Vegetarian spins on my favorite dishes often leave me lusting after the meaty originals. With their bright, Crayon-like flecks of carrot and soybean, the wannabe burgers I sampled during my fling with vegetarianism were unremarkable at best. I'm not suggesting, though, that all meatless meals are bland.
The "neatloaf" served at Jyoti-Bihanga (3351 Adams Ave. in Normal Heights) is the restaurant's most iconic dish and its best seller. At first, you might nudge it cautiously with your fork, skeptical of mock meatloaf. But your fear will be misplaced. Grains, soy, ricotta cheese, eggs and spices create a flavorful alternative to the beefy, all-American dinner entrée. A tomato-based red sauce tops the neatloaf, and chunky mashed potatoes capped with mushroom gravy complete the illusion.
From a distance, the dish resembles standard diner fare. Even the requisite slices of toast are present, bearing pats of butter. Despite its veggie nature, Jyoti's version is filling and delicious, a solid reminder that meat doesn't need to be the protagonist of every dinner story.
Jyoti-Bihanga opened for business in 1986, two decades before spiritual master Sri Chinmoy's death in 2007. Chinmoy's students own and operate the place. A large portrait of the guru hangs on a wall; his paintings and etchings are everywhere, along with poems and quotes.
Though a well-known peace advocate, Chinmoy was a controversial figure. In a recent Salon article, the philosopher's alleged victims speak out about "unresolved allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct." Library-quiet and painted in soft, pastel shades, Jyoti-Bihanga feels far removed from the accusations challenging its icon's status as a peace-loving figure.
The Normal Heights establishment is unlike any restaurant I've ever visited. Servers wear permanent half-smiles and wrapped, sari-like garments; they move around with a breezy coolness, and they forget the guacamole, salsa and sour cream accompanying the Never Say No Nachos.
Even without the flavor-enhancing trio, the nachos were still addicting. I blame it on the jack cheese, which arrived in melty, buttery crumbles. The corn chips were crisply deep-fried and endlessly crunchy.
Jyoti's diverse menu offerings include everything from barbecued mock dock to Indian curry to chicken pesto wraps. The Portobello wrap is delightful and features marinated mushroom slices, spinach, red bell pepper and a tangy tofu-tamari sauce.
But the Zen Avocado sandwich received the most praise from our table. Jack cheese, avocado slices, tomato and sprouts create a simple and refreshing sandwich; a mayo-tamari spread adds richness to the toasted nine-grain bread.
The fare at Jyoti-Bihanga isn't groundbreaking or innovative. Instead, it complements Chinmoy's teachings, focusing on simplicity and purity. Chinmoy advocated a vegetarian diet, once stating, "If we are vegetarians, it helps our inner being to strengthen its own existence."
Two weekends a month, Jyoti-Bihanga offers an elaborate, all-you-can-eat Sunday breakfast buffet. You won't find plump sausages and fatty bacon on the menu, but there is soy chorizo.
Though I am a brunch addict, I don't know if I'll revisit San Diego's first vegetarian eatery anytime soon. Call me peculiar, but on my way out, I detected something slightly unsettling about Chinmoy's meditative half-smile.