Don’t call Food for Ascension Cafe “vegan.” The folks behind the eatery, just off North Fourth Avenue, prefer the term “vegetable forward.”
You won’t find meat or dairy on the menu, although eggs are offered. The focus, instead, is on locally sourced ingredients, more than 90 percent grown right in the Tucson area.
The back story: A picture on Food for Ascension’s website pretty much sums it all up: a smiling baby sprawled on top of some bright green crop.
How can you not like the premise behind the 6-month-old eatery, which is know where your food comes from and don’t just nourish your body but nourish your community right along with your soul. Honest. Heartfelt. I’m on board with that — even if I subscribe to an open-minded (and mouthed) food-losophy that involves both meat and dairy.
A venture of Avalon Organic Gardens & Ecovillage, based in Tumacacori, the cafe is part of the Sea of Glass Center for the Arts, which includes a retail store and event center.
The vibe: With a wall of glass that offers plenty of natural lighting and overlooks a small courtyard with a fountain, the cafe is quite lovely. The high, wooden ceilings are accented with strands of blue lights wrapped around black metal framing. The music wafting through the space alternates from folksy to something you’d hear while relaxing on a massage table. It feels chill, it is chill — and that extends to the wait staff, which is a mixed bag. (For more, skip ahead to “The Service.”)
Don’t miss: The cafe’s artisan pizza of the day ($13.50) will challenge the traditional notion of a good pie slathered with tomato sauce and cheese. The daily special we sampled came dressed with garlic aioli, tender mushrooms that had been soaked and then slow-roasted into an earthy mellowness, roasted red pepper strips and potato that had been intriguingly shredded into finer-than-angel-hair-pasta strands. It was a great preparation because the potato was super crisp, a nice textural contrast to the other soft veggies. A dusting of crushed red pepper added heat. But what really shone was an organic, wheat-blend crust that was both pillowy and had a nice density. The edges and bottom had great crunch. Absolutely no need for cheese.
Another satisfying dish was the roasted smashed potatoes with creamed pesto ($11.50). A trio of skin-on roasted red potatoes had a burnished-brown, crunchy exterior and a fluffy middle. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper, their starchy creaminess partnered nicely with a chiffonade of crisp Swiss chard, which glistened with olive oil that had a lemony kick. A smooth pesto offered a just-right garlic bite.
OK to skip: The cafe insists this is not intended to be good vegetarian food or good vegan food, it’s just meant to be good food. Period. Well, someone had better take a hard look at the sweets case. Normally we’d never say go without dessert. But, the offerings we sampled were disappointing.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I view vegan baked goods as the culinary equivalent of waterboarding. No butter? No cream? Torture. Still, we not only have vegans in the family but a vegan baker who regularly whips up scones, cakes, cookies — all could go bite-for-bite with full-animal-fat counterparts and be deemed delicious. So, I know what good vegan desserts taste like.
Food for Ascension’s cakes ($6 a slice) were consistently dry, and a blueberry-lime tart with coconut custard filling ($6) — while tasty — was marred by a gummy consistency. We picked off chunks of the tart’s coconut-almond crust, which was quite good and similar to a macaroon, and tried to avoid the oddly textured coconut-custard middle. A chocolate-hazelnut cake looked enticing but lacked any chocolate flavor. The frosting was gritty with an unpleasant aftertaste. The vanilla cake, which tasted more like corn than vanilla, was, thankfully, very lightly iced.
“Normally, I’d say that’s not enough frosting,” said Vegan Baker, who has a solid sweet tooth. The malted chocolate frosting, while soft, had a chalky finish and, like the chocolate-hazelnut cake, no chocolate taste whatsoever.
The service: On our visits, wait staff was knowledgeable about the menu and quick to find out answers to any questions that stumped them. Food arrived in a respectable amount of time. The only hitch was that the servers tended to disappear once the entrées arrived. So, if you only get an hour lunch break or are hurrying to catch a movie, you might want to opt for takeout.
In a nutshell: Even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian, you can find a tasty, fill-you-up entrée at Food for Ascension Cafe — and no one can argue with the philosophy that you should know where your food comes from and eat the best you can.