"Mama, you never yell at us except when you drink coffee.”
“That’s why we drink tea,” says Jennifer, “except sometimes.” But Jennifer likes to be called by her religious name, Bathsheba. “It means ‘daughter of the covenant,’” she says. And just like the other women helping to break down the blue tent canopies of the Twelve Tribes market outside their eatery, Bathsheba’s dressed in a quilted vest and an ankle-length skirt. All the women out here are wearing modest clothing. It’s almost like visiting the set of Big Love.
Carla’s buddy Maggie clued me in to this place. She lives in Escondido. “They’re some sort of religious group,” she told me on the phone. “And they built this house to be a, like, restaurant and meeting place. But they have awesome food, and they don’t try to convert you. They’re nice people. They grow their own stuff, even the yerba mate tea, down in Brazil.”
So, I walk through the gates and up to a patio with fire pits and murals. We’re right here in the heart of Old Vista. “Morning Star Ranch,” reads the sign by the mural on the left. It shows rolling fields and barns and orchards, like some of the early Californio illustrations, bursting with fruit and veggies in orderly rows. But I have to go inside. Partly because, hey, up here, inland from Oceanside, this time of evening it’s chilly.
And inside, this is something else: polished driftwood counters and wrought iron everywhere. Think Buca di Beppo, but all warm and woody. A spiral staircase leading to the second story rises up next to a pulley-raised dumbwaiter. And get this: there’s a copper tube that the guys on the first floor use to speak to the guys on the second.
I swing up the spiral staircase to more rooms, caves, alcoves, barn doors, combos of raw wood and poles — like a ship. And finely polished and varnished surfaces, with hanging lampshades made from upside-down apple baskets. I pass an outside sitting room, a balcony, and head into the back, the “Mate Addic & Lounge.” (Addic? I’m guessing it’s a joke, something between “attic” and mate tea “addict.”)
I’m thinking this is half Captain Hook and Peter Pan, half Noah’s Ark. Bearded guys, long-dressed girls (some with babies slung on their backs) carry plates and serve food. They all have rosy cheeks. Natch, I have to see what’s going on in the lounge. It’s a cute little bar, with people laptopping or drinking tea, some eating sandwiches. I sit up to the bar. Tall young guy with leather headband’s serving, but a guy who says his name is Joseph comes up.
“Hi, welcome. First time?”
“Yup,” I say.
“How did you hear about us?”
His other name’s Dayag — “Fisher of Men.” Pretty soon, I’m buying a yerba mate tea ($1.50), and Dayag’s telling me how this outfit is run by communities of the “Twelve Tribes of Israel.” They started on the East Coast and try to live like the early Christian settlements. The red-bearded guy behind the bar, Ha Qinai — it means “The Zealot,” he says — hands me a big yellow menu. I sip the yerba mate. “It’s from Brazil,” says Dayag. “Organic. Our own people grow it down there.” Mmm…tastes slightly herby. I put some honey in it. Then it tastes slightly syrupy, but oh-so-refreshing. I look around. Most of the customers don’t look like converts. They’re not wearing beards or long dresses, but seem comfortable here. Actually, they seem really happy. “We took seven years to create this,” says Yishayar, who’s the mechanic on the Tribe’s organic farm in Valley Center, which supplies most of the food. “The Yellow Deli is neutral ground where we can all meet each other. We try to follow Abraham. He was known for his hospitality.”
The menu looks pretty nuts-and-twigs hippie fare too. That’s a good thing, right? We’re talking sandwiches, salads, and soups. Sandwiches all go for $7.75, with chips or a veggie bowl. I ask around the counter and the thing everyone seems to think is the greatest is the Deli Rose sandwich ($7.75). It has roast beef, corned beef, hot pepper cheese, provolone, onions, tomato, “with our own special sauce on an onion roll.” The Deli Lamb comes on an egg roll. That could be interesting. So, they’re vegetarian, but not totally against meat. “No pork, though,” says Dayag. “An unclean animal.”
Salads go from $3.75 (half garden) to $7.50 (for the Chef, with turkey, cheese, olives, croutons, peppers). Everything comes from that garden in Valley Center.
It’s cold outside, so I almost get the Prairie Chili, which my neighbors say is really good. Like the vegetarian soup of the day, you can get a “huge bowl” for $7.25 or a cup for $4.25. A side of “artisan bread” is an extra $1.75.
“This potato-cheese soup is wonderful,” says the lady sitting in the corner where the counter meets the wall. Jean. She’s not a follower, but she comes here a lot. “My husband is doing contract security work in Iraq, so it’s good for me to get out,” she says. “The food I love the best here is the veggie burger, because it doesn’t taste healthy. I’m a cheeseburger addict, and this tastes strong, like a burger should.” Her soup looks good and thick. I check the menu. Yoga Vista Special is the veggie burger ($7.75) on a vegan kaiser roll with “fresh garden veggies.” Sounds harmless enough. I ask The Zealot for the cup of soup and the veggie burger. “Good luck,” says Johnny, a Prince look-alike who’s sitting next to me with his laptop. He’s a student but spends most of his waking hours inventing video games based on Lord of the Rings. He and Ha Qinai are friends and always debating, mostly about Twelve Tribes beliefs. “We agree to disagree,” says Johnny. But he’s here almost every night.
The soup is savory. Big chunks of potato, enough cheese to make it interesting, and the homemade bread is really dense. And the burger? Jean’s right. It has flavor. It’s not like an army of bean sprouts in search of a patty.