Immediately walking through the front doors of Native Foods, the brightly colored hues splattered across the walls catch the eyes of patrons, blending together simplistic artwork with inspirational quotes. This storefront in Penn Quarter, overlooking the Navy Memorial, is one of two new locations nestled in the heart of D.C., with the other seated on the corner of M and 18th streets.
Originally launched in Palm Springs, Calif. in 1994, Native Foods provides West Coast vibes with its all-vegan and gluten-free friendly menu, while catering to both college students and families alike — including meat lovers. With an extensive menu that ranges from gluten-free butternut polenta bites to the Greek gyro bowl, from the Oklahoma bacon cheeseburger to the ensalada Azteca salad made with the award-winning mango-lime vinaigrette, Native Foods takes vegan and even gluten-free foods to a new level.
Lining the far wall are half a dozen different iced teas and lemonades that are made daily using original recipes. The lavender lemonade ($2.75), a personal favorite, is cool and refreshing, infused with French lavender and lightly sweetened with unrefined organic sugar.
Based on a recommendation, I followed up with an order of the crispy Native chicken wings ($5.95), tossed in a sriracha-buffalo sauce and served with a side of vegan ranch dressing. By far my favorite new dish, these moist vegan chicken wings are full of flavor, each bite finishing off with a bold kick. Sealed with Native batter and marinated in a creamy sauce, the regular-sized batch comes with five pieces, infused with competing flavors between the spicy kick from the sriracha, the sweeter undertone of the coconut milk base from the Native batter and the dash of salt mixed in, all of which is mellowed out by the cool ranch. The wings could have been crispier, or at least somewhat crispy; a little misleading by name, there was surprisingly little to no difference in the texture or consistency in each piece. However, this was easily made up for by a bold flavor dynamic.
Rounding off with the gluten-free baja blackened tacos ($7.95), this entree serves up two corn tortillas pressed with traces of lime, stacked with strips of blackened Native tempeh, shredded cabbage, mild salsa fresca made with fresh tomatoes and a generous dollop of guacamole. Offered with a side of rich chipotle sauce, this dish is all about the sauces and add-ons. With minimal seasoning, the tacos are a little underwhelming, since they are largely made up of dry, mild and relatively bland flavors. In fact, without the guacamole or the chipotle sauce, there really isn’t much going on in the seasoning department. The spices used are too similar to offset each other, so instead they fade into the background. This dish’s consistency also lacked interest, and could have benefited from more ingredients of the crispy or tangy variety. Mexican food is hard to spin off, so their effort is admirable, but still falls short.
The Bangkok curry ($9.95) — a platter of seared tofu steak and steamed vegetables, complete with kale and brown rice, drizzled with a lemongrass ginger-infused coconut milk curry — was also in need of more seasoning and contrasting spices, to counterbalance the more mellow, lackluster flavor combination of tofu, kale and brown rice.
An excellent dish to finish off the meal is the thinly cut sweet potato fries ($2.95), which were liberally seasoned with tarragon, organic sugar and sea salt. The ultimate comfort food, these juicy fries are served fresh and hot, and nicely balance the sweet and salty dynamic.
While it is certainly designed for health nuts, this particular location shattered my perception of the Native Foods earth-friendly design typical to California, specifically when all of the orders came out in disposable “to-go” plates and containers. The mountain of plastic and cardboard that we had to discard following our meal was a strange contradiction in light of the “Native to All Countries & Cultures/Native to the Earth/Native to Life/Native Foods” mantra.
To say that vegan food is a challenge would be a gross understatement — it can be wildly difficult to capture the flavors that make non-vegan, gluten-full foods so popular among those who are able to enjoy them. Native Foods offers a much-needed taste of home for West Coast natives, presenting many options for those with either voluntary or medically necessitated dietary restrictions. However, in light of past experiences with the restaurant chain, this D.C. location could improve by striking a better balance with its seasoning and quality control to avoid whipping together flat dishes and by switching out its disposable containers for reusable dishware. With a few adjustments, this Native Foods will be well on its way to successfully serving dishes to fill this frequently neglected market and create a new niche for itself.