Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Native Foods, DC

UPDATE: This restaurant has permanently closed.
It is with a heavy heart that I must report the demotion of Native Foods' status as one of the best fast casual restaurants in the nation. In order for you to understand my viewpoint, I'd like to take you on my journey of discovering what was once a fantastic vegan cafe to its ultimate demise.

I discovered Native Foods in 2005, 11 years after it was founded, when I was in Los Angeles to attend PETA's 25th Anniversary Gala. I remember it like it was yesterday. The day following the gala, the first place I wanted to visit was Native Foods. I walked into this tiny little cafe to discover an entire menu that was vegan, which at the time was very unusual. Overwhelmed by the choices, it took me several minutes to decided what to order and finally chose a sandwich made with their signature pumpkin seed pesto on a fresh seeded bun. It was one of the best sandwiches I'd ever had.

I never stopped thinking about Native Foods and made it a point to visit whenever I was in the LA area. I even bought their cookbook so I could make the pesto at home. In fact, I spoke to the manager of the Native Foods in the original location about my ideas to open a Native Foods in DC. I finally spoke to someone at headquarters who informed me that they were not seeking investors and didn't offer franchise opportunities either. Okay, then.

Native Foods was founded by vegan chef Tanya Petrovna. Tanya's vision was to open a Native Foods in every major city across the nation so that everyone would have access to healthy, vegan food. She emphasized the preparation of all of her food in-house including making her own seitan and tempeh from scratch -- a feat that is much harder than it sounds. They had expanded to many locations in California by 2010, but never made it out of the state, that is, until things began to take a turn. For whatever reason, Tanya sold the company to Andrea McGinty and her husband Daniel Dolan in 2010 who then moved the headquarters to Chicago. At the time, Tanya was still involved in her restaurant. Shortly thereafter, she was not. Tanya's last mention of her involvement with native Foods came in late 2011, when she tweeted, "Free dessert @nativefoodscafe today and tomorrow if you come in dressed as a veg or animal! Boooooo haaa haaaaa! Come on down sweeties!"

In August of 2011, Native Foods opened its first cafe in Chicago and several others opened soon thereafter. When I visited the Loop location in April of 2012, it was everything I remembered Native Foods being. The food was fresh and flavorful and topped with delicious toppings and condiments. I wrote, "The homemade Native Sausage seitan was formed into a patty that was topped with juicy grilled sliced portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, salsa pomodoro, sweet roasted garlic, and fresh basil with creamy pumpkin seed pesto and mayo."  For dessert, I had a cardamom rose cupcake that could have stood up to the best cupcakes in the nation.

From there, they expanded to Denver, Boulder, and Portland. In 2013, they had 14 locations and had suddenly announced plans to open 200 locations in the next five years. They were to open six to eight locations by the end of 2013 and 45 locations in 2014.  This obviously never came to fruition as the number of restaurants open at the time of this post was only 23.

Regardless, I was over-top-thrilled when I found out that they were actually going to open in DC on September 30, 2014. I eagerly attended the soft-opening the weekend before expecting to find the awesomeness that was Native Foods as I remembered it. Let me be clear, what made the food good was that not only was every part of it delicious, the seitan and tempeh were made in-house, the breads were always amazingly fresh and good and the condiments and sauces were complex and spectacular.

So, on our first visit to the new DC cafe during the soft-opening, I wondered if we were even at the right place. By the time we sat down and the food was delivered, one look at it made me realize that this was not the same place I knew and loved. Everything came out cold and everything came out at once. Chris reported that his Kung Pao bowl was lacking a lot of flavor.

The nachos were cold and many of the chips were soggy underneath. The Native Chicken Wings were supposed to be crispy, but were cold and soggy and the sauce was way to watery to be any kind of imitation ranch dip.

The Roasted Vegetables had no seasoning on them whatsoever.

And my Greek Gyro Bowl was pretty good, but also lacked flavor.

For dessert, I ordered the Spicy Chocolate Cake that was not only not spicy, it wasn't good at all.

The only thing that was pretty tasty was the Key Lime Pie. But, I blew this all off though because I knew this was their first night and they were trying to crank out hundreds of meals.

So I came back again on October 4. Please excuse these pictures -- my camera broke! This time there was a 30-minute wait just to order. The ordering process is the most inefficient process ever. They had just two people working registers and it took them forever to place the order. They fumbled around seeking glasses and were unfamiliar with the alcohol menu. This was the second time we tried to order beers and it seemed they were unsure how to even serve them. We took a seat downstairs and all of our food was brought out immediately. We got the Native Nachos for $6.95 which are loaded with black beans, Native Taco Meat, Native Cheese, salsa fresca, guacamole, and chipotle sauce. I loved the shaved jalapenos, but again these were cold and soggy.

I ordered the special Torta Loca, which was made with Mexican-spiced seitan, roasted poblano peppers, guacamole, sweet onions, pico de gallo, cilantro, and crunchy tortilla strips stacked atop a black bean puree with salsa. This sandwich was on fresh bread and was pretty good, but I still felt like it wasn't nearly as flavorful as it could be.

Chris ordered the Chicken Run Ranch Burger, which was a Gardein (yes, all of their chicken is Gardein and is not made in-house) patty deep-fried with way too many onions on a generic wheat roll. It was not good at all. What happened to the artisan bread?!

Once again, I dismissed this visit and said I'd go one more time before reviewing it. This time, I went with my mother and Chris. We placed an order for an appetizer and three entrees. As we were going to sit down, one of the servers was following us with some of our food in his hands and as soon as we sat down, he gave us the Native Nachos and my mother's entree. WTF? This proves that they just premake everything and let it sit until someone orders it, which is why it is all cold and soggy. This is not how it should be done.

My mother thought her sandwich -- the Classic Deli Reuben ($9.95) made with thinly-sliced, deli-style Native Reuben Seitan piled high on golden toasted rye was pretty good. It was topped with homemade sauerkraut, Native Horseradish Cheese and Russian dressing. I thought this was pretty good as well. And we both liked the potato salad.

I ordered the Sesame Kale Macro bowl ($9.95) which was lots of steamed kale over way too much brown rice topped with sauerkraut and green onions with tempeh on the side. The kale and sauerkraut were good and I liked the ginger sesame sauce, but the grilled tempeh was not seasoned at all. You can't just grill tempeh. It should be marinated before grilled to give it some flavor. This was not at all what I would expect of Native Foods.

And Chris' sandwich, the Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger ($9.95) could have been good with the seitan and Native Bacon, but the ridiculous amount of cheap condiments including romaine lettuce, a not-ripe tomato, and onions on a plain wheat roll (no seeds) with a plain burger just ruined the entire meal.

Native Foods -- is this what happens when you try to mass produce everything, forget about quality, and try to expand way too quickly? What happened to only serving everything on artisan bread, making food fresh for each order, and serving appetizers before entrees? Why have I only experienced this in DC and not in any other Native Foods? Is this indicative of what will happen to all Native Foods or is this just in DC because they don't know what they are doing. In sum, the ordering process is way too slow, the staff are not knowledgeable, the entrees are served at the same time as the appetizers, the food is premade and, therefore, cold and soggy, neither the bread nor condiments are that fresh, and there is just a lack of flavor with most dishes.

I'm sorry to say, but I won't be going back to Native Foods anytime soon. I don't think I've ever been this disappointed with a hyped up opening in my life and I am embarrassed to say that I helped to hype it up. Native Foods needs to go back to its roots and do things the way they were done before. When I met the Executive Chef from Chicago in DC last month, she didn't even know how to pronounce the founder, Tanya Petrovna's, last name. That, to me, just showed me that they have forgotten their roots and are going a different direction -- one that has already proved to be headed downhill.

Native Foods
1150 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 296-1674

Native Foods Cafe on Urbanspoon


  1. Is using Gardein chicken a new thing? Because the one here in Boulder has a sign on the wall about how they make theirs... Luckily for us, also, the food has always been good at our locations. There's nothing more disappointing than bad service/food when you're so looking forward to it!

    1. The Executive Chef told me this was nationwide and I know for sure that they've been using Gardein since 2012. They call it "Native Chicken," but it really isn't.

  2. I really appreciate your honest reviews, and I've eagerly awaited your take on the new Native Foods. I share your disappointment; after all, how often do we get a new vegan restaurant in DC? I also had the Macro Bowl and felt the tempeh was dry and crumbly. Darnit, a vegan restaurant ought to know how to cook tempeh! I've never been to the original Native locations, but based on your description, we seemed to have gotten a cheap facsimile in DC.

    1. A cheap facsimile is right. That's a good way of putting it.

  3. And that chocolate cake is just scary looking!