Vegans know that the word "Mediterranean" in a restaurant's name generally means there's something there to eat. We are grateful for this, even though the warmest thing about our dinners is usually the toasted pita bread that comes with chilly plates of hummus, baba ganouj, and tabouleh.
Not so with Mina's Mediterraneo on NE 79th Street.
The restaurant has just added to its menu a steaming, pungent vegan moussaka ($11) that renders the plant-based plate nearly as appetizing as the omnivore's version. A colorful mixture of eggplant, onion, peppers, and potato is blanketed in a fragrant and thick tomato sauce. Mina's traditional moussaka stacks beef ragout and the aforementioned vegetables under a fat layer of béchamel. Mina's vegan moussaka skips the beef and béchamel and instead pairs the dish with a small bowl of aromatic Egyptian rice, which incorporates tiny sautéed vermicelli noodles.
The size of Mina's vegan version is much larger than that of the restaurant's traditional moussaka. More robust plant-based portions normally make sense because vegan plates are typically less calorie-dense than their meat-and cheese-packed counterparts.
That logic doesn't apply to Mina's vegan moussaka, however, because the vegetables are saturated with too much olive oil. Yes, I understand that looking for Mediterranean fare without olive oil is akin to searching for Japanese food without rice. But there is a limit. I wish chefs would stop apologizing for the meatlessness of their vegan dishes by dousing the poor vegetables with their own weight in oil.
Mina's offers other vegan dishes that are wonderful just as they are. The besara ($4) is a smooth fava bean dip, flavored with garlic, cilantro, celery, and dill and topped with a pinch of crunchy fried onion for contrasting color and texture. With its light-green color and complex flavors, the besara is like hummus only in that it's a bean purée. It's delicious with the house-made pita bread, which is embedded with flecks of spice, making it a treat in and of itself. The Brussels sprouts with slivers of blanched almond make a fail-proof side dish that includes only a modest amount of oil.
Next time, I'll try the koshary ($8), a traditional Egyptian dish that mingles rice, macaroni, and lentils in a spicy tomato and garlic sauce. It's listed as a side but sounds hearty enough to serve as an entrée, especially if preceded by a few of Mina's scrumptious and attractively priced dips. The vegetable tagine ($12), which pairs seasonal veggies and couscous with a harissa (spicy pepper) sauce, sounds like another good bet for plant-eaters.
By itself, a big bowl of Mina's lentil soup ($5) makes the trek to the restaurant, which is located on one of Miami's least picturesque streets, worthwhile. Subtly spicy, baby-food-thick and piping hot, the blended soup comes with more of that house-made pita bread, this time baked into crisp angular crackers for dipping, crumbling, or nibbling.
Beyond vegan bites, Mina's menu includes many wheat-free items as well -- and even a gluten-free almond-crusted dark chocolate tart ($7) -- making the family-run bistro a spot where discerning eaters and everything-eaters can find common ground.
The setting is inviting too. Muted colors, soft lights, large booths, high ceilings, and greenhouse-style windows combine to make guests want to stay a while. There's a back patio too. Waiters are helpful, knowledgeable, and attentive. Tables are decked with candles and fresh flowers, and happy-hour drinks (wine and beer) are two for one. You can even get a free hummus dip if you check in on Yelp and order an entrée.
Though vegan dessert options were nowhere in sight, it didn't much matter because I had already eaten my way past the point of comfort by the end of dinner, even after packing up most of my entrée to take home. Still, for future visits, it would be great to see Mina's add a little something to sate the vegan sweet tooth, especially because the restaurant has made strides to accommodate special diets so far.
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