This is “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader and chronicled here. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Email reporter Benjy Egel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You don’t really stumble into Veg Cafe.
Nestled up a narrow stairwell above owner Suleka Sun-Lindley’s other restaurant, Thai Basil, the midtown Sacramento is marked only by a green door and rust-colored sign bearing the word “Veg.” Then there’s the menu: the exclusively plant-based restaurant attracts vegans and vegetarians, plus anyone else who might want to patronize the kind of place that won the Sacramento Area Sustainable Business award for water conservation last year.
A signature dish, like the one head chef Alannah Rider cooked up about six months ago, may make it even more of a destination.
Veg Cafe’s buffalo momo cauliflower has sold better than any menu item since Rider introduced it as a special in spring, she said, prompting her to keep it on the board while rotating other items daily. It’s a plant-based take on buffalo wings, aided by a Southeast Asian-inspired raw sauce that’s equal parts sweet and spicy.
“I aim for the omnivores. I want to remind people that they don’t have to miss out on flavors and textures and nostalgia by just eating plants,” Rider said. “That’s where my inspiration comes from. I want to remind people that this food is good and you don’t necessarily need animal products for a good meal.”
The dish begins with raw cauliflower purchased directly from Elk Grove-based Red Tower Farms, cut into chunks and drenched in a batter of chickpea flour, rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric. The cauliflower “wings” then are deep-fried in canola oil for a minute-and-a-half to two minutes until crispy and golden.
Veg Cafe introduced vegan Tibetan momos as a special last year. The dumplings proved time-intensive and difficult to make, but their accompanying sauce — salt, garlic, Sriracha, pineapple, onions and Indonesian chili paste sambal oelek — could be thrown together in about 10 minutes, Rider said.
Cauliflower wings are coated in momo sauce shortly after coming out of the fryer, then garnished with cilantro and scallions and plated alongside carrot sticks. An accompanying vegan ranch dip is a mix of house mayonnaise (oil and soy milk emulsion) and oat cream, black pepper, dill, onion powder, garlic pepper, fresh onion and fresh garlic. Veg Cafe sells about 100 orders per week, Rider said.
Buffalo cauliflower has become popular as a healthy-ish spin on a classic bar food palatable to the United States’ growing number of vegetarians; Uncle Vito’s Slice of N.Y., Costanza’s, Golden Road Brewing Co., Revolution Kitchen & Wines and even California Pizza Kitchen have featured it on recent menus. Veg Cafe’s stands out for its momo sauce lather and its vegan dip, Rider said.
“It’s not a traditional buffalo sauce, it’s a momo sauce, and I think that’s what differentiates us,” Rider said. ““(It’s) a very fresh-tasting sauce and it’s very bright, really strong flavors. It’s pretty spicy, sweet, salty. It has a really nice balance of all of that.”
Though most of the restaurant’s staff had no professional cooking experience before coming to Veg Cafe, nearly all eat vegan in their personal lives. Rider, a Sacramento native, learned to cook over five years nannying for a plant-based Folsom family — three meals a day, six days a week, all vegan and gluten-free — before cutting animal products and gluten out of her own diet about two years ago.
Rider applied to Veg Cafe, Mother and Pushkin’s Bakery in spring 2018 and got hired at her top choice, working under Sun-Lindley as a line and prep cook until she took over the head chef role in March.
The buffalo momo cauliflower won’t actually be on Veg Cafe’s menu for the next month as Rider and Co. compete in the Sacramento Vegan Chef Challenge, which requires restaurants to introduce five new plant-based specials specifically for the competition. It’ll be back on in November and for the foreseeable future, Rider said.
Upstairs at 2431 J St., (916) 448-8768
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, brunch menu Saturday and Sunday until 3.
Pro Tip: Does something in that painting look familiar? About a dozen of local artist Bob Miller’s works showing area landscapes and stores such as Pacific Market, Raley’s and now-closed Midtown Cruiser Shop adorn Veg Cafe’s walls.