I have my friend Kim in town, a discerning foodie and vegetarian. And she looks a little surprised when we pull up to the summery patio of Kanaloa. They are, after all, a seafood market, with many tasty fish dishes. But I assure Kim she’s in for a treat as we take a seat on the patio, palm trees waving in the breeze, the summer obliging us with blue skies. What I know, and Kim is about to find out, is that Chef Antonio has been hard at work to bring some fantastic vegetarian options to the menu. Dishes that have a little twist to them, with unexpected flavor combinations.
We start with the roasted beet hummus, a glorious ruby red hummus made with roasted beets, chickpeas, and a smoky bite of chipotle. This smooth dish of spicy sweetness is topped with crunchy pistachios and whole chickpeas roasted with lemon and smoked paprika. Add in a few bitter microgreens and there is more than enough to keep both Kim and I in nosh mode, scooping up the hummus on cool cucumber slices, baby carrots, and grilled pita.
I can see I’m winning Kim over to my idea as we dig into the main course. Although Kanaloa’s poke bowls of spicy tuna and sweet & sour salmon are amazing, we are going for the most unusual “poke” I’ve every tried: Ethiopian Spiced Crispy Tofu. Now, don’t be alarmed; the tofu is, of course, cooked. But the cleverness of the dish comes in the fact that the soft tofu cubes, flash fried with a coating of spices, delivers a mouth texture that is very similar to biting into silky fish poke. Kim looks at me after her first bite and quickly snaps back to the bowl, diving in with gusto. Crunchy jicama and cucumber are mixed with a berbere aioli (think roasted chilis, cumin, cloves, fenugreek…better yet, come into the store and pick up a bottle of this custom spice mix). I literally have to stop myself from chair dancing in foodie happiness as I bite into the peppery heat of pickled ginger and then the soft chewy bed of rice it sits atop. Garnished with a fried wonton, I dip into the creamy vegetable mix and crunch with abandon. I ask Kim what she thinks, but her mouth is full and she can only give an enthusiastic thumbs-up. There is not a drop left in our bowls by the time we’re done.
I walk out of there with one happy, well-fed vegetarian. As for me, the tofu “poke” has changed the way I think about tofu, and I will be back for this dish many times.
Angela Borda is a Santa Barbara food writer who is delighted to be blogging about one of her favorite restaurants, Kanaloa Seafood.