Hip Vegan Cafe
201 N. Montgomery St., Ojai
I’m primarily vegan, a stance highly susceptible to churlish ridicule from both ends of the food-choice spectrum. I also believe in fair and equal representation, which is why I find it fundamentally flawed to review a restaurant while simultaneously adhering to dietary restrictions (barring catastrophic health risk, of course). How could you, as the reader, trust my words on the legitimacy of al pastor tacos or a tri-tip sandwich if I merely relied on the menu description or a neighboring-table glance to determine its merit? Thankfully this credence was not in play when my recent adventures in dining took me to a world where all the animals grow old and grey.
Hip Vegan began its lifecycle on the East End of Ojai as a quaint option for the burgeoning plant-based diet demographic. While the fare has always been first rate, the thorn in its side was the distance from downtown. While the East End has recently experienced a renaissance of sorts, Hip’s decision to move into the heart of town has proven to be advantageous. Losing none of the boho chic vibe, the new space is more open and flowing than the previous incarnation, while still boasting a friendly, sprawling patio for dining al fresco.
My “partner in dine” just so happened to be a professional vegan chef, trained by none other than organic/locavore superhero Alice Waters. I was able to ride shotgun while she took the wheel and devised our bounty. This was a worthy plan, considering that the options were so vastly tempting.
Addressing the liquid situation first, we refreshed ourselves with a crisp apple/lemon kombucha, the ideal accent to mid-summer afternoon heat swells in the Ojai Valley. This libation also paired well with the first dish we received, the gunpowder fries. These crunchy characters were tossed in a uniquely spiced “coating” before jumping in an oil Jacuzzi, providing a depth of texture and taste. The turmeric, paprika and citrus tones offered enough zing that the accompanying dipping sauces weren’t necessary, but recommended.
The ensuing plate brought spring rolls, an all-time favorite on my personal light-fare menu. Garden-fresh and healthy too, Hip bases its version round a hearty slab of baked tofu marinated in a spicy, pseudo-teriyaki sauce. Julienned carrots, cucumbers, zucchini and heaps of vibrant mixed greens insulate the tofu before the shrinkwrapesque rice paper exterior is applied. As well, the sheer size of these behemoths transformed a typical appetizer dish into an entree.
Next in our cavalcade of cuisine was the Old Fashioned Burger and Wagamama Bowl. The former, an updated nod to the Rockwellian portrait of America’s Golden Age, looked and played the part marvelously, minus the side of guilty-conscious. Rich and nutty, the patty effortlessly provided the stage for all the other classic ingredients. I have always held to the belief that a truly fantastic burger begins and ends with the freshness of the produce, because no matter how delicious the patty may be, wilted lettuce, pithy tomatoes and soggy pickles are kryptonite. The structural integrity of the patty also held together nicely, an issue I have come across during several veggie burger encounters. The Wagamama Bowl — quite possibly my favorite dish title to say — however, was the highlight of the experience.
A simple yet cohesively dynamic collection of superfoods, the Wagamama is the kind of meal that makes you want to run a half-marathon. If food were fuel (which I guess it technically is) the Wagamama would be super-unleaded 91 grade. chock full of brown rice, Koya tofu, spinach, avocado, Japanese sweet potato, pickled cucumber, micro greens and insanely fresh sea greens. This dish was so lively that I could basically feel the iodine from the sea greens cleansing my body of both heavy metals and bad mojo, which is something all of us need these days.
There are several other ethnic-tinged options available at Hip, ranging from Indian to Asian to Southwestern. No matter which cuisine coordinates you choose to follow, the journey will no doubt lead to the same delectable destination.