As with any cuisine not executed well, vegetarian and vegan food can be underwhelming. And overcompensating for meat-based proteins with tofu and soy simulations can be an even more dangerous culinary game. Such are the challenges that The Loving Café in Pleasant Ridge struggles with: to offer healthy and ethical fare that's fresh, flavorful and satisfying.
At first blush, The Loving Café is a bright and unassuming neighborhood spot geared toward midday meals. (They close at 4 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on Saturdays.) Past the avocado-green walls and a few high-top tables is a spacious main eating area. The peach-hued walls, the subtle light from Asian-inspired hanging lamps and the stark marble tables create a temple-like ambiance from somewhere other than a Pleasant Ridge café, while the two televisions airing Supreme Master TV, a channel dedicated to the teachings of the restaurant’s holistic guiding spirit, create conversation.
Guests order at a deli-style counter, behind which the menu, written on large chalkboards, breaks down the starters, soups, salads, rotating dinner specials, drinks and desserts. Even more options are presented on a sizable specials board. Many meat-inspired tofu-based products dominated the menu: BBQ Hot Wings ($6), Happy Gyro ($5), New Chik’n Meal ($7) and American Panini ($6). Hmmm. Where did the vegetables go?
The staff was extremely friendly and eager to explain their offerings. We started with the Traditional Vietnamese Pho soup ($3) and the White Bean and Pumpkin Spicy Chili ($3). To get the most of their ample offerings, we ordered the Sampler Plate ($9), brimming with spring and summer rolls, fried rice, breaded “fried” chik’n, chik’n salad, breaded shrimp, BBQ beef skewers, breaded sweet potatoes and a wholesome green salad
Our server talked us into their popular smoothies that served as both beverage and dessert. I ordered the Blueberry Bliss ($4), and my companion had the multi-fruit and peanut butter Trinity ($6). These were rich and delicious, yet nothing extraordinary.
Our soups were definitely our favorite part of the meal and what I will go back for. The Pho broth was well seasoned, flavorful and nicely spiced, and its rice noodles were perfectly cooked and textured. After a previous night out, my companion mentioned that the soup was “restorative,” and I have to agree. My White Bean Chili with a subtle and sweet pumpkin puree was hearty, complex and sating. I could have easily devoured two bowls.
When we were brought our Sampler Plate, I had a “vegan lapse” and asked if the battered shrimp was real shrimp, having never heard of vegan shrimp. “Nothing here is real,” she laughed, and I couldn’t help but think of a Philip K. Dick story.
I had a difficult time eating the “fried” chik’n, beef skewers, shrimp and chik’n salad. They tasted nothing like meat, lacked any semblance to the texture of meat and obviously lacked the fat that gives meat its flavor. The skewers were like a soft beef jerky, and the shrimp was texturally disturbing. So I asked myself, “Why bother? What’s the objective?”
My companion, however, finished them off. (Again, “restorative.”) The fried rice and spring rolls, though a bit generic, were successful. I liked best the summer roll: cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, rice noodles and avocado all tightly wrapped in rice paper served with a tasty almond hoisin that made for an original sauce.
As we waited for our Raw Pizza, our server brought out a free sample of the Raw Spaghetti — long, thin strips of zucchini made for a slightly crunchy pasta with a fresh, raw marinara of pureed tomatoes, pine nuts and soy cheese. This dish was excellent, the type of homemade food that needs to be given more attention on the menu.
Our server asked if we needed anything else and, when we inquired about our Raw Pizza, she seemed baffled we could possibly eat or want anything more. Feeling a little judged, we assured her that we still wanted it. The Raw Pizza is served on raw vegan bread, which is thin, dense, loaded with nuts, chewy and perhaps a bit cloyingly earthy. The bread was topped with a hint of marinara sauce, diced tomatoes, peppers, kalamata olives, avocadoes, onions and a heavy-handed dusting of oregano. It was decent but not worth $8.
Did the Loving Café meet the challenge of creating delicious, fresh, healthful and ethical food? That might be a matter of personal preference. For me, the café misses out on a wonderful opportunity and a niche lacking in Cincinnati cuisine: fresh, homemade vegan food that showcases the beauty and simplicity of vegan dining.
THE LOVING CAFE
Go: 6227 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge
Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday
Entrée Prices: $5-$9 (including specials)
Red Meat Alternatives: No meat served
Accessibility: Fully accessible