By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Just when I thought vegan cuisine hit its creative zenith, along comes OleriCultura — and in a place where you’d never expect to find dishes using things like ancient grains and nutritionally rich legumes.
The food stall opened about a month ago inside Grossmont Center’s sunny food court, where mall shoppers typically give their feet a rest over gyros, pizzas and tacos. Yet for those seeking a purer alternative, OleriCultura is a lush, little oasis snagging even incredulous consumers with braised plant-based concoctions that are wildly flavorful.
The business is owned by Sergio Garcia of Chicano Soul Food Catering in San Diego, and pastry chef Vanessa Corrales of Split Bakehouse, a wholesaler located just outside the food court.
She specializes in vegan renditions of Mexican sweet bread, airy puff pastries (campechanas), molasses cookies shaped like pigs (puerquitos de piloncillo), and more. None of it disappoints.
Garcia takes charge of the savory experience by helping patrons customize their food bowls while touting the nutritional properties of the various options. He refers to himself as a “nurturer” rather than a chef. But as an industry veteran who used to head the kitchen at Del Sur Mexican Cantina in South Park, he’s innately both.
You first pick a bowl size (small is $8, large is $10) before choosing whether you want beans as a base. If so, forget pintos or the everyday varieties. Garcia only offers heirloom tepary beans sourced from a North County farm. Brined in salt water with epazote and bay leaves, they’re tenderly cooked and super meaty, not to mention higher in protein and fiber compared to their counterparts.
You next choose a grain mix — either wild rice and amaranth pilaf cooked in tomato-achiote broth, or quinoa with brown rice cooked in cilantro-parsley broth. I tried both (and you can too) with nary a dull moment in either.
The next option has you deciding on a guisado, the Mexican term for “stew.” Garcia presents three types — a medley of mushrooms and green bell peppers in truffled rice gravy; a mix of lentils and charred veggies accented by four-seed salsa verde sauce; and spiced beans mingling with plantains and kale.
I tried the first two. The mushroom-pepper guisado tasted like that essential topping to an Italian sausage hoagie or a Philly cheesesteak. So much so, I didn’t miss the fry oil or the meat. The lentil-veggie mixture was equally comforting, but with a loving kick from the salsa.
There are toppings and sauces to choose from as well.
Texture is achieved with such options as cabbage-cactus slaw, hemp seeds, fried onions or nutritional yeast. (The slaw was my favorite.)
Of the sauces, I went gaga over the bright-red puree of beets and habanero chilies. It rivaled in depth and flavor the hundreds of hot sauces that have whetted my palate over the years. There’s also a smooth and cooling cashew-sunflower seed crema, and tasty avocado sauce that jives with everything.
For the ultimate palate refresher, Garcia makes a rotating selection of crafty agua frescas that change weekly. On this visit it was a delicious “four citrus” blend with chia seeds.
What’s most surprising about OleriCultura is that the chow appears muted in color. Not unappealing, but brightened mainly by the space’s clean and modern design, which indeed brings an iconoclastic hipness to this food court. Yet the meal components, or any combination thereof, send your taste buds over the moon no matter how much meat you might require in your diet.
The stall is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and until 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Garcia says he will eventually extend the hours and add signature items to the menu once the business becomes further established.
5500 Grossmont Center Drive
Prices: Bowls, $8 and $10; desserts, $2 to $4
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.