All you can eat, vegan-style

Mountain View's The Phoenix offers a healthy take on the lunchtime buffet

Buffets don't trigger the "urgent, must-try" sensor in most diners' minds. Instead, they often recall tepid chicken and runny scrambled eggs. Extend that to vegan food, with visions of harsh crudités and bland tofu, and most diners might sprint towards the nearest exit.

Those are the mental hurdles downtown Mountain View's 3-month old vegan cafe, The Phoenix, must defeat with its signature weekday lunch buffet. It rises with victory.

Roughly a dozen choices tempt at the buffet's three warm stations. When the tops open, fragrances of cumin, basil and other spices escape, displaying a chef's touch in a culinary genre that is usually more about mass production.

The buffet is $12.95 for all-you-can-eat if dining in, compared to $6.95 for two items in a to-go box and $10.95 for four to-go items. Considering the care in preparation and the volume of food one can consume, it's very fair price.

Start your plate with fluffy couscous, unless you'd prefer to veer Italian with penne pasta lightly tossed with pesto and mushrooms. The real challenge that lies ahead is not cramming too much on one plate. Enormous heads of lightly battered and fried cauliflower with a hint of heat from Cajun spices are exemplary. The interior of the vegetable straddles the delicate line between tender and creamy.

Another hit on the buffet line is cheese-less baked eggplant Parmesan. Nobody misses the dairy since the meaty eggplant and nicely seasoned tomato sauce would be overwhelmed by it.

Snap peas and other vegetables get tossed with a creamy coconut curry, and for a filling option, grab a heaping spoonful of robust lentils with slivers of carrots. Yes, there is a tofu offering, and make sure to try it -- sturdy, not crumbly, cubes elevated with a lemon-pesto sauce.

A fourth station, a cold tapas bar, includes a must-try orange and olive salad that deftly marries sweet and salty. The weekend brunch brings more of a sweet edge to the display, with fruit salads and jams, plus scrambled tofu.

After a year-and-a-half run as juice bar The Liquid Menu, chef-owner Jay Essadki shifted towards a daytime cafe to educate diners about eating right, or, as he puts it, "Vegan is health."

Cooking is very much in Essadki's background. In 2008 at the age of 25, he and his brother founded Morocco's Restaurant across the street. He remains chef-owner there, too.

At his new venture, Essadki sells a collection of virtuous spices, herbs, fruits, and nuts called the "Elements," which offer different purported health benefits. Buy them retail or add them to one of the dozen, usually kale-based, veggie juices ($5.45 for 12 ounces) or almond milk-based smoothies, such as the "Forever Young" with mango, acai, pineapple, banana and no almond milk at $4.65. You can "boost" your drink for $1.25 with some ginger or activated charcoal. The latter does indeed make your smoothie pitch black and make you feel cleansed -- at least until happy hour starts at one of Castro Street's bars down the street.

After tasting a juicy, vegan burger earlier this year from a new plant-based food company, the outspoken and influential New York chef David Chang was so impressed he declared, "Today I tasted the future and it was vegan." Unfortunately, you won't be making such grand remarks about The Phoenix's a la carte offerings.

It's a lot of good, but far from spectacular, variations of avocado, grains and diced tomatoes. They become repetitive after multiple visits. A quinoa and black bean salad ($7.65) needed tofu ($2 extra). The Oriental red rice salad with corn, tomato, and cucumber was pleasant, if indifferent. My favorite was the tofu and avocado rice bowl, despite a matcha guacamole that had no notes of the green tea and a barely detectable ginger peanut sauce ($6.75). The best part of the bowl were the "Phoenix" chips (like pita chips) added for a garnish.

All the avocado and grains might tempt you to elect for breakfast offerings despite the hour. In that case, stick to a fruit and chia seed cup ($4.65) or channel your inner fourth-grader with the banana and almond butter sandwich ($4.65). The sandwich is fine but could use an additional element to become something restaurant-worthy.

One note on tea with your breakfast -- all of them are strongly flavored. If you're a regular iced tea or Earl Grey drinker, you're out of luck.

The Phoenix's bright room can only hold about 15 guests, since the buffet tables and a diminutive kitchen take up half the space. Seating is at a couple of tables and high counter-tops at the window. Diners order at the front door after being greeted by Essadki, similar to how sushi chefs greet diners. His enthusiasm pervades the room, and he will gladly tell you about the benefits of turmeric or how apples aid digestion during a service lull.

You don't have to be vegan and you don't have to be enthusiastic about buffets to appreciate The Phoenix, which offers the Midpeninsula an entirely different version of the power lunch.

The Phoenix

650 Castro St. #130, Mountain View



Hours: Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Reservations: no

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street and nearby lots

No alcohol

Takeout: yes

Catering: yes

Outdoor seating: no

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: quiet

Bathroom cleanliness: good

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


6 people like this
Posted by Belle stafford
a resident of Woodside
on Jun 30, 2016 at 11:42 pm

Wow, this place sounds great and I cannot wait to try it! More and more people are waking up to the benefits of eating vegan food, be it for health reasons, the environment or the ever-present cruelty aspect of the SAD diet (the standard American diet). Restaurants like this that offer tasty vegan options will make it easier for people to be vegan. Thanks Almanac for printing this story and for all you do to raise the consciousness of the Bay Area!

3 people like this
Posted by Chrisc
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 1, 2016 at 12:53 am

I don't see the words "organic" or "non-GMO" in the review. I really wish there were a place for fresh, organic food. The Menu, delicious Indian, closed down. Does anybody know one?

6 people like this
Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2016 at 10:01 am

Sounds fantastic. Can't wait to try this much tastier and healthier lunch buffet and check out the buffet in general. So great we are getting more veg options in the Bay Area to make it easier to eat out and eat healthy. Thanks for the review.

2 people like this
Posted by Discerning Vegan
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2016 at 8:49 am

Thank you for reviewing this restaurant! Would you consider adding one line to all restaurant reviews regarding dietary restrictions, like vegan or gluten free options?

6 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of another community
on Jul 2, 2016 at 11:50 am

Chrisc, do you ever extend your curiosity to the very concepts you invoked, "organic" and "non-GMO?" Many people assume they understand what those labels mean and connote. They'd be surprised, if they ever seriously examined those assumptions (or talked to informed, impartial scientific experts); but that's unlikely while the words retain a quasi-religious or superstitious slant, resisting serious question.

In a recent op-ed piece, researchers from UC Davis and Duke argued that consumers need to be better educated about food-science basics. For example "a 2015 survey by Oklahoma State University found that 80 percent of respondents would require labels on foods containing DNA, even though all foods contain DNA." Other university researchers have demonstrated that "organic" is a misleadingly simplistic classification: it considers only pesticides, not overall toxin content, even though some food crops have long been known to present higher toxin levels to the consumer when grown organically (from natural sources such as fungal infestation); many consumers claim to be unaware of this, and some of them even greet the information with skepticism or hostility, because of its clash with their familiar assumptions.

3 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 2, 2016 at 12:38 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

107 Nobel laureates sign letter blasting Greenpeace over GMOs:

Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Mike Sage
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2016 at 2:20 pm

Mary and I ate here yesterday (the Saturday brunch buffet) and enjoyed the food and the friendly help from staff. I look forward to coming here again!

Santa Clara

Like this comment
Posted by Common Scents
a resident of another community
on Aug 14, 2016 at 8:19 pm

@Chrisc- you can try 8Elements(Indian)restaurant in San Jose, they are very well rated on Yelp and purport to cook with a lot of local and organic ingredients.

Bon appetit!

Like this comment
Posted by Vegetarian
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2016 at 9:18 pm

Ooh, and it's illegal in Italy to take the kids....

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Legends Pizza Co. replaces Palo Alto Pizza Co.
By Elena Kadvany | 10 comments | 2,759 views

What is a "ton" of carbon dioxide anyway?
By Sherry Listgarten | 14 comments | 2,366 views

Do city officials ever consider giving taxpayers a break?
By Diana Diamond | 18 comments | 1,237 views

Living as Roommates? Not Having Much Sex?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,051 views

By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 1,048 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 26 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away more than $7 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. When you make a donation, every dollar is automatically doubled, and 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.