By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Another vegan restaurant that raises the bar on vegan food has sprouted in Uptown, joining a list of others such as Donna Jean, Kindred and the long-established Plumeria a quarter-mile away.
Grains, which launched five months ago, is still in its soft-opening as the kitchen develops new small plates to further complement 20 taps of craft beer.
The venture is owned and operated by Pat Napatr and his sister, Katiya Hendricks, whose son, Jow, heads up the kitchen.
Jow is a culinary graduate of The Art Institute of California – San Diego. And unlike his mom and uncle, he happens to be a carnivore, hence his knack for converting common animal-protein dishes into ones free of saturated fats.
Exceptions are made, however, for those who prefer real-deal Parmesan or pepper jack cheese in certain dishes.
I opted for the latter on a scrumptious Philly cheesesteak that uses grilled button cap mushrooms instead of seiten or soy to achieve its meaty flavor. My only beef with the sandwich was that I wished the green bell peppers were sautéed to the same tender sweetness as the onions.
If I gave up meat, which would mean saying goodbye to dearly loved chicken wings, I’d pop in regularly for the Buffalo-style cauliflower.
Served with vegan ranch dressing and obligatory celery and carrot sticks, the florets were roasted to a fine crisp and judiciously tossed in classic, cayenne pepper sauce.
King oyster mushrooms are used to mimic the texture of calamari, and to a surprising degree, the flavor. Coated in tempura-like batter and lightly fried, the pieces are dusted in minced garlic and scallions. We especially loved the green house-made dipping sauce containing lemon juice, cilantro, serrano chilies and a touch of sugar.
The same spicy sauce accompanied a bouquet of kale tempura, which wasn’t nearly as boring as I anticipated. The fried, brittle leaves somehow escaped the harsh one-dimensional earthiness I find with kale.
Drawing from the owners’ Thai heritage, the menu extends to larb tofu salad spiked with lime; drunken angel hair noodles with chili peppers and ginger root; yellow curry with tofu and potatoes; and exceptional quinoa fettuccini in Asian-style mushroom broth.
We ordered the latter after Napatr described the broth as “lighter than gravy and not as soupy as soup.”
He was spot on as the savory liquid offered just the right amount of viscosity to stick to the lightweight, pan-seared noodles. We devoured everything in the dish, right down to the last ingredient, which included steamed tofu, sliced mushrooms and tender bok choy.
As for the tiny pond of remaining broth in the bowl, we eagerly mopped it up with some of the crispy garlic-parsley potato wedges that came with the cheesesteak.
Even in forging ahead to the only available dessert — sticky rice topped with fresh mango and coconut milk — we left without sinking into a food coma. For this meat eater, that’s one of the joys of eating vegan every now and then, not to mention how well modern chefs have mastered the art.
Other dishes include a grilled version of the mushroom calamari; kale salad with roasted almonds, dried cranberries and caper vinaigrette; and a top-selling pulled “pork” sandwich made with five-spice tofu, jackfruit and pickled veggies.
Grains operates in a double-storefront that previously housed Adams Avenue Grill.
The redesigned look is bright and airy and warmed by potted plants and two types of wood gracing the dining room.
In addition to its lengthy beer selection, the drink list extends to nearly a dozen wines available by the glass or bottle at affordable prices.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.