Guest review: Soul Cocina! »
I have a love-hate affair with vegan restaurants that fill their menu with faux-meat. Don’t get me wrong, I love a delicious kung pao un-chicken dish, but I believe that one can eat vegan without using meat-substitutes or compromising flavor. Enter Roger of Soul Cocina pop-up fame to present a six-course vegan feast without soy or processed ingredients, instead taking cues from world cuisines and seasonal produce.
When you first walk in to La Victoria (2937 24th St. at Alabama Street in San Francisco) on a night Roger has taken over the kitchen, head straight past the well stocked pastry to the back of the bakery. There, the cafe tables have been transformed with fresh flower bouquets, bright tablecloths, and a comfortable, homey ambiance that makes you want to cozy up for a few hours. While diners can order separate dishes from Soul Cocina’s rotating menu, my dining companion and I went the full monty and each ordered the fixe prix dinner ($30).
Our first taste of Roger’s world-influenced cuisine was the bhel puri, a light Indian snack of puffed rice, peanuts, onions, tomatoes, and mangoes, drizzled with a tamarind sauce. Wrapped in paper cones, this dish showcased street food at it’s finest. A second appetizer quickly followed: a basket of homemade blue corn tortilla strips with a bowl of heavenly guacamole that can best be described as avocado-overload (and I mean that in the best way).
Next was a surprise last-minute addition, a roasted pan of cauliflower with a smokey, soft, buttery texture perfectly contrasted against the crunch of pine nuts and sweet currants. A healthy does of spicy garlic, olive oil, and a kick of citrus reminded me of the Middle East, where such bright flavor profiles are usually found in the restaurants lining the streets of Istanbul.
Our chef was kind enough to come out and present dishes, including a well composed plate of platano maduro, pickled vegetables, and slow-cooked black beans on a banana leaf. Unfortunately the sharp kick of acid from the pickles overpowered the subtler flavor of the soft beans. That’s not to say that I didn’t finish almost everything, despite my belly telling me to call it quits. But we still had one more dish and dessert to go, and I was determined to try everything.
Our last main was a stuffed thick tortilla (called a “huaraches de buddha”) topped with a medley of exotic sauteed vegetables. I’ve been wanting to try fiddleheads for awhile now, and the best way I could describe the taste was if broccoli and asparagus had a punk rock baby. The two accompanying pureed salsas had a definite kick, but their smoky heat went perfectly with the lightly seasoned vegetables and stuffed tortilla.
My eating prowess was rewarded with possibly the best vegan desert I have ever been served: a coconut creme bruleee with a side of tropical fruit. Sounds simple, but this was off the hook. The brulee’s sweet hard shell broke perfectly to reveal the velvety, rich, fragrant custard beneath. The consistency and sweetness were spot-on. Seriously, it was out of this world paired with thinly sliced starfruit and kiwi.
Unfortunately, Roger might be moving to Chicago this year. So next time he presents a vegan Soul Cocina night, go! A few more tips: the biggest bang for your buck is the prix fixe, but first run a marathon (or around the block) a few times as you’ll need your game face in order finish everything. While you’re out, skip around the corner to grab a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner sans—corking fee. To find out when Roger will be presenting another vegan night (usually the first Wednesday and Thursday of the month), visit Soul Cocina’s website.
Justine Quart has a penchant for urban exploration and meditation, yoga and boxing, vegan food and a properly aged whiskey. When she’s not dreaming up the next big adventure, she is offering kick-ass vegan wellness services at local businesses, freelancing at the SF Appeal and The Bold Italic, or roaming the neighborhood with her partner in crime, el Jefe. Check her out at Dojo Wellness.