It was another beautiful day in San Diego and we decided to go to Nature’s Express for lunch. Just a block away from Balboa Park it is a perfect location for a light meal after a stroll through the beautiful park. In spite of a variety of past experiences restaurants here, we had a good feeling about it.
The location has had many incarnations in the last 20 years. First, there was the iconic Kung Food, next, The Vegetarian Zone, then an empty building. After a number of years,
seemingly as an answer to the whispered cocktail wishes of San Diegan vegetarians, Eatopia in OB moved into the space to resurrect the name Kung Food and proselytize their brand of veganism. Heavy in soy based meat substitutes they served in an egalitarian format that removed service and placed all the food equally in hot and cold steam table bins. We tried to forgo our culinary and societal egos each time, but it was difficult. The hot food was not color-coded and, instead of presenting the food at the table, they had someone dish it out mess-hall style with the not so enthusiastic line of “what do ya want?” often difficult to hear through the blaring reggae music. We would then trudge with tray in hand to the counter, place our plate on a scale and get financially judged for the amount of food we were about to eat. They even opened a fast food drive-up window on the side of the building to serve a burger-and-fries style fast food. This was an exciting alternative to try out. Time and time again, we drove up to the window and had to park for 20 minutes before receiving our “fast food” order. At that point, our undercooked fries and sit-in-your stomach burgers were anti-climatic. We tried–really tried, but to no avail. I do give them credit for giving it a go. From my own experience I understand how much effort it takes to pull off a good restaurant. Apparently there was some managerial disagreement with the owner and they left the location in a huff. The next incarnation was a non-descript lacto-veg restaurant with table service. It was just ok, with mediocre food and a heavy dose of dairy products. Not our cup of tea.
A number of months ago, it was a pleasant surprise to discover Natures Express entered the picture and was entirely vegan. I was particularly interested and managed to drag others to try it. We started with the fast food window. It was dressed up Boca burgers, wraps and fries that were passable. Our 13 year old companion tea-bird (with her discerning palate) particularly enjoyed the fries.
The other day, we worked up the courage to enter the main restaurant. It was nice inside, with a good aroma and enthusiastic people. They still had the steam tables, but it was self serve and the food looked pretty good. First was a simple, but very fresh looking salad bar, next was the cold raw food bar with eight or nine different preparations and the final bar was hot food with another eight or nine dishes. All the food was colorful, identifiable (very important!) and well labeled. I could also tell they use good ingredients on par with some of the best vegetarian restaurants. The pricing was set up by the plate, which allowed light and heavy eaters to pay the same price and not feel embarrassment for copious helpings. In addition to the food bars, a cooler with prepared sandwiches was nearby as well as the full menu from the drive through. They also serve pizzas in the evenings. The servers were enthusiastic, helpful and available. “Mundo” especially went out of his way. Our expectations were low, but the food was well prepared, nicely spiced and good to eat. It was still egalitarian vegetarian, but they have done it right.
As a final note, noticed the Nature’s Express sign was painted over and the San Diego location has been removed from the Natures Express website. Are we about to experience another incarnation? A call to the restaurant confirmed they are indeed changing the name to Vegolution. If the food stays this good, they could name it whatever they want and it would still be all right with me.
July 2010 Update:
The restaurant has evolved into the fittingly titled Evolution Fast Food. They help to fill a void in San Diego, which trails behind many other cites in dedicated vegan restaurants.