The distinctive A-frame storefront design of 2611 El Cajon Boulevard gives it the appearance of a mid-century motor lodge or roadside diner, and a diner is what it has been for decades, even as the pylon sign standing over its parking lot has changed. For ages it was Johnny's Family Restaurant; more recently Lil B's Urban Eatery.
2611 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
To bolster its "urban eatery" concept, Lil B's used bright colors and funky design elements to embellish the Johnny's true to form infrastructure — a lunch counter and family-friendly dining room.
But at its heart, it was still a diner, offering all day menus full of familiar items: hot sandwiches, big salads, breakfast meals.
The same can be said of the new tenant, though it's given a twist to the diner concept that feels more legitimately 21st century: 100-percent vegan menu.
Anthem Vegan has built a following the past several years as a farmers market stand offering vegan takes on cheesesteaks, tacos, and wraps. With the move into a permanent restaurant, Anthem offers all of these as part of a deep menu that looks like a replica from any roadside diner in America. It just swaps out any kind of meat or dairy product and replaces it with a no-animals-were-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-meal substitute.
Thus, its burger section features the "bleeding" patties of Beyond Meats (and it's rumored Impossible burgers could be on the way). Some dishes use Follow Your Heart vegan cheese, others us jackfruit to mimic pork, and many incorporate Anthem Karne, the house beef substitute made with wheat and soy proteins. The latter appears in a variety of Anthem's most successful dishes: carne asada tacos ($9), aus ju French dip sandwich ($10.50), and the aforementioned cheesesteak ($11.50).
If you're interested in closer inspection of such meatless alternatives, simply take a look at the front of the restaurant, which operates as a small vegan market, retailing many of the same items. A counter deli will even offer the chance to go home with karne and other meat substitutes Anthem introduces as it grows into its new space. Think lunch meats, without the meat.
But it wasn't the karne options that caught my attention while visiting the restaurant this week, rather something fishy: the tuna melt ($11.50). A tuna melt might be the quintessential diner order. It's almost like the sandwich exists only as an ode to nostalgia, and if a vegan diner is going to be worth its salt, it should get this one right.
Anthem definitely nailed the melt part of the sandwich. The bread toasted to a beautiful crisp — not too greasy — and the faux cheese melted into the same texture that makes American cheese a popular choice for cheeseburgers. Thinly sliced tomatoes and roasted Anaheim chili pepper contributed something for the teeth to dig into, and I generally found the mild flavor of the Anaheim a fine addition to the tuna melt concept, one I'll probably copy in future actual-tuna melts.
I'm not entirely sure what all goes into Anthem's mock tuna salad, but I know the secret weapon that makes it work: kelp. Some broken down form of the seaweed is added to give the mock fish that inimitable, of-the-sea brininess. The texture's a little lacking, but with the vegetables making up for it, I'd eat this alongside any tuna melt in the country without once complaining about the lack of fish.
And that's where Anthem is going with this: making comfort food to lure part-time carnivores as well as vegans, for a familiar experience without having to rely on animal fat for flavor. I wouldn't trust the small burrito menu (I'd also counsel against ordering a burrito at a diner in general), but for the most part, Anthem Vegan provides an appealing vision of Americana, without the beef.