By Frank Sabatini, Jr. | Restaurant review
Call it the most spontaneously run kitchen in San Diego. In less than 30 minutes, chefs at the new Casa de Luz unleash their culinary prowess on varying stockpiles of fresh organics for creating vegan meals tailored separately to breakfast, lunch and dinner. Those black bean and pumpkin seed sliders that might hit the menu at 11 a.m., for example, will disappear at 5 p.m., making way perhaps for sweet potato lasagna layered with rich, faux cheese constructed from nuts.
Three times daily, different soups and salads emerge, along with a main dish that reigns as the singular entrée choice within a given meal cycle. In other words, everyone around you is eating the same thing and the only way to know in short advance what’s coming and going throughout the day is to check the website, casadeluz.org, or call them at 619-550-1857.
Casa de Luz occupies the former Salvation Army building in the heart of North Park. Its name translates to “house of light,” and the sunny, smartly designed interior proves it. The lower level opens to ample community seating on heavy wood tables, both circular and elongated, while the second floor operates as a cooking school. Metal and wood flow from the front patio to the back walls along with chalkboards used for menu displays and inspirational proverbs pertaining to nutritional well-being. A quick look around verifies that you’ve entered a meat, fish and dairy-free zone.
Visiting for lunch with a mostly vegan friend, we opted for the complete meal, which allows for a onetime self-serving of soup and salad before the entrée is delivered to your table. The soups were miso with daikon radishes, and a hearty puree of yams, broccoli and squash with pieces of spiral-shaped Romesco cauliflower floating within. The miso raised our curiosity because it wasn’t salty in the least, but rather earthy and low-key. Though enjoyable on its own, we nonetheless reached for the gomasio (crushed sesame seeds with sea salt) that was sitting on the table.
From the salad section, we each filled our plates with all three offerings, which we were told is permissible. Guacamole was among them, a chunky citrus-spiked version that paired amicably with the abutting cucumber-daikon salad and a piling of organic spring greens that we topped with lovely apple-pecan dressing. Leave it to the vegan restaurants to come up with excellent and unique salad gravies.
The entrée that followed conformed to the weekly Latin theme occurring on Saturdays. On this day it was a duo of enchiladas using Swiss chard instead of tortillas. Both the filling and squiggles on top consisted of “cheese” made from macadamia nut milk and mushrooms. To our delight, it was as creamy and flavorful as mascarpone.
The entrée was plated prettily with other components as well, such as a corn cake stained red by beets and flavored largely by cilantro sauce. A puddle of sweet potato puree proved more exciting as did the frilly stack of bright wilted greens coated lightly in Dijon-maple dressing. With a kaleidoscope of flavors, textures and colors springing forth, it became apparent that a good deal of ingenuity went into the dish. Whether or not it ever repeats as I described is anyone’s guess since the menus are dictated by the current market and whatever is leftover from previous meal cycles.
The food themes, however, stay in place: Italian on Mondays; California-style on Tuesdays; raw foods on Wednesdays; Indian on Thursdays; Asian on Fridays; African on Sundays.
Beverages are plentiful. They feature exotic teas, organic wines, beer and sake and an ever-changing selection of house-made “agua frescas” that included a vivacious pineapple-ginger blend on our visit. Equally stimulating was the berry “cheesecake” from Casa’s impressive dessert case, made obviously with nut cream to achieve its credible silken texture. Drinks and confections are not included with the cost of the meals.
Eating a full lunch absent of saturated fats challenged my dietary sensibilities in that it didn’t cause fatigue or indigestion afterwards. Admittedly, I could dabble more often in this world of veganism without complaint, provided the creativity that Casa de Luz demonstrates doesn’t get lost in a rabbit hole.
Casa de Luz
2920 University Ave. (North Park)
Prices: Breakfast, $8.50; lunch and dinner entrees, $10 ala carte or $16.75 including soup and salad