Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Buena Onda at Lotus Cafe Hillcrest
For any hip, Uptown denizen who's ever coveted the good vibrations and the mellow ways of the deeply tanned and yoga-limber North County swamis, Lotus Cafe in Hillcrest is a great way to soak up a little Encinitas style (the original Lotus is there along the 101) without leaving the urban safety of home.
Located in the 5th Avenue space most recently occupied by the ill-fated Pizza Nova restaurant, Lotus Cafe's small facade looks out on the block of 5th between Washington and University, which has seen a lot of development recently.
The interior is resplendent in guru-chic. The overall effect is not exactly in line with the pantheistic decor of an Indian restaurant or the tropical Buddhist trappings of some Thai places. It's more reflective of the kind of transcendental fusion culture that evokes images of mid-century yogis and gurus leading the burgeoning spiritual revolution in American counter-culture. The net effect is peaceful and serene, and the perfect surroundings to become one with some vegetarian cuisine.
That's correct. The specialty of the house is vegetarian and vegan food. And Lotus Cafe does a good job of presenting vegetarian food as the main event rather than a quirky sideshow. The majority of their menu items are vegetarian, and most can be made vegan with a few small substitutions. Good karma abounds.
The vegetarian chili dog ($6.45) comes on a whole wheat bun and is smothered in veggie chili. Melted cheese and sliced red onions make an appearance on top, and blue corn chips and salsa are on the side. Like any veggie dog, the texture is just a little too soft to be a perfect substitute, but the flavor is basically identical to any other hotdog. There's enough chili that it requires a fork and, at the end of the day, it's really quite good.
In order to totally undo any possible heath benefits of a vegetarian diet, Lotus Cafe blends up killer shakes. Yes, not juices (though they offer those too), shakes, with ice cream. A pineapple-coconut shake ($3.95) is an ideal chaser for the chili dog. A little bit tropical sweet, but plenty rich and creamy at the same time.
They also make plenty of less-indulgent, all-fruit smoothies ($3.95) if ice-cream for lunch seems somehow inappropriate.
As veggie-centric as Lotus Cafe is, they do a good job at cooking meat. Chicken tacos ($7.95) feature nicely cooked chicken in a rich sauce that would pass muster at most taco shops. Maybe it's because the cheese is melted onto the tacos first, thus forming a protective barrier against the sauce, but the tacos exhibit a surprising degree of stability and refuse to fall apart, which is a nice touch. Topping them with lettuce and sprouts helps keep things swami-approved.
3955 Fifth Avenue
Open 7 days 11am-9pm