Vegan food has a reputation for being bland and boring. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, but the cuisine and the people who cook it have inherited this stigma. For proof that vegan food can be comforting and filling, we have Mint Tulip, which opened this spring where 20 Carrots used to be.
The open space is painted like a beach shack, bright sea green and white. A couch in the back faces a glass refrigerator that doubles as one wall of the walk-in fridge. From this vantage point, you can watch the kitchen crew work in the walk-in. It’s like looking into a fish bowl.
Mint Tulip retained 20 Carrots’ cute outdoor seating in the front for those who want a street view. Now there are tables in back as well, where it’s quiet and gardenesque.
The menu reads the way you’d expect in a non-vegan café. There are sandwiches with things like chicken in them. There is a Reuben on the menu, as well as a BLT. This may seem like unusual fare for a vegan restaurant, but of course all of the meat-like items are made from non-animal sources.
Personally, I think the whole fake meat thing is getting a bit old. It buys into the notion that if a meal doesn’t have meat then something is missing—thus the inclusion of substances that are as close to meat as humanely possible. With vegan food, you have fake cheese as well. Some of these meat substitutes are things you’ve never eaten, the products of ingenious new processes. Like all proteins, they should be approached with caution. That, combined with the well-known properties of beans, lentils and hummus, means that vegan and veggie newbies should know that a case of ... digestive trouble ... is a distinct possibility.
The menu also contains ample fuel for the inner sweet tooth and glutton. There’s a grilled Elvis (a sandwich of peanut butter, almond butter, banana and agave), a gelatin-free fluffernutter, and a fully decadent lineup of baked goods and desserts, including some delightful lavender drop cookies. Few people would confuse a vegan restaurant with a get-rich-quick scheme, and you can’t change the world if your food is so out there nobody’s buying. I guess the fake meat and carby desserts suggest that Mint Tulip is pacing its food revolution by tackling one paradigm at a time.
A good-sized breakfast burrito was mostly potatoes, along with chunks of green chile and grain-based “artisan” chipotle veggie sausage, as well as the occasional leaf of baby spinach. It came with a side of house ranch that puts egg-and-dairy-based ranch to shame.
The most impressive plant-based meals are the ones that celebrate the ingredients as they are. Alain Passard, chef at l’Arpège in Paris, gave up cooking with meat because he was bored with it, and he saw cuisine végétal as a virtually unexplored frontier. Suffice it to say, Passard didn’t simply switch to veggie burgers. He was busy making multilayered flower-petal-and-avocado soups and baking salt pyramids with beets inside.
It’s clear that owners Carson Stradford and Rosa Zamora respect their veggies as well. Most of the meals’ components are made from scratch, with ingredients that are as local and organic as possible. Mint Tulip gets its produce through La Montañita Co-op.
The most impressive dishes I ate at Mint Tulip were the ones that didn’t try to be anything else. The winter salad, for example, was brilliant. It’s a bed of baby spinach covered in slivered almonds and cubes of roasted yellow and red beets, and some housemade cashew cheese—which I have to admit was pretty good. It was dressed in an orange and balsamic reduction vinaigrette, and it came together into a satisfying creation I’d never seen before.
Fresh juice is a plant-based treat that certainly imitates nothing else. Delicious and energizing, it delivers the vitality and enzymes of still-living cells. My juice combo of grapefruit, carrot and celery would make Passard cry a salty French tear.
My juice was followed with a good-sized breakfast burrito that was mostly potatoes, along with chunks of green chile and grain-based “artisan” chipotle veggie sausage, as well as the occasional leaf of baby spinach. It came with a side of house ranch that puts egg-and-dairy-based ranch to shame.
Once-a-week dinner service has begun, which keeps the restaurant open until 9 p.m. on Fridays. I tried the taco plate with lentils, potatoes and fake meat filling three locally made soft shells. This Friday, the dinner specials will include fresh gnocchi pasta house made with local potatoes.
I have a feeling if the chefs cooked at the restaurant like they do at home, the food could go from very good to spectacular. Those garden tables would look just as enticing laden with cuisine végétal of the highest order as they do with vegan comfort food.
• Winter salad
• Fresh juices
• Breakfast burrito (or anything else with that house ranch dressing)