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DSC_7540.jpgThe restaurant is divided into two floors, and on my visit, I had to enter through the bottom floor into the rather cavernous space.  Knowing that such dark space would not produce flattering photos for the blog, I requested permission to eat in the upper part which was still closed.  The manager, Joana, was gracious enough to open up the upper floor for my needs.  While waiting for the manager to invite me up, I ordered a typical Mexican drink that I am rather fond of, Horchata.  This version is made with almonds, rice, and rice milk (not the usual with cow’s milk), which make it a vegan thirst quencher.  It was rather sweet for me on the first few sips, but the diluting ice cubes brought it to the correct level after a few minutes.  The pieces of almonds and a hit of cinnamon added the right notes to this rice milk concoction.  A satisfying slurp, indeed.

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For the opener, I decided on the Timbal de Nopal.  It consists of layers of fresh tomato, grilled cactus, and vegan cheese, slathered with some Pico de Gallo.  The round of cactus was a bit too crunchy despite the grilling and a bit too smoky from the charring – maybe a short stay in boiling water would make it more fork tender.  The fresh salsa packed some heat punch (perhaps from chile serrano), coupled by the chile ancho oil pool around the plate.  Even for this chile aficionado, it was borderline overwhelming.  Unfortunately, the vegan cheese was lost in the dish due to the piquancy and the overall acidity.   This definitely was an appetite opener but I was hoping for a bit more subtlety.

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My first main course was a Mexican classic, Chiles Rellenos.  A roasted Poblano pepper is stuffed with pieces of zucchini, carrots, grilled corn, spinach, soy meat, and pumpkin seeds.  This concoction was muy delicioso as the various elements were well-balanced by the sweet vegetables and the mild vegan protein, which I would have preferred it a bit more seared (my meat-loving instincts crying out here).  The slightly sweet and spicy green pepper is perfected complemented by a delectable orange tomato sauce that is moderately spiked by chile guajillo.  The accompanying refried black beans was perfectly executed with enough flavor even without the customary lard as its base.  The topping of vegan cheese on both beans and roasted chile even had the distinctive parmesan-like aroma that one can get from the non-vegan version, which lent some further richness and complexity to both items.  The side of Mexican rice was fluffy and equally flavorful.  I truly enjoyed this dish especially that perfect tomato sauce that made this dish sing, of which I lapped every drop on the plate.

Vegan QuesadillasVegan Quesadillas

For the second main, I ordered a trio of bites called Quesadillas Tricolor. This really colorful dish is made with pastel-hued Non Genetically Modified (Non GMO) soft tacos stuffed with squash blossoms, mushroom cooked in a guajillo salsa, and corn cooked with the exotic corn fungus, huitlacoche.   I enjoyed the subtlety of the mild squash blossoms, the meatiness of the sautéed mushrooms, and the interesting note brought by the slightly sour and musty corn fungus on the yellow corn kernels.  But what tied the elements together was the very tasty vegan almond cheese whose savoriness blew my taste buds away especially for not being dairy – I could not get enough of this stringy “creamy” cheese that made these some mean and fulfilling quesadillas. The ring of chile ancho oil provided the necessary heat without overwhelming or complicating the flavors.
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Vegan Tres Leches CakeTo end the meal, I wanted to order a dessert made with papaya, an exotic fruit that I grew up on in the tropics. Unfortunately, the kitchen was out of it and I elected for the Pastel Tres Leches. A dairy-free cupcake has been soaked in coconut milk served on a sauce of coconut milk and berry sauce, topped by non toasted coconut flakes. This dessert was decent but it lacked the unctuousness of the regular version made with milk, condensed milk, and rich whip cream – I guess the original flavors of some desserts cannot be adequately substituted by vegan ingredients. However, my grandmother did make some heavenly vegan desserts with this tropical nut and its creamy milk, so it is possible to come up with a good alternative. Perhaps the papaya dessert or the mango sorbet will be my selection on the next visit.

Casa Oaxaca stands out among the plethora of Mexican-style and Tex-Mex eateries that tend to dilute the integrity of this rich cuisine.  What this establishment brings to the table is a level of sophisticated cooking while recognizing the authentic tradition that shape the unique flavors and ingredients, exemplified by the charred cactus paddle, the pairing of grilled poblano pepper and the perfectly made tomato-guajillo sauce, and the satisfying corn kernels and corn fungus quesadilla stuffing along with that heavenly tasting almond cheese.  If the vegan offerings at this establishment look and taste this good, I’m looking forward to my next trip to try out the non-vegan dishes.  I get a feeling that I will not be disappointed and will leave with a big smile and satisfecho.

Casa Oaxaca on Urbanspoon