Vegan Friendly: Grains Cafe on Adams Avenue
The Short and Skinny
Never afraid to color outside the lines of authenticity, siblings Napatr and Katiya blend their southern Thailand sensibility with the eclectic nature of Southern California in an all-vegan menu that successfully dabbles in traditional Thai, American, and Italian dishes.
For a city saturated in Thai restaurants, the duo saw to fill a hole still left to fill with Grains.
“From where we are from, we eat a lot of vegetables and we have a lot of homemade dishes that are cooked without any meat products. I [Napatr] personally love to eat jay (Thai vegan) food and when we go out for vegan food in San Diego we found that there's still room for us to offer what's missing in the market.”
Situated across from the deep valley views of Trolley Park, Grains Cafe serves complexity in unassuming forms. Dishes here rage with aromatic kaffir lime and the bite of serrano chili, which play against the subtlety of crisp cabbage leaves and handmade pastas.
The vintage wood exterior reflects Adam Avenue’s early 20th century trolley days. The wood theme folds into the modern interior where tight slatted tables and benches—build by the family—line the back wall.
Napatr and Katiya—who cut her restaurant teeth at Rolando’s Sala Thai—are always on hand to greet guests with a smile and a pint of local vegan craft beer.
The dazzle of Grains comes through in their sauces, like the house verde sauce—spiked with serrano chilies and a heavy squeeze of lime—which serves in a supporting role for the lightly breaded “Calamari” Mushrooms and the lacey Tempura Kale.
Alongside another standout appetizer, garlic-rich cashew ranch dressing enhances spicy, vinegar-steeped Buffalo Cauliflower.
Firm crumbles of San Diego Soy Dairy tofu soak in seasoned lime with red onion, scallion, and mint for the tofu larb, which is plated with cradling cuts of cabbage, carrots, and trimmed green beans and finished with the nutty crunch of roasted rice powder.
Fusion shows strongly in Grains’ pasta offerings. Linguine glistens in a pool of rich brown sauce, made with soy and ginger, and studded with wilted bok choy, tofu, and mushrooms caps.
The Drunken Angel tangles angel hair pasta, slick with ginger and chili-infused sesame oil, with plump tomatoes, earthy mushrooms, crisp onions, fried cubes of tofu, and an aromatic sprig of young peppercorn.
Popcorn “chicken” and tofu nuggets are more Americana additions to the menu, but you will find that the kitchen has a decidedly more Asian-focused bent.
Always experimenting and innovating, the current favorite staff meal is a wacky mashup of bits and bobs from the appetizer menu tucked inside rice paper and rolled with greens. Once these rolls are honed, they will likely debut in the dining room for the rest of us to enjoy.
What to Order
Salt and Pepper Calamari-Style Mushroom ($7) Light breading breaks to reveal the white flesh of trumpet mushrooms. The “calamari” is served under a dusting of fried garlic, serrano pepper, and scallion with the spicy lime house verde sauce on the side.
Popcorn "Chicken" ($7) Battered bits of small cauliflower florets are nestled neatly in a folded paper bag. Served with a sweet and smoky housemade BBQ sauce and an herbaceous cashew ranch.
Banh Mi Pulled "Pork" Sandwich ($12) An untraditional take on a Banh Mi, Grains cuts through the plumy sauce of their jackfruit with minced 5-spice tofu. A glossy layer of melted vegan cheese creates a sheet between seeping sauces and paper-thin medallions of pickled daikon, carrot, serrano, and cilantro leaves.
Drunken Angel ($13) The fan favorite, this spicy dish features delicate threads of angel hair pasta slathered in a complex Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Noodles)-style sauce.