Words: Robin Pascucci Photos: Monica Tindall
Que rica, la comida mexicana vegetariana!
This is what I wanted to say to Fauzi, the owner of the new primarily Mexican vegan restaurant in Sri Hartamas. And Fauzi probably would have understood, at least partly, since he is in fact taking Spanish classes as part of his new venture. So no, he’s not Mexican. And he does not claim to have typical Mexican food; after all, he is leaving out an ingredient that most of us associate with Mexican food: meat. And I didn’t miss the meat for a second. Even if I hadn’t been vegetarian myself, I would have enjoyed this lighter, healthier version of Mexican food, and if I lived or worked in Sri Hartamas, this would certainly be a regular haunt for me.
Fauzi recently opened this cozy spot on the ground floor of the Galleria Hartamas in part to satisfy his own craving for the Mexican food he could no longer find since he became a vegan. And we vegetarians are very grateful that he did. He is careful to specify, however, that he is not trying to attract a purely vegetarian clientele. He hopes that anyone looking for a healthier, filling option for lunch will enjoy the very appetizing, reasonably priced dishes he has to offer.
The café itself is light and airy, with the subtle addition of little cacti on the tables to reinforce the Mexican theme. The staff are all friendly and excited about their creations, constantly experimenting with new methods to come up with vegan versions of well-loved recipes (ask them soon about the vegan cheesecake they are playing around with – I can vouch for the fact that it’ll be a winner). Just the creative energy in this place made me happy to be there.
We settled into our table by the front window and started with the drinks menu. It’s full of healthy juices (RM 8) and smoothies (RM 13). We sampled the Mangonana and the Mean Green from the smoothie menu. The Mangonana, made from mango, frozen bananas, frozen blueberries, chia seeds, and soymilk, was rich and fruity – a naturally sweet blend of the three fruits with a slightly nutty flavor from the chia seeds. This is a drink I’d love to start my day with regularly. The Mean Green offers a nice contrast to the Mangonana – not as thick or as sweet. It takes its tangy flavor from lemons and its slight zing from ginger, and then blends them with the healthy combination of apples, cucumber, celery, and kale. Perfect for anyone looking to get their daily serving of greens in a drink, and a nice wake-up for the palate.
From the drinks menu, we moved on to the food. Before we got to the Mexican food, we started with a Malaysian staple: Nasi Lemak (RM 7/10). The dish was the expected scoop of white rice, attractively surrounded by peanuts, cucumber slices, sambal tempe, green beans, sambal and “sambal bilis” (made with mushrooms) – and vegetarian dried anchovies (mushrooms again, but this time dried to take on the texture of dried anchovies). It was spicy without being overpowering, and a great variety of flavors and textures. It was also a very successful nod by Fauzi to his home country before he moved us on to his Mexican offerings.
The Mexican dishes were my reason for getting excited about this restaurant, and I had good reason to be excited. The Burrito (RM 18) menu is set up as a kind of “choose your own (gastronomical) adventure” – where you pick your own ingredients, starting with the base (lime rice, lime brown rice, or for an extra RM 3, quinoa), then the main (mushrooms asada, spicy tempe and peanuts, marinated seared tofu, BBQ jackfruit, or grilled veggies), then the extras (beans, cabbage, purple cabbage, or carrots), and finally the toppings (vegan sour cream, vegan nacho cheese, pico de gallo, or salsa). For an additional RM 3, you can also add guacamole, avocado, mango salsa, or tomatillos. The one we tried was a mushroom asada and lime rice-based burrito, with most of the fixings. This burrito alone would have satisfied my Mexican food craving, and the mushrooms gave it the meaty texture and taste without the lead stomach that often results from a meat burrito. The vegan sour cream (tofu-based) was creamy without being overly thick, and the vegan nacho cheese, flavored with dietary yeast, was a creative substitute for its milk-based cousin. The whole thing was expertly wrapped in a vegan tortilla that managed to have the same texture and stretchiness as the often lard-based tortillas found in Mexican restaurants. I will definitely be going back to the restaurant to order this again.
Many of the same ingredients found in the burrito are creatively assembled in either a flour or corn tortilla (gluten free) in smaller versions on the taco menu. There are four options, the first three for just RM 7 each: Sweet Beans, Shrooms, and BBQ Jackfruit. The last option, the Protein-Packed taco costs an additional RM 2. We tried three of the four and enjoyed them all. The Shrooms taco won me over with the same hearty mushrooms asada that I loved so much in the burrito. It also had black beans, onions, jalapeno, and cilantro, great compliments for the mushrooms. The Protein-Packed taco combined spicy tempe, seared tofu, hummus, quinoa, chia seeds, flax seeds, and pico de gallo in a mix that was a tasty as it was healthy. And the biggest surprise was the BBQ Jackfruit taco. I would never have thought to grill this sweet fruit and make it the main ingredient of a taco, but it was delicious. The texture mimicked shredded beef, and the flavor, once grilled, was still slightly sweet, but not at all overpowering. It was combined with purple cabbage and shredded carrots, chopped cucumber, pico de gallo, jalapeno, vegan sour cream, and cilantro. The spiciness of the jalapenos balanced out the sweetness of the jackfruit and the sour cream smoothed out the flavor combination nicely. All three of the tacos were equally tasty, but this one was a fun new taste experience for me.
We finished up the savory part of our meal with a taste of the Vegan Chili (RM 9), a mild chili made with beans, sweet potatoes, lentils, tomatoes, vegan sour cream, and vegan nacho cheese, served with a side of plantain chips. This was not the five-alarm chili of Tex-Mex kitchens; Fauzi let the main ingredients speak for themselves in his version, and it was hearty and satisfying and designed, he says, for those diners who are still getting used to the idea of chili. But he did have three different kinds of hot sauce available for those who believe that it’s not chili unless they are breathing fire after eating it.
The dessert menu, according to Fauzi, is a work in progress. At the moment, he offers three different kinds of healthy Bliss Balls – dark chocolate, peanut butter and coconut (RM 5) and a slightly less healthy but still 100 percent vegan peanut butter and salted caramel brownie. Yes, the brownie was an indulgence… but after all this healthy, all-natural vegan food, we figured it was okay to splurge. And it was worth it – so moist and chewy I would have thought it had the huge quantities of butter that the non-vegan versions have.
After all of that food, I’d be waddling out of most restaurants and stumbling into bed in a food coma, but I was comfortably full after this meal without feeling heavy or tired. And this is the magic of vegan cooking that Fauzi is hoping to pass on to his customers. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Reasons to visit: don’t miss the mangonana smoothie, the design-your-own burrito and vegan peanut butter and salted caramel brownie.
Sala, Mexican Vegan Restaurant
A-G 03 A Galeria Hartamas
No. 21 26A/70A Desa Sri Hartamas
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia