It's nice to find a Miami Beach business that cares about locals. So what if summer isn't "season" for South Beach tourism? West Avenue Cafe thinks its loyal local customers are worth catering to, and they're doing so by rolling out a new gluten-free, totally vegan menu that will delight plant-based eaters and health-conscious customers. They had an informal tasting last night during which I got to sample some of the new items, including Chinese "fried" quinoa, banana-mango juice, white bean soup, fresh vegetable juice, tostones with an Asian flair, and Oriental stir-fried tofu and portobella. I've got to say, if they achieved nothing else by holding the tasting, they at least won one more regular customer: me.
West Avenue Cafe
is a kosher restaurant that sits on a relatively quiet SoBe corner, on a block that's also home to a CrossFit gym, a Starbucks, Go-Go's salads, and Chow Down's organic Chinese. The ever-swamped Whole Foods Market is a few hundred feet away. The demand for healthy food in this little sector of the beach could not be more clear, and West Avenue Cafe is paying attention.
As an added bonus for picky vegans (is "picky vegans" redundant?), the cafe's kosher status means that they have double ovens, double grills, double cooking utensils, and even double microwaves to ensure that no animal product ever touches the vegetarian side of the restaurant. And there is no dairy in the place whatsoever. The general manager assured me that they have a supervisor on staff at all times to ensure this is perfectly adhered to.
The cafe decided to throw in the gluten-free options at customers' request.
"A lot of people, regardless of intolerance, were asking for gluten-free options," said Dawn M. Debus, a marketing agent for the restaurant who sometimes also helps with service. She went on to explain that she herself often adheres to a gluten-free diet, and has experienced weight loss as a result. "Even menu items that normally wouldn't be gluten-free because they're served in wraps can be made gluten-free because we've got large lettuce wraps we can substitute," she said.
It's hard to choose my favorite among the menu items I sampled, but the Chinese "fried" quinoa ($16.95, and by the way, nothing in the dish is actually fried, although there is oil added) is definitely at the top of my list. Its flavor pops with little corn kernels, chives, pepper, mushrooms, and what I'm guessing is a tamari (soy sauce usually contains wheat and therefore gluten) ginger sauce.
Next might be the crispy-outside, plump and luscious-inside stir-fried tofu and portobella mushrooms (pictured at top), dripping with a gluten-free sesame and vinegar sauce. This dish was made for the tasting, but on the actual menu the mushrooms and tofu are served in separate dishes only. But maybe they would cook them up together for you if you asked nicely.
Also vying for the title of my second-favorite dish of the tasting were the hearty tostones, with a surprising Asian twist. They were pretty damn delicious. The sauce they were soaked in consisted of lime, white vinegar, garlic, and white pepper, making for a flavor and texture combination I've never experienced before. As a healthy side-note, West Avenue Cafe's tostones are patted and pressed to remove excess oil after cooking, says co-owner Luis Castro, and as mentioned, the sauce they're served in is oil-free.
But I can't forget the house-made vegan veggie burgers. The patties are made up of piping hot potato and chick pea wrapped around chunks of carrot, broccoli, corn, and other colorful vegetables, nestled inside a crispy golden outer layer. On the normal menu, the patties are served with guacamole in a wrap for $12.95.
Other delicious, vegan, summer-ready offerings at the cafe include cold and fresh vegetable and fruit juices. How fresh are they? Well, the mangoes that went into the mango-banana juice I sampled were harvested from general manager Pablo Lucero's yard earlier that day. I'd have to say that's pretty fresh.
I noticed that the cafe also offers a mini vegan pizza on a whole wheat pita as an appetizer. They make it with tapioca-based Daiya cheese and top it with vegetables. I'm definitely going to try it next time I'm in the neighborhood.
Wednesday nights from 6 to 10 the cafe hosts a happy hour-style event they call "Winesdays," during which they serve reduced-price appetizers and wines by the glass. You can get a plate of hummus (tahini-rich, creamy, and delicious) or Israeli salad, for example, for just $4.95, or a helping of those remarkable tostones for just $3.25. Pair those with a glass of sauvignon blanc for $4.25, and you've got a delicious South Beach veganing (that's vegan + evening, and yes, I just made it up) on the cheap.