1980 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
"Warm-hearted" grilled polenta
Being vegetarian is a noble life choice. Unfortunately, it’s not a very delicious one—especially when it comes to America, where fleshtaurants rule. The science and research and admonitions are out there. "Eat less meat," say the brains who’ve studied such matters. Anyone not living under a pile of In-N-Out wrappers knows that our insatiable lust for burgers and steaks is doing a number on our environment and our health.
Eighteen percent of our greenhouse gases comes from livestock. Yet, because of our first-world sense of dietary entitlement, we still double our cheeseburgers and eat steaks the size of our heads. Which, of course, increases demand for meat and causes ranchers to build death camps for millions of cattle, where their health is sacrificed for our grilling needs. To keep them from getting sick in squalid conditions, we pump them full of antibiotics—between 80 and 94 percent of the pharmaceuticals made in America goes into our livestock. That process, in turn, develops superbugs that will one day eat our faces off and laugh with the cockroaches as they ride out the nuclear Armageddon that our immune systems will be too withered and weakened to survive.
Or something like that.
But, but, but! The world is changing! All but the dullest tools in our shed are realizing that a full meat diet will put us in the red on Darwin’s ledgers. Ah, but there’s the problem. Until very recently, the restaurant world all but ignored vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based cuisine. It’s not surprising—only 3 percent of the U.S. declares itself vegetarian (although some estimates have California at 8 percent).
If you wanted vegetarian, you were stuck with a flaccid brick of tofu or seitan, a mushy "burger" made with horse feed and veggies steamed with all the care of Victorian sanatorium cuisine. Sure, there have been exceptions. Indian food, for one. And there’s always been the rogue vegetarian outpost whose employees sweat aromatic essential oils and add the word "extremely" to the slow food movement. There’s also that one vegetarian restaurant with an oil painting of its yogi and pamphlets extolling the virtues of their cult with every meal. That’s not uncomfortable at all.
But there hasn’t been a bright, modern, hip environment that felt like a normal place for everyone—not just the Disciples of the Leaf and Bean. Maybe that’s why the L.A.-based chain Café Gratitude seems like such a refreshing addition to San Diego’s restaurant scene. The new-age-ish restaurant started in Northern California, but really took off when it migrated to L.A. and became the healthy, stylish choice of yoga-pantsed influencers.
Don’t get me wrong. Gratitude dispenses some Kool-Aid. Each dish is named after a life affirmation, such as Gratitude, Beaming, Confident, etc. Servers wearing white T-shirts and jeans—the American equivalent of Buddhist simplicity apparel—gently invite you to add "I am" before your order. So, "I am Grateful" when ordering a bowl of kale and black beans. They confirm your order by saying, "You are Grateful." They also have a "question of the day" that invites you to look inward and take the vitals of your spirit animal.
If this sounds creepy, it’s not. Our servers during three visits don’t have that thousand-yard, lobotomy-by-healing-crystals stare. They realize some of us common folk feel out-of-skin when saying self-affirmations aloud, especially in public, and handle it with a kind nudge.
Guests can order breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Gratitude. It is entirely organic and plant-based. Zero meat. Zero dairy. They can’t call it vegan, apparently, because they use honey in a few drinks. But I can call it vegan, because that’s really what it is. Most everything is in the very affordable $10–$15 range, including appetizers, salads, sandwiches, wraps, bowls, and entrées. Drinks include smoothies, milkshakes, tonics, pressed juices, house-made spritzers, wine, beer, and "wellness elixirs" (at $25, the "Outrageous" probiotic shot is the most expensive item on the entire menu).
The star of Gratitude is nuts. The natural fats replace cream, butter, and other dairy that others use to luxuriate a dish. On the "Yo Soy Feliz" tostada, it’s cashew queso fresco atop a black bean purée, grilled portobello mushrooms, Mexican coleslaw, pico de gallo, coconut bacon, salsa verde, and avocado. The tostada is pleasant, if a tad undersalted. What it lacks in meat is reasonably overcome by a riot of flavors.
Sound like a lot of ingredients? Get used to it. Gratitude’s menu reads like the Vegan Ulysses. It should come with a bookmark. But it’s important, since the guiding principle of clean eating is transparently disclosing your wholesome ingredients.
For the two generously portioned collard spring rolls, it’s sesame wasabi and Thai almond dipping sauces. Served cold, the collard is unpleasantly damp, but the daikon, wakame, carrots, sunflower sprouts, avocado, and pickled veggies inside are an excellent riff on the fresh Asian snack.
For every order of their "Grateful" bowl, Gratitude donates a dollar to Kiss the Ground, a Los Angeles–based healthy-soil endeavor. It’s not a bad dish, and it’s that kind of focus on both health and community that is so endearing about the place.
But, again, the Grateful bowl needs salt. That’s a recurring issue with many of the dishes. I’d blame it on my salt-dependent carnivore palate, but by this point I’ve eaten plenty of plant-based food. Salt is essential. Food without ample salt is like a black-and-white movie; with salt, the dish comes alive in color.
Gratitude doesn’t put salt or pepper shakers on tables. They should. The people at the table next to us ask for salt. We do as well. Same with the next table over.
The other slight issue with Gratitude is the lack of restraint. For a restaurant dedicated to high-quality, wholesome ingredients, there are surprisingly few dishes that let simple ingredients stand on their own. Every dish comes with a flood of ingredients and flavors, awash in variations of nut-based sauces and cheeses. The result, over a few visits, is that Gratitude starts to taste a bit redundant.
As much as I love its mission, I don’t recommend restaurants based on the purity of their kitchens’ virtues. Thankfully, there are plenty of good dishes to recommend at Café Gratitude. Like the "Pure" Asian kale salad with avocado, sea palm, nori, cucumber, carrots, cilantro, basil, green onions, teriyaki almonds, and sesame wasabi and tahini dressing. Or the "Magical" double cheeseburger. Calling them black bean "patties" is a stretch; they’re more of a crisped mash. But with cashew Thousand Island dressing, chipotle ketchup, and gluten-free amaranth and millet bun, it’s an above-average veggie burger.
From the bowls (served with sprouted probiotic brown rice or quinoa), try the "Mucho." Mexican bowls do well as vegetarian options, because black beans are a native element that’s familiar to even unrepentant carnivores, and here it gets pico de gallo, guacamole, nopales, salsa verde, and cashew nacho cheese. The "Humble" is also solid, with curried red lentil dal, spinach, yams, coconut-mint chutney, spicy tomato jam, and scallions.
I’d steer clear of the "Resolved" southern sampler, where the coleslaw needs acid, the maple garnet yams are too sweet (though the gluten-free jalapeño biscuit is great), and the seitan tastes like Satan. The pad Thai kelp noodles, too, are pretty bland. And the raw brownie only reaffirmed my love of cow butter.
The best thing we eat? The "Warm-Hearted" grilled polenta with mushroom ragu, baby spinach, cashew ricotta, Brazil nut Parmesan, and fresh basil. This is an excellent dish, savory and hearty enough yet not overloaded, that shows the promise Gratitude holds for the increasingly meatless generation.
I don’t always eat vegetarian. But when I do, I’ll eat Gratitude again.