By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Thai restaurants tend to sneak onto the landscape without any hoopla and then take months to discover if you don’t have a friend who’s an addict to drunken noodles to tell you about them.
Such is the case with Veganic Thai Café, which opened quietly more than a year ago in the heart of Hillcrest, where House of Khan resided briefly, and Mama Testa before that. Given its understated signage and a general lack of buzz, it’s easy to overlook.
As the name implies, all of the dishes are plant-based, relying on an array of mock meats to achieve pretty much the same fare found in Thai kitchens that serve meat. If you’re a fan of Plumeria and its vegan dishes, which I am, you’ll like it here.
Although if you’re a loud talker or parent arriving with a fussy, nap-deprived toddler, Veganic’s calming Zen-like atmosphere is a misfit. The spotless, tastefully decorated interior lacks soundproofing.
And the non-cushioned wooden booths and banquettes are like transmitters for every little kick and noise vibration they receive, sending them a few tables in either direction from where you’re sitting.
Nevertheless, hubby and I came expressly for the curries. He gravitates to yellow, and I to red. Here, the latter is available also in a more scarlet version called “jungle curry.” It’s void of coconut milk, slightly acidic, and a little spicier no matter what heat level you choose.
I chose “four,” which turned the carrots, bamboo shoots, bell peppers and choice of mock duck into a garden of feverish joy.
Contributing depth of flavor and additional spice was a cute branch of green peppercorns steeping in the liquid. Ironically, a pot of steaming hot semi-sweet ginger tea on our table served as a temporary mouth coolant.
Conversely, the yellow curry was awfully cloying for my taste, fraught with too much coconut milk and perhaps palm sugar.
But hubs with his penchant for all things saccharine loved it, along with the chunky tender potatoes and fresh veggies occupying the bowl.
With a lighter appetite, I would come back just for the green apple salad and tom kha soup, which we ordered in a moat-shaped firepot instead of standard cups.
Not so spicy, it was coconut-milky, but without tasting overly sweet.
The salad’s tartness from the green apples and spicy lime dressing were in poetic harmony with scatterings of faux abalone, which tasted more like salty, fried chicken skins than shellfish. Cashew nuts and red onions added additional texture.
Vegan or not, these are the kind of bewitching ingredient matchups that Thai cuisine gives us.
We also tried the pot stickers, filled with minced broccoli and garlic. What made them lovable was the viscous dipping sauce of soy, vinegar and garlic. It was tangy, salty and sweet at the same time.
Other menu items include Thai samosas filled with peas, carrots and curried potatoes; potak soup comprising a mixture of mock squid, shrimp and white fish; spicy eggplant stir fry; pineapple fried rice; and various noodle dishes.
Ice cream is made in-house with soymilk instead of cream. We chose coconut and loved its icy consistency, which melted like fluffy snow in our mouths.
At last, the lingering burn on my palate from the jungle curry had become fully extinguished.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.