Saturday night, while the rest of Miami was rocking back and forth on their beds pulling on their most ass-flattering jeans, my friend plant-based Chef Allen Campbell and I strapped ourselves into my little Hyundai and strained to see over the mound of parking receipts on the dash as we began our trek to Parkland in Broward County. Our mission? To experience the trippy-sounding raw vegan buffet at Nuage Cafe.
After an hour's drive, we pulled into the parking lot of a large strip mall on Hillsboro Boulevard. The storefront was dark. As we approached, sure enough we saw a "closed" sign on the door, along with a letter that said something along the lines of "We are closed today. Please vote for us in blah blah blah contest." No excuse for being closed. And, although the restaurant (which appears to also be some sort of spiritual center; according to the site, it offers meditation and yoga mornings starting at 6:30) maintains a Meetup page with a detailed calendar, a Facebook page, and a decent website, there had been no indication that it would deviate from its "open seven days a week" policy on this particular Saturday night.
As of now, I will certainly not be voting for Nuage in whatever contest was mentioned on that obnoxious sign.
We were far out of our South Beach territory, but we were equipped with smartphones, so we went to the next place on our list of vegan spots in Broward. Tropitaste is described as a vegetarian Caribbean restaurant, and it was in Lauderhill, kind of on our way back toward the Beach. This time, we called ahead, and found out they were open until 11 p.m. Our enthusiasm renewed, we headed over.
It was located in another strip mall. It looked like there was a block party in the parking lot off to the right of the place, but we managed to avoid taking out any pedestrians while parking, and we soon walked into the narrow cafe.
It was set up Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop style. And upon looking over the menu board, that started to make more sense. This "vegetarian restaurant" was apparently 90 percent ice cream parlor, offering about 20 flavor options - and no, not soy- or almond milk-based ice cream. Cow's milk- and white sugar-based ice cream. There were also copious smoothie flavors available; confusingly, these were all made with soy milk.
The place looked to be in a state of disuse. We were the only guests inside at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night. On the front counter sat random knick-knacks and a tower of Caribbean DVDs. And in the center of everything was a glass-front cooler that was entirely empty, showcasing nothing.
It took me two full minutes to locate the "real food" menu board, and when I did I was disappointed. Soy curry chunks, soy turkey, and some other fake meat were the three options. And when we asked, the kind woman at the counter informed us that they were mostly out of anything but the turkey.
"No curry then?" I asked.
"We probably don't have enough even to make a small," said the woman.
I pictured a nearly empty pot of curry-stewed soy chunks having sat on a low burner all day, or in a cooler waiting to be scraped up and reheated. I looked to my friend who started his career as a fifteen-year-old line cook in questionable kitchens all over Boston. His shiny, fearful eyes seemed to dance with roach-infested flashbacks.
"Let's go," I said. He quickly agreed. (I later stumbled upon the restaurant's inspection history, and was doubly happy we bolted.)
We consulted our smartphones again and found a totally vegan place just three miles away: Green Wave Cafe. I'd heard of it, and a quick skim of the online reviews renewed my hope that we might find ourselves a good vegan meal yet.
We pulled up at about 8:15 in front of a bright green electric sign bearing the raw vegan restaurant's name. The interior was small but well-lit, with four workers bouncing around in a sparkling and completely open kitchen. Every seat at every table, and every stool at the counter, was peopled by another smiling diner with peppy eyes and healthy skin. I think I heard an invisible choir of vegan angels sing their cliche little "Ahhhhhhhh" as we began to read the menu, which was filled with none-too-complicated but atrociously delicious-sounding dish after dish.
A frequent feeder, Allen was looking as though his muscles had started eating themselves, and we contemplated grabbing the step ladder we saw at the back and a baby seat from the front and creating our own makeshift eating space.
But as luck would have it, a table opened up right away. We ordered three entrees to share (we came hungry; we had thought we were going to a buffet, remember?) and began reading the literature courteously placed at the table, including An Indulgence a Day, which advised readers to jump into piles of leaves and make their own sugar body scrubs. I'm all for it - we've got to do something with all the toxic white sugar we've sworn off eating.
We didn't have too long to read, though, before our meals arrived. And they looked beautiful.
The "spaghetti and meat balls" ($14 with a cup of soup or salad) was made of translucent kelp noodles (high in 70 minerals, including calcium, and 21 amino acids, at only six -- yes six -- calories per serving) wrapped around a chunky and tangy raw marinara sauce.
The "meatball" perched on top consisted of sunflower seeds, almonds, and other nuts, blended with organic vegetables in a food processor, patted into a ball, and then dehydrated at a low temperature over several days. The dish was swirled with a dollop of creamy cashew nut cheese, and the combination was to die for - like down-home spaghetti and meatballs, but with a pure earthy flavor and without the glycemic load of white pasta or the greasy saturated fat of beef.
The open-faced hummus sandwich ($14 with a cup of soup or salad) was tasty, but lacked the sensational flavor of the other two dishes. Believe me, I love vegetables much more than the average Joe, but the abundance in this dish buried the flavor of the its signature item - the hummus. But I still very much enjoyed the incredible raw almond flat bread and fresh chunks of avocado. (If you're wondering how you get a slice of this "sandwich" in your mouth, all you have to do is roll the fat lettuce leaves around the tomato and sprouts, and it becomes pretty easy to pick it up and take a neat little bite.)
The veggie "cheeseburger" patty (normally $14, but the waitress shaved $2 off the price because we declined the soup or salad with this one) was made in the same way as the meatball, except it was rolled out pancake-thin before dehydration. Honestly, I barely tasted the patty because it was smothered in a layer of dense, meaty, flavor-soaked baby portobello mushrooms.
A different nut cheese, this one in a orange-ish hue that mimicked melted cheddar, lined the top of a gluten-free raw flat bread and sank into the fresh sprouts and fleshy organic tomato. I cut the thing in half, but it was still a little hard to eat and we went through a somewhat embarrassing stack of napkins as we tried. But it was my favorite of the three, the purely plant-based creamy, meaty, tangy, chewy and fluffy textures and flavors coming together to make a nutrition-packed "burger" I think everyone should eat at least once in his life.
We couldn't resist topping off our meal with a slice of the raw chocolate banana cream pie. We got the first slice of a whole pie we watched our waitress take from the freezer, and the dessert more than lived up to the high expectations we set based on our stellar entrees.
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It's probably not supposed to be served frozen, and the dense filling was nothing like the gooey mix that's poured into traditional banana cream pies. But it was still great, each bite melting in our mouths like a piece of a rich coconut-banana fudgsicle anchored by a nutty, flourless crust.
We had an all-around great experience at Green Wave, thanks to the friendly and attentive staff, reasonable prices (especially relative to the high quality ingredients, generous portions, care, and long preparation times that go into dehydrating raw foods), admirably sparing use of oil (I feel like some raw joints overcompensate with too much, but I didn't notice any oil slicks here.). Even my picky non-vegan chef friend was highly impressed - and full - by meal's end.
In hindsight, I may have called this story Goldilocks and the Three Vegan Restaurants; the first one was too flaky, the second one was too dirty, but the third one was just right. (Of course, we didn't get eaten by a wolf in the end, but I see that as a minor (and fortunate) detail.)