There are parts of Mission Gorge Road that pass through a tranquil, natural setting, but the section traversing Grantville is not one of them. Backed into a corner created by the intersection of two freeways, its congested commercial corridor skews industrial, a place one might go for a smog check, in search of car tires, or maybe to rent a storage unit.
6171 Mission Gorge Road, Grantville
Which makes walking into Purple Mint Vegan Bistro all the more refreshing. The southeast Asian eatery occupies the end unit of an unremarkable shopping strip, looking the part of a boxy low-budget restaurant, one might suppose, devoid of charm. But a spacious dining room dressed with living walls, pendant lamps, and indoor pergolas welcomes guests with comfortable tranquility. Well-placed mirrors set in vintage-styled window frames create the illusion the world is just as chill outside as it is within.
While positioning itself as a Vietnamese restaurant, vegan fare is the unifying thread in a menu supplemented by Chinese, Thai, and other regional influences. Thus, vegan pho and bun options are the likes of kung pao chicken, walnut shrimp, and papaya salad. Ingredients going into these dishes include soy protein meat substitutes and organic vegetables. The $13.95 “steak filet mignon” offers the most visceral example of meat replacement, served on a sizzling platter with grilled onions, showing hints of ginger and warming spices. Naming it after the notoriously smooth mignon may be overstating the resemblance — this soy substitute more closely emulates hunks of a tenderized roast cut — but the flavor and chew may satisfy former meat eaters who miss such presentation.
I think the value here is better found among the rice and noodle dishes. I took some perverse satisfaction in enjoying a combination fried rice featuring “shrimp.” A food allergy prevents me from trying the real thing, and even knowing the kitchen was vegan I did ask for assurance no real shrimp snuck its way in. More to the point, the faux egg, pork, and shrimp served their textural purpose in a well-flavored rice interspersed with a healthy mix of veggies and punctuated by spiced cashews.
Another winner was the organic black rice pasta in coconut milk. The presentation reminded me of Burmese dishes I’ve tried, the dark noodles plated with an array of bean sprouts, carrot and jicama shreds, crispy threads of fried potato, tofu, lettuce, and crushed peanuts. Mixed all together, the contrasting textures of cooked and raw ingredients make this tasty dish fun to eat.
Purple Mint seems like a perfect metaphor for the state of vegan dining in San Diego right now: from the outside it may not always look all that inspiring, but once you go in for a closer look, there are more than a few surprises.