By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Just inside the entrance, a tiny wooden footbridge takes you over a pond of bubbling water and into the elegantly peaceful dining room of The Purple Mint Vegetarian Bistro.
It’s a place where plant-based meals rule the day — and won’t scare off carnivores — and where you’ll actually encounter purple mint, known by botanists as perilla.
At nearly three years old, the spacious restaurant fills a niche in this commercial stretch of Mission Gorge Road for vegetarian/vegan cuisine. Most of the recipes hail from the family of Sara Le, who owns the business with her husband, Nick. Both are Vietnamese, although their menu extends to a couple of Chinese-influenced dishes such as orange or Kung Pao chicken using mock meat.
The latter tasted exceptionally convincing in that the wok-fried soy proteins (dusted in potato flour) offered the comforting flavor and texture of crispy chicken skins. For my dining companion, a longtime vegan, the dish hit a nostalgic note from his meat-eating days. My only disappointment was that the scant amount of Kung pao sauce didn’t live up to the “level 4” chili heat I requested.
A jungle of lettuces and leafy purple mint accompanied our crunchy “eggless rolls” filled with taro, king mushrooms, carrots and glass noodles. The customary way to eat them is to swaddle each roll in the mint and plunge them into the sweetish vinaigrette on the side before biting into them.
The combined result was both earthy and zesty, and with subtle whispers of basil arising from the purple mint, which isn’t as minty as the green version.
A viscous, teriyaki-like sauce coated the soy strips used for satay chicken, which came with fresh, frilly lettuce for making wraps. These were of the deluxe kind, as the plate also included coconut curry vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, pickled daikon radishes, and silky peanut sauce.
An assemble-yourself banh mi sandwich was my favorite starter, due in part to the outstanding French-style baguette that reminded me of the ones baked throughout the day at K Sandwiches in Clairemont before it closed from a catastrophic fire.
The sliced roll — crusty on the outside and dreamy light on the inside — was smeared with a touch of vegan mayo and plated with a host of veggies and our choice of lemongrass faux chicken. (Tofu and mock beef are the other options.) There was enough baguette and fillings to sate both of us.
We were tempted to try one of the noodle soups, which are available in eight different varieties: nam yang, pho, spicy hue-style, braised mock duck, and more. But we realized when spying on two nearby patrons slurping the soups from humungous-size bowls that we couldn’t have possibly combined even one of them with everything else we ordered.
Just because animal fats are absent (except for eggs in a few indicated dishes) doesn’t mean you can’t walk out of here feeling as though you’ve eaten a rack of ribs. We kind of felt that way after polishing off our final dish of yam and sweet potato curry.
The starchy, orange potatoes were bathed decadently in coconut milk along with mushrooms, tofu, taro and cilantro. Saucy and addicting, it’s the kind of dish that tricks you into eating more jasmine rice than you normally would simply because the ingredients pair so well with it.
Purple Mint’s menu offers diverse and colorfully presented cuisine that fits the modern-day genus of vegetarian dining, meaning you’re not subjected to bland foods you’d feed to the llamas in a petting zoo.
Other options include mock white fish in garlic sauce and tomatoes; eggplant and tofu in sweet and sour sauce; faux filet mignon with mushrooms and onions; and black rice pasta with fried potatoes and cucumbers in coconut milk, a popular dish throughout Vietnam.
Also, freshly made juice drinks were recently introduced. They’re listed on a chalkboard outside the entrance and include crafty elixirs such as the “heart beet away” combining beets with apples, oranges, carrots and celery — and the ultra-quenching “detox pineapple” that titillated our palates with the additions of lime, coconut water and ginger.
Service at The Purple Mint was gracious and efficient, despite several large parties occupying the flora-filled dining room on this midday visit. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com