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Photo by Tenaya HillsFor the past couple of years, the mosthappening structure in hipster housing has been the yurt, the lightweight circular tent native to Mongolia with a name that sounds like a Dr. Seuss punch line. Outdoor-recreation stores hawk yurts with promises of warmth and spaciousness alongside a dash of Third World cool; Julia Roberts even lived in one alongside a Mongolian family for a 2000 PBS special on the nation's wild horses.
It wasn't too surprising, then, that when the vegan buzz restaurant of the moment, Costa Mesa's Native Foods, opened last year, its building was a yurt—never mind the adamantly carnivorous Mongol diet. And being that this is Orange County, and being that Native Foods is part of the rustic-chic CAMP complex, their yurt is more an architectural student's grad project than anything authentic: birch-colored wooden booths, chalkboard drawings and a clientele who make loud talk about Bush, Bush, and Bush.
But screw the milieu: Native Foods is about chow as welcoming for your senses as it is for your health. Sure, Native Food's mission statement—"a prosperous lifestyle in harmony with the balance of nature and its energy through the wonders of food"—might be as hopelessly New Age-y as the menu and environs. Unlike most vegan mavens, though, Chef Tanya Petrovna doesn't ditch the flavor while thinking of invigorating ways to fool flesh fanatics or improve your aura.
2937 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Region: Costa Mesa
Consider the Native nacho platter: crispy-thin tortilla chips covered in black beans, soy taco meat, fresh salsa and guacamole. Most veggie eateries just chop up some soy and hide the shamefully vile portions within the crevices of a tortilla-chip pyramid. Petrovna, however, minces and spices the tofu into tiny pebbles until it assumes the properties of the best Mexican picadillo: minty, hearty and rather lovely. It's the best appetizer at Native Foods, although others also impress: crisp Native seasoned fries prepared with such an intricate blend of peppery spices it trumps In-N-Out's taters and fried tempeh chips served with a choice of pleasantly fragrant sauces—I prefer the sweet and sour.
Petrovna also does great business with her Hot Bowls, tureens of cooked vegetables and marinated fake meat tossed with rice, noodles, pasta or quinoa. Just ignore the hippy-dippiness again: the Gandhi, an enlightened mixture of jasmine and brown rices, blackened tempeh, cranberries, and curry claims to promote world peace but instead settles for pleasing your stomach. The Rockin' Moroccan, meanwhile, has little to do with the Maghreb but still tap-dances on your taste buds with nutty quinoa, grilled greenery, toasted almonds, currants and some Save the Chicken soy nuggets slathered with a spicy-sweet ginger sauce that's just bliss.
You can spend a couple of evenings on the appetizers, Hot Bowls or salads that don't bother with the meat-imitation game—the Iron Yam salad in particular, a sweet steamed yam with caramelized onions, crunchy steamed vegetables, marinated tofu and a bold balsamic vinaigrette, deserves a month of meditation to truly appreciate its intricacies. Native Foods prides itself most, however, on mimicking meat's chewy, strong essence without resorting to killing animals or stocking up on growth hormones. The sauce on the barbecue-chicken pizza is a wee too thick and sweet, but the imposter chicken perfectly apes the lean joy that is munching on grilled hen. Petrovna also slaps together some good burgers that could sell at a hot-rod show: a nicely charred soy Chicken Run Ranch Burger, a hefty marinated seitan (wheat protein) jerk burger burning with piquant rub and other such beef-bluffing niceties.
But Petrovna's ultimate paean to meat remains the Philly peppersteak sandwich. Before meat-lovers picket Native Foods for even thinking of such a heretical concept—a vegan Philly cheesesteak? Tug McGraw must be spinning in his grave!—take a bite. Seared slices of peppery seitan proudly take on the role of the beef; mushrooms, bell peppers, caramelized onions and a crusty French roll are as great as what they grill in South Philly. Even better is the Native Cheese—Petrovna's cow-free blend of salty cashews and sunflower seeds is brilliant, simply brilliant, something even Mongolians could enjoy before tearing down this yurt and suing for cultural misrepresentation.
NATIVE FOODS, 2937 BRISTOL ST., COSTA MESA, (714) 751-2151; WWW.NATIVEFOODS.COM. BEER AND WINE. DINNER FOR TWO, $12-$25, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.