Sending me to try out a vegan juice bar and coffeehouse is kind of like sending Charlie Sheen to negotiate a peace treaty or putting Tom DeLay in a dance competition. Cheese is my favorite food, and my second favorite food is all meats. It's just not going to work.
But that's not to say I didn't find anything to like about Heights Ashbury, the new space on 19th Street with the beyond brilliant name. The art on the walls, for starters, goes beyond the typical coffee shop postmodern navel-gazing, with several styles represented, including a couple of my Bayou City Arts Festival faves from Austin.
I ordered the macaroni and cheese dish, which I'll admit upfront was a mistake. At the moment, I was working under the impression the food was merely vegetarian, and I was not remotely ready for the introduction of a cheese sauce imposter. As far as cheese substitutes go, this one wasn't terrible, spicy and flavorful from a poblano pepper base. If I was grading on a vegan curve I would call it not bad, but compared to the real deal it just doesn't hold up.
Unlike the mac and cheese, the so-called Niçoise salad was nice, even without the traditional egg, tuna or anchovy. With a delicious balsamic vinaigrette, it lacked the signature fishy taste but nicely mixed the clean flavors of lettuce and tomato with bitter, earthy artichoke hearts and olives. I would probably rename it a Mediterranean salad, but now I'm splitting hairs.
Aside from the Heights Ashbury dishes, vegan outfit Radical Eats is also offering their tamales and tacos during lunch and throughout the afternoon on weekends. Topped by the house-made salsas that come on every table, I had no complaints about my bean, spinach, tomato and fake goat cheese taco, but I found the spinach and corn tamales incredibly bland (though the salsa helped) and the chipotle black bean was overrun by the thick cornmeal shell.
For beverages, the mango-pineapple smoothie was tasty but so thick I gave up trying to suck it down about halfway through, although the ginger basil lemonade was completely delicious and refreshing.
I find it very hard not to grade Heights Ashbury on a curve. If it wasn't vegan food, it'd be terrible. But for what it is, maybe it's OK.
Is it my kind of place? No. But it's someone's kind of place.