The COVID-19 shutdown left fledgling restaurants stuck in the starting gates like anxious racehorses. Now that it’s partly over, at least for the time being, a number of new places have been unleashed on the local dining scene. Every week, it seems, there’s somewhere new to try.
One of the more unusual new spots is Green Gene Vegan Café, a small eatery that opened recently across from UNM. Owner Colin Forde, a cosmetic dentist, drew inspiration for the restaurant from his travels around the world as a missionary and his conversion to veganism.
Green Gene’s is at the north end of the Brick Light District, a complex of restaurants, retail and apartments that straddles Harvard SE between Central and Silver. The district represents a compelling idea: Bring in local businesses and a population base to patronize them. Sadly, it’s not immune to the economic vagaries of these times. In the location that Green Gene occupies, Juan More Taco and Rollie Rollie sushi have come and gone in just the past couple of years. On the side of Harvard opposite Green Gene, the long façades of the collectibles shop Louie’s Rock-N-Reels and Winning Coffee lie vacant.
Set behind a broad stretch of sidewalk and a sunbaked patio, Green Gene is somewhat buffered from the foot traffic along Central. The walls of the narrow space inside are painted avocado green, and vegan products line the shelves behind the register. Two people staffed the place during a recent weekday lunch hour, serving a steady trickle of customers who arrived to pick up takeout.
The restaurant is now operating in a kind of hybrid takeout and dine-in mode. There’s a walk-up window by the register where you can pick up your food without entering the place. Otherwise, you order at the register and wait at one of the few tables inside. When your food’s ready, you pick it up at the counter. It’s served in takeout containers with plastic cutlery.
There are two menus. One offers rice bowls with vegan versions of Chinese restaurant standards, such as Buddha’s delight, for $9.88 each. The other presents vegan versions of traditional diner dishes, such as burgers and chili. That means no meat, no eggs and no dairy.
Green Gene proves that vegan dining need not mean sacrificing taste and texture. Exhibit A is its macaroni and cheese ($9), made with cavatappi pasta, a corkscrew variety with ridges that help it cling to the sauce – in this case, a creamy, pale-brown vegan cheese sauce made with coconut milk. That sauce, while not as sharp as the nonvegan cheddar-based version, was amply seasoned, the pasta perfectly cooked. Three florets of broccoli, steamed but still crisp, topped the presentation.
Among the meatier options on the menu are hamburgers, a Chicago-style hot dog and an Italian-style sausage sandwich. The Beyond Meat Gene Burger ($14 with fries) features the meat substitute that is everywhere these days. Although it doesn’t have the caramelization or juice of a good beef burger, the Beyond Meat patty has a remarkable resemblance to the color and coarse texture of ground beef. The thick, meatless patty makes its presence known in the Gene Burger, complementing the pretzel bun, lettuce, tomato and vegan cheese. The thick-cut russet french fries were well prepared, with a thin, crisp membrane around a piping-hot, fluffy center.
The vegan menu finds its ultimate realization in Trinidad Doubles (three for $10.50), Green Gene’s version of a popular street food in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean island nation just off Venezuela. The dish, made up of curried chickpeas spread over slightly spiced fried dough rounds called baras, purportedly got its name when people kept asking for two baras to make a sandwich around the chickpea spread.
The baras have a lightness to them, like an airy pancake, that plays well against the meaty chickpeas. The dish looks and tastes like Indian food – not surprising, considering that thousands of Indians migrated to Trinidad and Tobago to take low-paying jobs in the decades after the United Kingdom abolished slavery in 1807.
The Doubles are served with your choice of hot pepper sauce, tamarind sauce or mango chutney. The hot pepper sauce was absolutely molten, the chutney only slightly less so.
Green Gene’s limited beverage selection includes decaf-only boba tea and coffee. I had a cup of Bills’ World Famous Lemonade ($5), a made-to-order version that is more sour than sweet. Desserts are limited to a selection of Van Rixel Bros. sorbets. Keep in mind that Rude Boy Cookies is only a short walk away.
Green Gene Café provides a boost to Albuquerque’s vegan dining scene and another reason to visit the Brick Light District.