3131 University Avenue, North Park
The area around 31st and University in North Park has seem some unusual transformations over the years — an old church added a rock venue (The Irenic), a bank turned into a 7-11, and now there's a vegan restaurant/bakery where an obscure Mexican joint once stood.
Moncai (rhymes with to Honk-eye) replaces La Herradura Taco Shop, which I know because the old bright red and yellow storefront is still pictured on the street view of Google Maps. The new owners took over the whole building, moving in upstairs and rapidly converting the space to a simple and relaxed café. If nothing else, they've at least succeeded in improving the color scheme, which was probably bound to happen as the gentrification of North Park stretches eastward.
If you recognize the name Moncai, you're probably not a big meat-eater. A few local herbivores might know name from the San Diego Public Market, or may have found their vegan desserts at local restaurants including Lestat's Coffeehouse and Loving Hut. I actually spotted their generously iced pastries in a counter case as I walked in. They didn't look very vegan, so I immediately ordered a maple pecan donut.
Dessert settled, I turned to my lunch. As a default carnivore, I'm pretty used to picking over vegan menus a few times before finally settling on something that seems like the best combination of healthy-for-me and remotely satisfying. So I was surprised to change my mind a couple times as I read. Would it be the linguini with garlic kale sauce, or avocado cream BLT? Well, there's no point in a meat-eater faking bacon, so I decided to go with the pasta. But then when the words reached my mouth they sounded more like "chicken and dumplings." Apparently my subconscious picked up on a note on the menu declaring this their most popular dish, and decided to run with it. When in vegan Rome, I guess.
I took a seat in the decidedly casual dining room and mulled it over while I picked at my donut. Was it fair of me to review a meatless version of chicken and dumplings? How can such a thing possibly compare to the genuine article I grew with, made by my grandmother?
The donut held no answer, just unending sweetness and the occasional nutty crunch. Not bad, for vegan, and nice to know it will taste the same after the ban on partially-hydrogenated oils reaches full enforcement.
My main dish arrived in a large bowl, which was a nice start, because historically great things are served in large bowls. It was also heavy on the dumplings, which also turned out to be a positive. While the "chicken" seitan proved a convincing supporting actor, large pieces of it may have ruined the fantasy. As it stands, eating vegan forced me to face a little bit of chicken 'n 'dumpling reality: the chicken's just an excuse to eat dumplings, and a dumpling's just a vessel to carry the gravy.
This gravy worked — thick and savory and satisfying, and easily hearty enough to convince a meat lover this vegan adventure in a world of changing landmarks was worthwhile. Does it live up to Granny's recipe? Hell no. But good enough to make me wonder: what does that pasta taste like?