Local restaurants are elevating veggie-based dishes that tempt taste buds while packing a nutritional punch.
By Alina Orozco
When dining out, those following a vegetarian or vegan diet have long found themselves relegated to ordering off the salad and side dish menus as most restaurants have centered their entrees around meat. However, that approach has been changing in recent years and plant-based plates are now gaining top billing at local eateries as chefs increasingly cater to the demands of health-focused guests. And, as recipes become more innovative, many of these veggie dishes are not only good for you, but taste good enough to tempt even die-hard carnivores to give them a try.
Planting the Seed
A plant-based diet is exactly what its name suggests—one that encourages the consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods like vegetables (cooked and raw), legumes, nuts and fruit. Many adhering to this healthy regime also aim to eliminate all processed foods, replacing canned or frozen meals with naturally derived items. While some devout followers give up animal protein, seafood and dairy altogether, others retain small amounts of it in their diet.
A vegetarian diet doesn’t just sound like a healthy alternative, studies have shown that adhering to a meatless meal plan can help alleviate conditions from hypertension (high blood pressure) to diabetes. “Nutritionally speaking, the plant-based diet is perfect for individuals struggling with weight gain … [and] chronic diseases,” says April Murray, a registered dietitian, Newport Beach resident and founder of Orange County Nutrition Coaching in Costa Mesa.
“… [And] a plant-based diet is naturally anti-inflammatory which is really helpful in terms of preventing disease including the big ones like heart disease, liver disease, cancer, Type II diabetes, et cetera,” Murray says.
Though switching to a vegetarian diet sounds like a perfect solution, adhering to its strict rules can be difficult. Finding approved options on menus or sharing appetizers with friends during a night out—all while making sure your body is receiving the protein and nutrients it needs—is no small challenge.
“Adopting a plant-based diet is not necessarily easy,” Murray says. “You remove all or most animal products including meat, cheese, eggs, butter, gelatin and more. … A good candidate for a plant-based diet is someone who is willing and motivated to shop smart, prepare most of their meals and forgo the cheeseburger. Health-wise, this diet is great for most anyone who wants to be healthier.”
Murray recommends this diet to clients who are willing to make drastic lifestyle changes, including reading all food labels and preparing most of their meals at home. Another hurdle, Murray says, is that most vegan and vegetarians tend to consume too many carbohydrates in attempts to feel full. She advises her clients to try a variety of plant-based proteins such as legumes, nuts, whole grains and soy instead of pastas, potatoes, bread and rice—which can instead make dieters gain weight.
“A most common misconception is that [those following] plant-based diets don’t get enough protein,” Murray says. “Though that can be a concern for some people, if a person eats a well-rounded diet with plenty of variety (in terms of veggies, legumes, fruits, whole grains, et cetera), they will not be low on protein. We do not technically need meat or dairy in our diets.”
However, if the challenge of a vegetarian diet seems too great, Murray suggests keeping fish and eggs in your diet and limiting red meat to two times a month. In short, she says to “stick to what is whole and try to incorporate different foods. Every food brings something different to the party.”
For plant-based dieters or those who may want healthier options when dining out—and a break from cooking—the Newport Beach restaurant scene offers plenty of eateries with vegan and vegetarian selections that stretch far beyond your typical veggie burger.
When thinking about plant-based eating, Gratitude Newport Beach (part of the regional Café Gratitude chain) is a go-to spot. Dedicated to gourmet, plant-focused cuisine, Gratitude aims to support not only health but also the community—by embracing local ingredients.
“I am so grateful to be able to inspire our guests with the endless variety of … seasonally driven, plant-based menu items,” says Executive Chef Dreux Ellis, who oversees development and execution of the menu at all Café Gratitude restaurants in Southern California. “It is a compassionate cuisine that provides everything you need, nothing you don’t and has the added benefit of a light carbon footprint.”
Among Gratitude’s creative dishes—each with a positive affirmation as part of the name—include Liberated/Raw Pad Thai Kelp Noodles and Elated/Mole Abuelita Enchiladas; the latter is made from blackened tempeh and black beans, then topped with roasted tomatillo sauce and cashew queso fresco.
For those seeking an Italian-style dish, try the Bountiful/Blackened Tempeh Bolognese, which combines gluten-free quinoa pasta shells with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese made from cashews and brazil nuts, respectively, broccolini and spinach. The menu even offers a dish with flavors from the East: the Humble/Indian Curry Bowl mixes red lentil dal, quinoa or brown rice, spinach, roasted yams and coconut-mint chutney. Coconut also has starred in salads and other dishes—the flakes are flavored to taste like bacon with surprisingly delicious results.
One dish on the Gratitude lineup this season is the Local: Winter Citrus Salad, which is big enough to be an entree. “[It’s] based on a Sicilian classic that also includes spinach, arugula, shaved fennel and black olives,” Ellis says. “… In California, we are blessed with some of the best citrus fruit in the world,” the chef adds. “We are in Orange County, after all, so it is a pleasure to feature local cara cara and blood oranges on Gratitude’s winter menu.”
Talking about the the health benefits of citrus, Ellis explains: “As many may know, oranges are full of vitamin C, but they are less well-known for their abundance of B vitamins, as well as being an optimum source of fiber. In addition, the leafy greens [in the salad] are rich in phytochemicals such as lutein and beta-carotene. I chose to highlight this salad because it is a nutrient-dense, light entree that highlights one our primary local fruits.”
Another local gem is, of course, True Food Kitchen at Fashion Island. This restaurant’s health-driven, seasonally inspired dishes are rich in nutrients and flavor, serving plant-based items at the peak of their freshness.
This season, Taylor Domet, director of culinary standards for True Food Kitchen, is raving about the addition of the roasted heirloom carrots dish, comprising za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend), sesame seeds, pistachio nuts, Greek yogurt and dill, a vegetarian and gluten-free option on the winter menu at True Food Kitchen.
“This is a colorful dish because when we roast the carrots, we scrub the dirt off but don’t peel them, leaving most of the vitamins and nutrients intact,” Domet says. “The Greek yogurt is high in probiotics and the pistachios are high in B6 … and magnesium.”
Another favorite at True Food Kitchen is the spaghetti squash casserole, made with organic tomato, zucchini, caramelized onion and fresh mozzarella.
“We make the tomato sauce from all organic tomatoes grown in Northern California,” Domet says. “And by using spaghetti squash instead of actual pasta, the calorie count is 35 calories per cup (of squash) vs. 200 calories per cup of pasta. It’s also one of the lowest calorie entrees on our menu.”
Vibe Organic Kitchen & Juice is another great choice for plant-based dieters. This small but mighty eatery offers inspired items that are a must-try. “Everyone is eating avocado toast these days, but what makes the rendition at Vibe unique is the ability to skip the bread altogether and have it served on grilled, slightly crispy sweet potato slices,” says owner Josh Leibowitz.
A menu standout is the Fiesta Bowl, which swaps out traditional carnitas for spicy jackfruit. “Once the jackfruit is shredded and cooked in a spicy red chili salsa, you’ll struggle [to] tell … the difference,” Leibowitz says. The dish can be served over quinoa, rice, cauliflower rice or greens with guacamole, pico de gallo, black beans and cashew-lime crema to replace traditional sour cream.
The availability of so many veggie-focused, health-conscious selections right in Newport Beach makes it that much easier to adopt a plant-based diet and sustain such a lifestyle successfully.