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5,000 square feet of vegan food: A reflection of D.C.'s changing taste buds?

Tuesday - 7/15/2014, 2:14am  ET

NativeFoods.jpg
Native Foods Cafe, an all-vegan, fast-casual restaurant chain, is coming to D.C. this fall. Among its plant-based fare, the cafe also offers limited-time dishes, such as the cauliflower 'power' sandwich. (Courtesy Native Fods Cafe)
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Sophie Ho, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- A California-based restaurant chain is optimistic that D.C.'s weekday lunch crowd will trade in Shake Shack burgers and stacked ham hoagies for portobello-seitan burgers and sandwiches of curried tofu on ciabatta.

How optimistic?

Native Foods Cafe, a giant in the world of fast-casual vegan cuisine, plans to open a 5,000-square-foot café at 1150 Connecticut Avenue, in Northwest (between Farragut North and Dupont Circle), and another location in Penn Quarter.

"Coming to the D.C. market is really important for us -- there are lots of interesting neighborhoods, a very international community and educated people," says Andrea McGinty, co-owner of Native Foods.

The restaurant's decision to expand to D.C. isn't necessarily a direct reflection of the number on vegans living in Washington. McGinty says it's to make a mark in an area that's increasingly interested in sustainability and healthy eating.

In fact, she says, most customers at Native Foods are not vegan. One of the main goals of the chain is to make vegan food more mainstream and to erase the stigma that it's "rabbit food."

The menu at Native Foods includes dishes such as Baja blackened tacos (tortillas stuffed with blackened Native Tempeh, a creamy chipotle sauce, salsa, cabbage and guacamole), a French market muffaletta (house-made protein replacements for corned beef, pepper steak and smoked bacon, topped with spicy vegetable relish) and a "barbecue brisket."

The menu is also filled with generous-sized salads made with avocado, jicama, quinoa and cucumber salsa; and "Earth Bowls," made of vegetables and quinoa in varying flavor combinations.

D.C. currently ranks sixth in the list of top 10 vegetarian cities, based on a growing presence of vegetarian food.

"The number of vegan and/or vegetarian restaurants hasn't risen dramatically, but the vegetarian options in restaurants certainly has," says Saurabh Dalal, president of the Vegetarian Society of D.C. "It's much easier today to eat vegetarian and vegan -- restaurants are more aware and it's becoming more mainstream."

Doron Petersan, owner of Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats, a vegan bakery and café in Columbia Heights, says vegan food options were limited when she moved to the District almost 20 years ago. But as the city's demographics have changed, so has the popularity of plant-based cuisines. More locals, Petersan says, care about their food and from where it comes.

"There are a lot of open-minded eaters, especially those who grew up knowing about food-related illnesses and those who watched the changes in the environment," Petersan says.

A few years ago, Todd and Ellen Gray launched their all-vegan brunch at Muse Café. Every Sunday, diners listen to live music inside The Corcoran and nosh on dishes such as griddle-hot French toast with strawberry rhubarb compote and curried Israeli couscous risotto with cauliflower, oven roasted tomatoes and glazed pearl onions at the brunch's buffet.

Gray's upscale Connecticut Avenue restaurant also offers a vegan tasting menu and wine pairing, with items such as spinach fusilli with caramelized artichokes and warm chocolate doughnut cake.

"People are exposed to more flavors nowadays and are more willing to try new options, to take some risks," Pertersan says.

Founded in 1994 in Palm Springs, California, Native Foods has since expanded to 23 restaurants across the country, including the two planned for D.C. The new locations are part of the company's push to the East Coast, following the relocation of its headquarters to Chicago.

The cafe utilizes a fast-casual business model, similar to that of Chipotle and Cava Mezze Grill -- pricier than your typical fast-food restaurant, but with more attention to quality service and quality food.

"Our organization and organizations like ours are excited that a business like this is coming to the area -- they're experienced and have proven themselves," says Dalal, of the Vegetarian Society of D.C. "D.C. is a great market and great place for it."

Both D.C. Native Foods locations are expected to open in September.

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