The recent expansion of Native Foods Cafe across the nation might go down in history as a tipping point in the popularity of vegan/vegetarian dietary choices. Native Foods, which started sprouting branches in this region last September, is a fast casual restaurant, which has an entirely vegan menu.
The decor is, paradoxically, simultaneously hip and family-friendly. Original chalk drawings balance out and liven up the yellow and orange walls of each location. The illustrations are smart, but generally harmless. And they’re interesting to look at while you’re eating.
Barring other dietary restrictions, vegan diners can eat at Native Foods worry-free, but that’s a niche marketing line that the restaurant chain doesn’t sweat. It seems the company is following the example of brands like Hampton Creek, which market vegan products to everyone, meat-eaters and vegans. And Native Foods is the perfect place to take your non-vegan friends, as there are several delicious dishes on the restaurant’s menu.
Native Foods’ menu is a hybrid of American diner food, dishes from all over the world and health food. Not everything is a hit, but the menu’s size and quantity of offerings is only rivaled, in this region, by Loving Hut and Sunflower in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County, Woodlands Vegan Bistro on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C. and Woodlands’ predecessor Everlasting Life in Capitol Heights, Md. Out of those, Woodlands is probably the hottest vegan spot in the area, as rapper Kanye West and his wife, reality television star Kim Kardashian, visited the eatery over the weekend while they were in town for the BET Honors.
But currently Woodlands is the local champ, while Native Foods is a potential national powerhouse. Out of Native Foods’ starters, the Japanese Sesame Crusted Chicken Bites ($4.95) is a personal favorite. It’s also probably one of those dishes you can give to a non-vegan and hoist a smug smirk while they eat it and realize how wrong they were for claiming that vegan food is tasteless, gross, or just “not the same” as meat. The bites, coated in Japanese togarashi spice and mango lime and sweet chili sauce, sit on top of a bed of kale and house-pickled cucumber and daikon. And they might be the best chicken nuggets I’ve ever had.
Native Foods’ sandwiches are a solid buttress to the restaurant’s attempt, purposeful or accidental, to offer diner-style options. The Buffalo Twister Wrap ($9.95), Scorpion Burger ($8.95) and Chicken Run Ranch Burger ($9.95) are the most consistently good sandwiches on that portion of the menu. Most of the sandwiches are either good or great. The only real complaint is that some of them, like the Bistro Steak Sandwich ($9.95) or Super Italian Meatball Sub ($7.95) tend to fall apart and have to be finished with a fork.
For those looking to start and finish their meal with a fork in hand, Native Foods’ Earth Bowls are a diverse selection of menu options. And from the Greek Gyro Bowl ($8.95) to the Soul Bowl ($9.95), they are all good. These dishes are hearty, flavorful and can be enjoyed without inducing “the itis.”
Native Foods, while marketing themselves to vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters alike, have the menu, service and ambiance to convert omnivores into animal-friendly diners.
Native Foods Cafe |1216 W. Broad St., Falls Church | nativefoods.com