Founded in 1978 by people “who practiced yoga together”—which might just be another way of saying “hippies”—this Costa Mesa natural-foods market recently moved from its original flagship store on 17th Street to new digs at the site of a recently shuttered Borders on 19th Street.
But even before that, this vegan favorite enjoyed a slow but deliberate expansion with locations established as far south as Laguna Woods and as far north as Anaheim Hills. The local chain traded on the buzzwords of organic, non-GMO, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, low-carb, low-glycemic, low-fat and low-salt even before they were buzzwords.
Though they shared a common mission statement, not every store in the chain had the same personality. The Huntington Beach outlet is laid out like an overgrown liquor store with an attached diner. The Santa Ana one could be mistaken for a Pavilions. At the new Costa Mesa location, a maze of aisles led to one of the chain’s biggest restaurant areas yet—a focal point for most Mother’s Markets.
Still, I’ve always approached them as an outsider looking in, regarding the markets as more foreign than anything found in OC’s ethnic enclaves. Customers speak with a whole new set of vocabulary words and cook foods I’m not accustomed to eating.
Those similarly uninitiated in the Mother’s Market vernacular will find that the restaurant menu starts with a helpful glossary. There are definitions to terms such as TVP (textured vegetable protein), soyrizo (a soy-based version of the spicy Spanish sausage) and seitan (whole-wheat protein). Asterisks indicate something is organic. A heart icon means a dish is vegan.
But even after making numerous visits throughout the years, thinking I’ve figured it out, I’m realizing there’s still a lot to learn. For instance, I noticed the salt at our table was replaced by a hand-pumped liquid substitute that we initially mistook for a hand sanitizer.
And I’m still puzzled as to why Mother’s even bothered resorting to vegenaise (an eggless mayo-like substance) for the tasty egg salad when real hard-boiled eggs made up its bulk. Why didn’t it embrace its natural foods credo and make real mayo? Its chefs obviously know their way around an egg. Evidence of this can be found in the deli’s dessert section, where the rich, properly made flan would make a Spaniard weep.
I found less ambiguity in the restaurant’s roster of all-day breakfast dishes, featuring fried eggs, omelets and roasted potatoes—all stick-to-your-ribs fare that could pass muster at a meat-eater’s diner. The salsa that came with the huevos rancheros, for one, burned a hole through the plate. It was just the thing to moisten the stale, hardened grains of the Spanish rice served with it.
Even covered in non-dairy gravy, the biscuits for the country breakfast would satisfy a long-haul trucker from the South. And for lunch, I would argue that no greater tuna melt exists outside these walls. The usually heavy sandwich is feather-light here, unburdened by dressing and as refreshing as it should be.
Dinner-appropriate spinach lasagnas arrive bubbling-hot, with the saucy block of pasta sheets oozing gooey cheese and filling out your middle without a speck of meat. One night, it had a pozole that murmured Mexican spices. This was a spoon-rich soup that ate like a substantial homemade stew. Though it could’ve done without the too-spongy soy protein masquerading as chicken (which didn’t taste a thing like it), one patron promptly asked for seconds after licking his first bowl clean.
Those feeling peckish at suppertime should take these dishes over the stir-fry, which is found among the selection of entrée bowls. Though technically Asian since it was redolent with the aroma of toasted-sesame-seed oil, it’s not so much a bowl as a platter overflowing with too many crunchy veggies and resilient udon noodles. Only grazing cows wouldn’t find the dish tiring to chew past the sixth forkful. But perhaps the most perplexing thing about the stir-fry was how it made me crave meat even as it overstuffed my belly.
Nothing, however, made me yearn to rush to the nearest doughnut shop more than the dense-as-concrete dessert Mother’s called a banana cake. How this collection of seemingly harmless ingredients—including Tofutti, soymilk and cream cheese—managed to create something that was almost inedible is more mysterious than the fact the list did not include banana.
But with all that is unique and, yes, some might say smug about Mother’s Market, there are instances that remind me they’re ultimately no different from other supermarkets, especially when it comes to the people. There are grandmotherly types who coo at babies alongside hard-edged, tattooed dudes who might just be grunge rockers by night.
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And when I lobbed the guy behind the deli counter a question, he gave me a typical non-answer, like I’ve come to expect everywhere else. I asked whether the refrigerated angel-hair pesto I was purchasing by the pound would be better heated. He shrugged and said, “It depends on how you like it”—an apt phrase that sums up Mother’s Market perfectly.
Mother’s Market & Kitchen, 1890 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 631-4741; www.mothersmarket.com. Open daily, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Meals, $5-$10.
This review appeared in print as "Mystery Meatless: Baffled by soyrizo and seitan? Mother’s Market explains it all."