Costa Mesa remains the Berkeley of the local dining scene. Standbys such as the Gypsy Den, Taco Mesa and Native Foods produce some of the county's best healthy fare, while Mother's Market sells virtually every organic item your pantry could desire—if your pantry is run by PETA. Now add to this holistic list the new Avanti Café.
It's the humblest of the bunch—small, with a neighborhood diner feel that attracts the hipsters of the East 17th Street district as well as big-bellied construction workers. Co-owners and chefs Mark Cleveland and Tanya Fuqua indulge foodies here and there; you'll find copies of the brainy Berkeley-based academic journal Gastronomica on the reading rack, and most of the produce comes from San Juan Capistrano's South Coast Farms. But while the Avanti menu is strictly vegetarian, the steak-and-potatoes crowd will hardly notice or care. Every entrée, appetizer and dessert springs with flavor and heftiness; is there anything more mainstream than a morning cup of joe washing down crunchy waffles? Granted, Avanti's waffles come decorated with plump raisins and sweetened apples.
The daily soups are almost peasantlike in their simplicity, but they'll surprise you with electric touches: black-eyed peas with chipotle undertones; sweet purple potatoes bobbing in a cream of cauliflower potage; tomato soup dense with fava beans. A coriander mustard sweet potato sandwich—anchored with cream cheese, topped with caramelized onions and crammed between two sturdy focaccia slices—is substantial enough for a company picnic. Trays inside the deli counter change daily and seem likely to buckle beneath hushpuppies, whole red peppers engorged with brown rice and plums, and pasta slathered with a hearty sauce and mixed with tofu chunks that isn't as insulting to Italian propriety as it sounds. My favorite snacks here are the timbales, a soft, doughy cornmeal mass topped with olives, red peppers and a creamy cheese sauce that resembles a high-concept tamale.
And the desserts? Cookies as big as your palm, crumbly pumpkin pie, mini quiches of love. It's Heartland Americana with ginger touches. Then again, there is the black sticky rice with coconut shavings atop a maple compote—and that's for us gourmands, baby.
AVANTI CAFÉ, 259 E. 17TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 548-2224.