Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vegan in San Jose: Good Karma Cafe and Vegetarian House

My friend Robin and I traveled to San Jose last weekend to witness its greatest cultural attraction, the San Jose Flea Market. We rolled into town around 2 PM and decided that we were far too hungry to go directly to the flea market; we'd need to eat something first.  We asked our iPhones about "vegan san jose" and were surprised by the high number of results.  (Google seems to think that "vegan" and "vegetarian" are synonymous, so most of the results were vegetarian restaurants.)  The first two results were Vegetarian House and Good Karma Vegan Cafe.  The Vegetarian House's Flash Web site was useless on the iPhone, and Good Karma's didn't exist.  So we read some Yelp reviews and chose the latter.  We couldn't ignore reviewers' urgency to try Good Karma's mashed potatoes.

Good Karma Cafe
Our iPhones soon led us downtown, to an area of San Jose that exhibits some rare architectural character.  Parking was easy, the sidewalks were underpopulated, and Good Karma's Ryan welcomed us into his customerless cafe with relaxed enthusiasm.

Good Karma's atmosphere was exactly what this vegan finds comforting in a strange land: interesting art for sale on one wall, a community bulletin board on another, natural light, pizzeria style tables, a chalkboard menu, good music, and beer on tap.  Ryan even asked us what music we wanted to listen to. We asked him to expose us to something new, which turned out to be something suitably independent and highly listenable.  (I'd tell you what it was but it was also easily forgettable.)

Our first glance at the deli case assured us that we had picked the best vegan experience in San Jose. Unfortunately, everything looked and sounded so delicious that it was difficult to decide what to order.  Ryan (who claimed to have personally made everything except the baklava and the pork buns) offered us some helpful advice. Between us we walked away with mashed potatoes, jerked tofu, dal,  curry, basmati rice, and two pints of IPA.  Carbohydrate-heavy?  Yes.  Delicious? Absolutely.  The mashed potatoes were everything Yelp claimed they would be.  The jerked tofu was probably my favorite of the dishes, followed closely by the dal. 

Our senses were so pleasantly stimulated at Good Karma that we toyed with the idea of having a couple more pints there and foregoing the flea market adventure.  Miraculously, we tore ourselves away from the oasis to complete our original mission,  but not without a little Karma to go: a tamale, a pork bun, and a baklava.

The Flea Market and the Tech Museum
The San Jose Flea Market was a lot different than I expected. Robin, however, confessed a nostalgic familiarity with the scene; it reminded her of her formative years the Southern California desert, where she was surrounded by Baptists, Mexicans, poverty, and plastic.

There was plenty of cheap, non-organic produce at the flea market, much of which I couldn't identify. There were also lots of nuts flavored with who-knows-what.  I didn't bother asking if the flavorings were vegan, despite my love for spicy pistachios; I doubted that their purveyors had the knowledge nor the vocabulary to answer that question satisfactorily, and would probably assure a nut allergy sufferer that these nuts were muy seguras.

After a couple hours of roaming the waning flea market we decided to look for a more gratifying experience, perhaps something that we could better relate to.  So we navigated back to downtown San Jose and checked out Star Trek: The Exhibit at the Tech Museum. It wasn't a bad exhibit, but it was nothing like the exhibits I'd seen at the Boston Museum of Science over the past few years, like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.  It was relatively small, and there were fewer authentic costumes, props, and models than I expected.  Some of the most interesting stuff was on big, printed placards--the parking meters in San Jose were more interactive than that.  But this isn't a blog about science museum exhibits, so I'll leave it at that.

Vegetarian House
It took several hours at a flea market and a museum to burn enough Good Karma to get us hungry again.  Dismayed that we were about to eat a second meal in this city in one day, we trekked to the San Jose vegetarian restaurant voted #1 by our iPhones.  I am glad that we did.  (Before I continue, I'd like to mention that the photos included hereafter were taken with my iPhone in poor lighting; I had left my flattering camera in the car.)

From the outside, Vegetarian House looks quaint and homey.  It also looks like a house.  Then you walk inside and you're served a hot mug of WTF.  Flourescent lighting, pastel colors, two separate dining areas; androgynous staff in polo shirts; walls of books, DVDs and CDs; photos of women in various costumes all over the place; a television displaying strange images... wait a minute.  Is that the same woman in all those photos?  And on all those DVDs? And on the TV!? Why, yes, it is!  She's The Supreme Master Ching Hai.  Hey, is this place run by a cult?  Why, yes, it is!

We might have been a little disturbed or suspicious of a cult-run restaurant if it wasn't for years of experience with Ananda Fuara in San Francisco.  Judging by the size of Vegetarian House's menu, the broad spectrum of dishes, the amount of media on display, and the number of customers, it seems that Ching Hai is indeed a more powerful deity than the late Sri Chinmoy (despite his superhuman strength).  She's certainly a better artist. But it's possible that Sri Chinmoy is growing more powerful in the spirit plane and will soon emerge from that celestial realm to claim the title of Supreme Master.  Until then, let's eat!

We started with the Ocean Basket, "a delicious platter of crumbed yam flour crescents, exotic mushrooms, coleslaw, French fries and a vegan tartar sauce."  Oh, so good.  And so bad for you.  I could almost hear the gulls over Buzzard's Bay arguing over a stolen fried clam as we dunked those golden nuggets into their delicious sauce.  I don't know when I last had tartar sauce.  What would I put it on?  Vegan seafood is rare stuff.

For her entree, Robin got the Guru's Curry, "an exotic blend of curries, white soy protein, potato, tomato and spices in a rich gravy served with a dal soup, chutney and rice."  I think it was the winner of the night.  It definitely kicked the ass of my Crispy "Joy Luck" Noodles, "crispy wheat noodles topped with vegetables, soy protein, mushroom and tofu, sautéed in a special seasoned sauce." My dish was flavorful, but I thought the noodles were too difficult to manage and ultimately a texture clash for the dish.

We finished with some vegan cheesecake, which I was too busy appreciating to photograph.

All the while we were served by polite, quiet, smiling staff dressed in smart attire.  If you find their outfits fetching, you might like to browse the catalog over by the clothing display and order your own cult uniform.  (The shirt in the shitty photograph below reads, "Save The World Am A Vegan And Green."  I don't understand the grammar, either.)

In the end, if I had to pick only one San Jose vegan restaurant to go to ever again, it would be Good Karma.  I felt that it had more soul and more flavor, overall, than House of Vegetarian.  And, most importantly, it had beer.