Almost everything about Burlington's Pingala Café & Eatery seems irrepressibly cheerful. There's the space itself, awash in northern light from mammoth windows that face the Winooski River. There's the wiry, effervescent owner, Trevor Sullivan; the café's name, which means "sun energy"; and a vivid mural that depicts Vermont in every season, from a summer garden to the snow-capped peaks.
Pingala serves up vegan fare, which can come with its own brand of cheer — depending on where you fall on the dining spectrum.
Judging from the restaurant's steady business, Burlington had many rudderless vegans waiting for such a place to open. Yet omnivores like me — who don't like being told what they should and shouldn't eat — can't possibly find dining satisfaction in a Green Is Good smoothie and pulled-jackfruit sandwich. Right?
Sullivan opened Pingala in February in Burlington's Chace Mill. The building has all the charms and battered edges of a former woolen mill: weathered wood floors, brick walls, high ceilings and a lost-in-time vibe. Sullivan's wife, Julia, teaches at the mill's Laughing River Yoga — which is how he discovered that its vacant northwest corner was available for lease.
Sullivan, a painter and chef, had previously worked in kitchens at the Skinny Pancake, Church & Main and the Essex Resort & Spa. Two years ago, he became a vegan, a move that he said made him "much more inspired about food" — inspired enough to undertake the risky venture of opening his own vegan café.
Sullivan spent much of this past winter sanding wood floors, painting brick walls, hanging pendant lights and plants, and installing a mish-mash of tables and chairs — as well as a kitchen. He collaborated with artist Tara Goreau on that sprawling mural, which dominates the 16-seat café. The space has an earthy-crunchy charm, from the offbeat décor (a chair hung as art) to the Johnny Cash quote posted above the coffee pots: "This morning, with her, having coffee."
Is that coffee any good? Yes — very, very good, at least to this tea drinker's sensibility. It's a zippy Brazilian blend roasted in the Berkshires. Posted near the coffee pots is a treatise on the environmental costs of using cream in coffee — there's soy creamer, if you must. But those who can get over the hump of consuming lattes sans latte will be richly rewarded, because breakfast is Pingala's strong suit.
First off, there's that coconut-milk-based Green Is Good smoothie. Despite its pea-green hue (which comes from spirulina and spinach), it's an ambrosial drink that tastes like supping from a frozen coconut. I'd like one every damned day, despite its $6.25 price tag.
Pingala's ordering counter is piled high with gluten-free pastries, muffins and cookies baked by the talented Bhava Carr. Though an apricot-almond scone was kind of crumbly, the glazed lemon-poppy-seed-pumpkin donuts were bright, sweet and addictive. Trail-mix cookies were moist, heavenly orbs of oats, cranberries and chocolate chips.
The savory dishes were almost as good. A breakfast sandwich of maple-glazed tempeh, served inside a mini Kaiser roll, came slathered in chipotle-laced house aioli. Luscious and distinctive, the sandwich was further adorned with two unique fillings. The first looked and tasted exactly like a slice of cheddar cheese left to cook on a grill pan — a crisp, lacy brittle poking from the sides of the sandwich like fan coral. It's actually made of pea protein. The second was eggplant bacon, salty strips with intense umami flavor and a consistency similar to that of jerky. Since they're hard to cut with your teeth, entire eggplant-bacon slices can flop out, hit you in the chin and fall to the plate.
Easier to approach is the Harvest Hash & Scramble Wrap, stuffed with almost molten scrambled tofu and sautéed peppers, tender onions, and peppery cubes of potato. The house chipotle could have used more punch in this context, but it was a satisfying breakfast for $5.95.
The rest of the menu is almost Skinny Pancake-esque in its length and chalkboard delivery, comprising six salads, 10 sandwiches and various small bites. Chief among the last are Dippin' Rolls, sort of like egg rolls stuffed with veggies and flavored tofu. My first attempt to try these bombed. I ordered a Little Italy Dippin' Roll to go — psyched to try the lemon-tofu ricotta within — but received an Italiano sandwich instead. This turned out to be a happy accident, as the Italiano was a warm riot of roasted eggplant, tomatoes and velvety pesto on spongy focaccia.
A day later, I finally made the Dippin' Roll's acquaintance in the form of a flaky Coconut-Buffalo roll stuffed with spicy creamed tofu, shredded carrots and lettuce. The pastry was crisp and not overly oily, but the contents were somehow wan. I tried to drown them in the creamy dill sauce that came on the side, but even then they lacked pluck.
So what is jackfruit, anyway? It's a bump-covered fruit native to Southeast Asia, an unlovely member of the mulberry family. And it's a darling of vegans, who have dreamt up myriad ways to cook it, from jackfruit custard to jackfruit Reuben. At Pingala, the jackfruit is braised low and slow until it's supple, then shredded and tumbled with sweet, cumin-flavored barbecue sauce. Served on focaccia with tangy cabbage slaw, it's a first-class sandwich — and the jackfruit's cushiony texture is the only clue that it isn't pulled pork.
Another standout is Pingala's mac and "cheese." This occasional special, not featured on the regular menu, consists of fusilli slathered in cashew cream, blended with porcini mushrooms, dusted with smoked paprika and spiked with minced peppers. Though the garnish of sprouts seemed silly, the dish was smoky, nutty and earthy all at once — clearly not the real thing, but perfect in its uniqueness.
Pingala's misses came mostly in the form of uneven proportions. The kidney-bean-based Karma Burger was dry and bland, even when covered with that tasty faux-cheese-lace. (The eggplant bacon I ordered with the burger did not appear.) A Mandarin Salad of kale, cabbage, shredded carrots and toasted sunflower seeds was tough, unevenly torn and severely underdressed. Two tiny, lonely slices of orange (and one of strawberry) enlivened it, but not by much.
Salt-and-pepper-dusted chips come with a large container of tomato-avocado salsa that's excellent even in March, and likely will be off the hook come tomato season. The problem: I ran out of chips long before I ran out of salsa.
All of Pingala's sandwiches, which range from $6.95 to $9.95, come with a side of baby greens or potato salad. Choose the greens, and you get a generous handful of leaves but a tiny amount of dressing. Choose the potato salad, and you receive a two-bite dollop stuffed into a dipping-sauce-size container. It's a weird potato salad, too, blended with apples and an odd blend of spices.
And that pot of delectable creamy dill sauce that comes with the Dippin' Rolls? Mine contained so little sauce that it took gymnastics to get roll and sauce to meet.
The small portions may have something to do with the carbon-conserving ethos of the place, embodied in the self-bussing station. There's a tub for compost and another for dishes, but none marked "trash," so it can be confusing to deconstruct one's waste.
Pingala serves up seriously delectable food that even a meat eater can love, if not every day. (One lunch order for three set me back $40, while a hefty breakfast order for two was $36.) Even so, I'll be back for the spring and summer menus. Tempeh tacos? I'm down.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Tricked-Out Tofu"