Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Vegetarian comfort food: At Dharma's, portions are as large as they are healthy.
The Tao of Dharma's
A family trip to this vegetarian haven is like Mom's home cooking, only better
By Selene Latigo
Since before my conception, my mom has been a steadfast vegetarian. Stir-fried veggies with tofu and brown rice was more than standard dinner fare, deviating only by what was in season out our front door, followed by, if we were lucky, a handful of carob chips purchased in bulk at the local food co-op. Needless to say, I've visited numerous vegetarian restaurants, some adhering to blander macrobiotic philosophies, others displaying seasoned balance and exquisite healthful purity. Every time my mom comes to visit, we schedule a trip over to Dharma's, both agreeing that this vegetarian destination surpasses many in its well rounded, consistent and multifaceted menu offerings.
Dharma's expansive space, festive lighting and lush greenery contribute to a feeling of serenity. The streamlined counter service process, perfected from decades of use, provides an interactive dining experience. Fortunately, there was sufficient time, between picking up menus by the specials board and arriving at the register, for us to decide from the long list of veggie burgers, dogs, sandwiches, Mexican specialties, salads, pastas, soups, sautés, sides, drinks and desserts. Almost everything is available vegan or not, depending on your opinion of dairy, and an array of soy products are used creatively, far from the general myopic stereotype of mushy white tofu.
I went with one of my long-time favorite deals, the rice, soup, and salad special ($6.45). From the three rotating homemade soups and seven house dressings, there are several options to keep this basic combination exciting. My soup choice, the classic minestrone, was light, well-salted and packed with chunks of zucchini, carrots, onions, greens, beans, corn, and al dente macaroni. I'm not alone in the opinion that Dharma's green salad is quite possibly the best in town; a heaping pile of crisp lettuce, grated carrots and beets, cucumber slices, pea shoots, sunflower seeds, and tomato that unfortunately, was not quite up to summer standards as they should be right now. I requested the coveted tahini lemon that I've seen people buy by the quart. This thick dressing's deep, savory flavor makes it amazing on pretty much anything, transforming my simple cup of brown rice into nutty bliss.
My mom ordered the small Bo Thai ($7.95), hardly defining the word "small" by any means. A tangle of thin rice noodles was tossed with baked tofu cubes and perfectly cooked vegetables, all coated in a slightly spicy, tangy sweet sauce and scattered with bean sprouts and crunchy peanuts. I'm often wary of restaurants taking on a wide international menu, sometimes finding the diverse ingredients disjointed and pseudoindicative of the authentic source. But Dharma's is so consistent after years of well-tested recipes that they pull it off.
In spite of the fact that we had to drag Dave to dinner, a free meal still unconvincing to his meat-loving mind and stomach, he dove right into his hefty order. A pint of Anchor Steam ($4.50) draft in one hand, an ultrathick vanilla shake ($4.95) in the other (dairy or soy available), and a huge platter with his sandwich, side salad, darkly grilled guajillo potato wedges and a crisp pickle created an image contradictory to our locale in this vegetarian restaurant. Even though his tempeh Reuben ($9.50) was "not corned beef," I saw his eyes do the familiar pleasure roll with each cheesy and dripping bite. It evoked the classic from L.A.'s "Borscht Belt," but lacked the sturdy Jewish rye (this town still needs a real delicatessen).
Our vegan dessert choices provided even more nostalgic comfort. For Dave, the jiggly butterscotch pudding ($3.95) brought up stories of his mom's instant pudding surprises that he would steal out of the fridge. The large pearl coconut raspberry tapioca pudding ($3.95) made me remember my dad's two-day tapioca projects we were frequently blessed with. It's kind of ironic that we would all find such comfort food in Dharma's alternate form, but not surprising, knowing how fortunate we are to have this successful treasure in our midst.
Address: 4250 Capitola Road, Capitola
Hours: 8am-9pm daily
Price Range: $4-$15.
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