PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK C. ANDERSON
Trendy new spot combines vegan fast food and CBD cocktails
Behold the chili cheese burger with pumpkin-seed chili, queso sauce, crispy hominy and eggplant “bacon.” The sausage-mushroom pizza with sweet peperonata. The chipotle fried trumpet mushroom sandwich, pimento mac ’n’ broccoli and almond butter chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches.
The full-bodied flavors at Morgan Hill’s new Craft Roots Vegan Bar and Grill seize an appetite’s imagination fiercely enough that some newcomers don’t realize they’re eating at a vegan establishment until halfway through a meal.
“People are surprised they can get their dad to eat a vegan burger,” says owner-operator Justin Gaich.
Comfort is its own reward, but there are others, as he points out when asked whether his vegan leanings tip toward compassion for animals, environmental impacts or health concerns.
“All of the above,” he says, “but I don’t get preachy. The restaurant doesn’t have that vibe.”
While Craft Roots may please unsuspecting omnivores, plenty of eaters come precisely because it’s vegan—and not the type of vegan promoting faux meat. “You should have vegetables shine,” is a common refrain heard from Gaich, his wife/co-owner/operator Nyssa and Craft Roots staff. And that philosophy’s on display with items like the seasonal hash bowl, currently styled for winter with chopped lacinato kale, shredded Brussels sprouts, roasted butternut squash, dried cranberries, red onion, spiced walnuts and apple cider vinaigrette.
Roots’ rising dovetails with a wider surge in burger-loving fast vegan throughout the state, many of them similarly unapologetic about their burly takes on it. As places like Malibu’s Burgers, Vegan Mob and Amy’s Drive Thru are flourishing—and expanding—to the north, Los Angeles is a hotbed of strong meat-free storefronts, from Burgerlords to Monty’s Good Burger to Nomoo.
“We don’t want a lot of processed foods,” Nyssa says. “We want to go healthy and really support our farms.” Their favorites include Real Produce, Watsonville Coast Produce and Spade & Plow.
Plant-based plates represent a surprising pivot for the Gaiches after Justin spent years managing neighboring Trail Dust Barbeque.
“Once you get going with vegan, you can sustain your energy without the ups and downs,” he says. “I love the clarity [and] not being burdened by food. It’s hard to describe other than you feel a lot better.”
Still more surprises await: Craft Roots is the rare vegan joint that has a full liquor license. The curated small-production craft beer list is also impressive, with roughly two dozen beers available at any given time, from the likes of Humble Sea, Ommegang and Russian River, the brewers behind wildly popular Pliny the Elder, which Craft releases when it becomes available in famously limited quantities.
With produce also driving the options on the drink menu, recent seasonal concoctions have starred local apples, plums and cucumbers. Nicholas Mattson directs the bar after evolving his game at popular San Jose drink destination Paper Plane—and taste tests each piece of produce he uses to dial in ripeness.
“Balance is the biggest thing for me,” he says. “Too much citrus or too much booze is offsetting. I don’t want our fruits and veggies to get lost.” Mattson’s most popular cocktail, All the Rage, is a rotating creation based on what’s coming out of the field, splashed with CENTR, a crisp CBD sparkling tonic containing as much as 30 milligrams of stress-relieving cannabinoid.
CENTR fits into a lineup of nonalcoholic kombuchas and other CBD offerings that are selling briskly enough that Craft Roots struggles to keep them stocked.
James Velarde, senior vice president of Coastal Luxury Management, has taken COVID event restrictions as an opportunity to promote CENTR’s burgeoning popularity to restaurants like Craft Roots. “I really like the direction they’re taking,” he says. “People don’t miss the meat. They’ve caught lightning in a bottle with where we’re going as a society, and they’re doing the same thing with CBD: capturing emerging trends in a fun and creative way.”