HIP – A Vegetarian Joint
928 E. Ojai Ave

The stars have aligned and a new vegan restaurant has opened its heart chakra and doors to Ojai. HIP is led by Nancy Samuel, a seasoned vegetarian restaurateur/chef (this is her sixth), in the guise of a tiny yogini with a ready smile and serious passion for eating vegan.

HIP is tucked away in the back of what was formerly Treasure Beach Café’s courtyard. Outside is a Zen courtyard anchored with a Buddha statue and plants. Inside are vibrant hues of fire-truck red and sunshine-yellow flowered tabletops. A chalkboard to the right of the counter shows daily specials. Ours was Russian veggie borscht soup and Indian curry quiche.  Also featured were raw fudge brownies, cheesecake and chocolates or baked pear crisp or carrot cake.

We sat down with the menus for a moment to ponder our choices. A woman came in to report she’d eaten lunch there two days that week, and the soups she had were the best in years. She said they were so busy she’d waited to return and tell them during a lull — naturally, that made us order the borscht.

We also chose the extremely raw salad, a Hip Hip Hooraw wrap and the tostada. The menu also features a tempeh burger, bake tamari-ginger tofu sandwich and seitan barbecue as well as other wraps, Mexican dishes, salads and sandwiches. To drink, there are fresh juices, kombucha, kevita and date shakes made with delicious homemade cashew milk. (We tasted a sip of the milk alone.)

Our fuchsia bowl of borscht arrived with earthy steam rising from it. The first bite of the clear scarlet liquid revealed thin slices of carrots, beets and dill with hints of cayenne. It was a pleasure to taste, and a gentleman having a bowl next to us remarked that he thought he’d miss sour cream in it but it was perfect without.

Next, our extremely raw salad arrived. It was a large bowl loaded with marinated greens like collards, sea veggies, lettuces, slices of avocado, sprouts and a seed pâté. On top were slices of raw, dehydrated onion crisps. The dressing choices were tahini poppy seed, miso ginger and the house vinaigrette.

The marinated greens were divine. I found myself not wanting to add any dressing to them, and the avocado and the sea veggies were abundant with their distinct flavors. But I did dress the lettuces and surprised myself with which dressing I preferred. I thought the tahini would be savory but it was sweeter, and I imagined the miso ginger to be lightly sweet but it was savory. The vinaigrette, which didn’t appeal to me when described, turned out to be this creamy, delicate, green concoction with parsley, onion and balsamic that I could not stop eating.

Our Hip Hip Hooraw wrap arrived, and it looked like some sort of Dr. Seuss caterpillar. If you’ve ever tried to wrap something in a collard leaf you’d know they splinter and break in odd places. It was organic and fun both to look at and to try to wrangle into my mouth.

Inside the delicious fresh collard leaves was a spicy jalapeno pâté, guacamole, lettuce mix and sprouts. I’d been warned the jalapeno pâté might be spicy. (It varies.) My first five crunchy bites were heaven then heat started to grow inside my mouth. These were particularly warm jalapenos and I loved the flavors and crunch of the wrap but next time I’d either substitute the seed pâté, or ask to have half jalapeno, half seed pâté on my wrap. In fairness, they’d recommended I have the seed if I had any questions about spiciness, but I’d wanted to try it. Smartly, it was served with cooling cucumber slices that I savored between bites.

Our tostada arrived and I deemed it “couture vegan.” It had layers of salsa, grated beet, deep-green and purple lettuces, black beans, brown rice and a frilly topping of sprouts, and reminded me of a fancy hat. First bite, I loved with its filling warmth. We’d elected to add Daiya mozzarella (a vegan cheese made from tapioca and pea protein), and it added a luscious creamy element. The salsa was zesty, the black beans, warm and soupy.

All our plates were large portions; you won’t go away hungry. And patrons are encouraged to bring their own to-go and take-out containers.

We had to sample a sweet. I’m not a huge cheesecake fan but when I heard it’s made from coconut oil, I was intrigued. Just before our cheesecake arrived, a woman came in asking about the coconut pie. “This is my third slice,” she sheepishly admitted. Alas, the pie had suffered a minor accident in the kitchen so they hadn’t put it out, but as it was still delightfully edible, they acquiesced. I begged to have a taste too.

The coconut pie was fluffy and creamy, and I could taste the agave sweetener in it, perhaps a bit too much for my preference? But my companion and the coconut pie-loving lady lapped it up with sighs and almost moans. I, meanwhile, had moments of joy eating the lightly limey, denser, coconut cheesecake.

HIP appears to have brought something to downtown Ojai that it desperately desired — I’ve heard tales from one famous Ojai songstress of a perpetual line coming out of its door. Thankfully, at 2:30, we missed the crowd. The service and staff were very helpful, the random, funky music choices were uplifting; and perhaps, most importantly, though we walked out full, we felt good, truly the hallmark of healthy, livening food.

Photos by DK Crawford