The Key to My Heart

It’s been a week since I visited Café Gratitude, a gourmet vegan restaurant across the street from Underbelly in Little Italy, and I still can’t get my mind off one thing in particular: Awakening Key Lime Pie.

It’s actually nothing like the original. My aunt grew up in Key West, where the citrus pie was born, and serves a traditional family recipe on special occasions using handpicked limes off the trees in her yard.

Chef Dreux’s version is made with creamy avocado (yes, avocado!), lime custard and coconut meringue in place of the cream, milk and eggs. A blended mix of pecans, macadamias and dates replaces the pastry crust.

Adoring Tiramisu will equally tempt any aficionado devoted to the original, with a raw almond biscuit in place of Italian ladyfingers and a mouthwatering coconut cashew cream flavored with espresso and raw cacao.

The combination of plant- and nut-based ingredients may sound odd, as vegan dishes often do, but these recipes have been perfected to divinity — making dessert more wholesome and healthy without sacrificing taste.

You can order from the wide selection of gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free pastries and desserts at the to-go counter when you want to satisfy your sweet tooth without (as much) guilt.

With influences from Indian to Mediterranean, there’s much to enjoy on the rest of the menu. My favorites included the Dynamic whole-wheat samosas filled with roasted garnet yam and cauliflower topped with coconut mint chutney and spicy tomato jam and the Pure Asian Kale & Sea Vegetable Salad with avocado and teriyaki almonds.

Founded by San Francisco urbanites-turned-sustainable farmers, the family-owned restaurant has been migrating south, from Berkeley to Los Angeles, creating quite a buzz along the way. San Diego’s first café was bustling for a Tuesday night, despite being open less than a week.

The restaurant’s prime location on Kettner Boulevard also helps. One of the family’s co-owners, Ryland Engelhart, shares his amusement about an unanticipated fringe benefit: Alcohol sales in San Diego are already triple that of any other six Café Gratitude locations. Our northern neighbors apparently gravitate toward the pressed juices, wellness elixirs and smoothies rather than the organic wines and beers. But Ryland certainly isn’t complaining about the bustling bar scene in Little Italy or the boozier crowd.   

The message of practicing daily gratitude while promoting the vegan lifestyle sounds gimmicky, but the owners walk the walk, even closing the restaurant to give employees a Day of Gratitude. And because of the delicious food, it’s easy to become a believer.

As I took another bite of Awakening Key Lime Pie, I said to my dinner guests, “I wish I could make this at home.” Apparently I can; the recipe is just one of many off the menu in I Am Grateful Recipes & Lifestyle of Café Gratitude. Perhaps on the next special occasion, I’ll be the one serving up a new tradition.