Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Deja Vu at Good Karma Cafe

If you've missed Down to Earth, the vegetarian restaurant that was a Red Bank, NJ staple in the late 90's* through early 00's, Good Karma Cafe is just what you've been looking for.

Located just around the bend from the former Down to Earth site, which remains empty,

is the smaller, street level Good Karma Cafe. 

Co-owned by one of the owners and one of the employees of Down to Earth, the similarities are striking.

From the tablecloths to the decor (I'd know those fruit and vegetable paintings anywhere), visiting Good Karma was, for me, a little like stepping back in time. 

The menu, too, is a throwback. Seitan, tofu, and tempeh-heavy, expect staples like their "Earth burger" and various wraps, along with raw options, salads, and juices.

We started with the queso and nacho chips- "Crispy blue corn chips served with creamy uncheese queso and garden fresh pico".  The generous portion of queso was a bit runny when served, but as it cooled and thickened we liked it more and more.  It tasted like an old school cashew/ nutritional cheese queso; we enjoyed it, but I think any of the quesos on the market today could give it a run for its money.  Still, it is a nice, homey offering to have in a restaurant and it's just our speed.

It seems that the chickpea of the sea sandwich listed on their website is no longer offered, so I went with the Pad Thai- "Wide rice noodles stir fried with carrots, cabbage, celery and broccoli in a sweet and tangy tamarind sauce. Topped with toasted peanuts and sprouts".  It was a disappointment; not only was it was predominantly filled with zucchini, but the sauce was oily, the sesame seeds out of place, and the overcooked noodles pasty. 

VM chose the garden fresh burrito- "Soft tortilla filled brown rice, black beans, guacamole, pico, homemade sour cream and shredded lettuce" and added queso and extra pico. 

How to describe this burrito?  Well, it was a tortilla...filled with what looked to be white rice, black beans, lettuce, and diced tomato: all extremely dry and seemingly devoid of any seasoning whatsoever.  The queso on top was the same as had been in our appetizer, but because it simply absorbed into the tortilla, it didn't add any moisture to speak of.  Neither did the thimblefull of sour cream or the missing guacamole that somehow never made it to the dish.

This entree was especially perplexing because, let's face it; it's really hard to mess up a burrito.  And when you have a mainstream, non-vegan restaurant like Chipotle serving up a ridiculously tasty vegan version, a vegan restaurant really can't afford to offer something so unnecessarily sub-par.  It's not unusual for VM to only eat half of her meal, but when she discarded the leftovers I realized how much she'd disliked it and I couldn't blame her.

One of the owners of Good Karma Cafe is quoted in The New York Times as saying, ”You can’t judge people by what they eat. But we want to show what vegan can be.”  The problem is, vegan is so much more than this; these kinds of offerings actually serve as an injustice to the vast possibilities of vegan food.  Worse, The Cinnamon Snail, right in their backyard, is the sheer epitome of all that vegan food really can be.  It's 2012 and the bar has been raised exponentially; palates have evolved and reincarnating old school vegan grub doesn't often cut it.  Come on, Good Karma Cafe; you can do this.

Probably because she was still hungry, VM suggested dessert before I did.  I'd heard great things about the tiramasu, but I've never been tempted by it.  Also lacking appeal was the counter cookie selection: the healthy, hemp seed chocolate chip and fruity thumbprint cookies were not doing it for me, so it was lucky that VM spied the special dessert menu displayed right on the table- partially obscured by my napkin.  Were my eyes deceiving me?

Talk about deja vu!  The chocolate ganache cake: "Decadently moist chocolate cake layered with chocolate ganache and drizzled with chocolate sauce." from Down to Earth was the first (good) vegan cake I ever had.  Not only was it astoundingly delicious, but it served to confirm that my sweets-loving tastebuds wouldn't have to suffer in order for me to respect animals.  All these years later, the memory of it remains one of the best vegan desserts I've ever eaten; we had to give it a try.

Lo and behold, this glorious cake redeemed the whole meal!  Ok, almost.  But really, this was, in fact, the phenomenal cake of my memory and we savored every bite.  I did suggest we share a second slice, but VM has her limits (I don't).

That's okay; we returned soon after for "dinner" (and by "dinner", I of course mean chocolate cake for each of us).  Best.  Mom.  Ever.

For those of you who live too far to partake yourself, have no fear.  Although I've never attempted it myself, the recipe is contained in the owner's cookbook, "You Won't Believe It's Vegan".  But since it won't come out of the oven plated with chocolate syrup swirls, you just might want to consider making the pilgrimage to Red Bank.

And, if you too happen to find yourself there having cake-for-dinner, might I recommend a side of rice crispy treat?  As someone who can't personally seem to master the fine art of the crispy, may I say that this was one perfectly textured and proportioned specimen.  Okay, two; I brought one home.

Based on the considerable merits of the extraordinary desserts, we eventually conceeded to bring home their famed tiramasu, which has been especially and consistently recommended by Jackie, our favorite waitress at Sprig and Vine.  The problem, though, is that neither VM or myself like tiramasu.  She doesn't like anything coffee-flavored except coffee, and I don't like anything that involves mushy cake.  But there was no denying how appetizing it looked; so, since we were both under the impression that he is a fan, we gifted it to OD. 

However, he confusingly claimed that he only likes coffee ice cream and mocha cake, but definitely not tiramasu (we're not buying it).  This supposed aversion was not evident as he was shovelling it in by the spoonful, so I couldn't resist trying some.  The chocolate chunks were really good, but the texture of the mushy cake soaked ladyfingers were as unappealing to my tastebuds as expected.  What can I say?  It's a thing.  The creamy part was the real mystery; it was thick and rich and tasted really milky.  As suspected, it was not for me.  Go ahead and try it for yourself, though, because there are two things I should note as a disclaimer: I've never had non-vegan tiramasu and I've always avoided most things made with gratuitous dairy- making me the worst possible judge of what everyone else seems to be smitten with. 

What I do feel confident judging, however, is chocolate cake.  Bordering on double chocolate/red-velvet, Good Karma Cafe's is one of the best there is.  Road-trip worthy, my friends.

I also want to mention that the service is- more often than not- very casual and friendly: exactly befitting the kitchen atmosphere of such a small, neighborhood-type place.

And, finally, in the interest of a restroom antidote, make sure you check it out because it's painted flourescent, psychadelic, pink to the extreme.  I could have taken a photo, but you're going to want to see this for yourself.

*In keeping with the old school theme,

I'll close with a little 90's humor found just down the street.


  1. Ha! I've always wanted to visit Kevin Smith's comic book store! Did you go inside?
    Too bad about the less-than-stellar meals. It really is hard to mess up a burrito. I do appreciated the old school menu throw backs, though. Awww, Earth Burgers. I feel like I should be drinking a latte and listening to Pearl Jam.
    The chocolate cake does really look phenomenal, though. Good cake is good cake. I've never heard of tiramisu being so hard to get rid of, though. I love it! But not when described as "mushy cake."

  2. wow, what an AMAZING meal! it looks so delicious! especially that chocolate cake! oh my gosh! rich and fudgy and fabulous! thanks for sharing!

  3. foodfeud, I haven't been inside Secret Stash for years, but I'd imagine nothing has changed. Since I keep going back to the restaurant for cake, I'm thinking I'll eventually try something else off the menu- if for no other reason than it gets kind of embarrassing to be the girl who keeps eating cake. I really want to like tiramisu, but my palate is more yodel than tres leche. If I could mail you one, I would!

    glutenfreehappytummy, easily top 5 chocolate cakes.

  4. Place doesn't seem like it is for me, but I know a certain someone who would love to try that tiramasu.

    Great post as always.

  5. Well, thank goodness for the chocolate cake and crispy treats, right? I've never made a bad burrito, so I get annoyed when a restaurant does that to me. There's a throwback café near me that sounds a little like Good Karma - I'm sure they must have an earth burger — but the food is so disappointing. Bleh.

  6. hey I just found your blog randomly and was leisurely looking through old posts - I was excited to see you write about Good Karma! I've been going there since it opened and I've never had a bad meal, its one of my all time favorite veg places. The two dishes you got I've actually never had, but you should really go back and try some more of their other dishes - like their sandwiches and other main dishes. Since 2012 they also updated their menu and have a lot of really delicious stuff like a banh mi, tempeh wings, a seitan mexican bowl, etc. Their specials on the weekends are always really decadent and delicious. I totally understand what its like to have a blah meal but definitely give this place another shot :) and yeah the cake rocks!


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