3131 University Ave. (North Park)
Prices: breakfast, $5.50 to $6.50; soup, appetizers and entrees, $4 to $10; Sunday brunch, $12.95
By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Don Jackson and Princesa Vitela have managed to turn some of America’s most sinful foods into innocent angels. We’re talking things like biscuits and gravy, chicken and dumplings and fried zucchini — the kind of dishes you’d expect more from a roadside diner than an all-vegan restaurant. And they’re plating up their recipes with panache.
The couple met in a culinary program at San Diego Community College and originally launched their business by selling vegan sweets and savories at local farmers’ markets. The name “Moncai” is Gaelic for “monkey,” which Jackson admits is his pet name for Princesa.
Situated in a circa-1932 building, guests are greeted by a bakery case filled with donuts, cupcakes and cinnamon rolls. Black-and-white harlequin flooring strikes an aesthetic match to a few antique pieces strewn throughout the small dining area. A flat-screen menu is perched behind the order counter, although the restaurant is currently transitioning to full table service.
The “home-made water” listed on the menu is no joke. Jackson each day brews a large batch of hibiscus tea and then adds macerated pineapples and oranges to it. Served with ice, it’s the best cold liquid that’s ever passed my lips, I said to my vegan dining companion who couldn’t get enough of the stuff either.
From a shortlist of breakfast items (served all day), we tried the fresh drop biscuits smothered in roasted mushroom gravy. The biscuits were pleasantly dense and I didn’t miss the sausage drippings common to country-style gravy, which is constructed here with onions, mushrooms, vegetable stock and flour. Other choices include organic hot cereal and pancakes served with vegan-friendly Earth Butter.
Moving on to the lunch-dinner fare, the food became even tastier with the exception of “Moncai nachos.” They were layered abundantly with mashed pinto beans that could have used some zing from garlic or chili peppers. In the absence of cheese, however, fresh guacamole and soy-based sour cream sufficed.
Potato-cabbage soup du jour was perfected with fennel and caraway, a pottage as flavorful and soothing as some of the beef-based recipes you’d find in Eastern European kitchens.
We followed up with breaded, fried zucchini, served hot and crisp and with herby soy-based dipping sauce that was guiltlessly creamy. But the roasted Brussels sprouts resting in a pond of bourbon and dissolved brown sugar left us speechless.
Just when I thought that these cruciferous orbs have seen their day in trendy restaurants, tossed in every type of vinaigrette possible, this preparation transcends the status quo by reinventing the sweet-tangy balance without the use of balsamic vinegar or citrus. The sauce also contains sneaky hints of cayenne pepper for extra kick.
Moncai’s “chicken” and dumplings could fool a Midwest family into thinking they’re eating the real deal.
“We go through about 10 gallons every day,” says Jackson, revealing that caramelized leeks in the recipe help give the dish its homey, meaty flavor.
The dumplings were firm and light and coaxed by bits of “leg meat from the vegan chicken,” as Jackson humorously described the dark pieces of faux poultry in the dish. The roux was also impressive, thanks to copious black pepper used in its making.
The most expensive plate on the menu is yucca black bean cakes draped in mango-mustard-habanero sauce and served over organic brown rice. Priced at $10, it’s actually worth more given the fine construction of the bean patties, the silky sauce and the accompanying salad dressed in garlic, olive oil and 25-year-aged balsamic.
Sunday brunch is also a bargain. Served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., you get a veggie scramble; potatoes with peppers and onions; biscuits and gravy; maple-smoked tempeh bacon; fruit; pancakes; and coffee, tea or juice, all for $12.95 — and with no threat to your arteries.