JOi Cafe
2855 Agoura Road
Westlake Village
$4-20
379-5767
www.joicafe.com

Ventura County can now proudly proclaim that there are options for the meat-free crowd from one side to the other. JOi Cafe, anchored in Westlake Village, brings exciting dishes to the east-county vegans and vegetarians, with both flare and culinary prowess, without sacrificing flavor.

JOi Enchiladas with a side of rice and beans

JOi Enchiladas with a side of rice and beans

First thing to note about JOi Cafe is that it is unapologetically vegan. Two HD televisions to the left of the walk-up counter run comparisons between animal products such as beef and pork and their vegetable-based counterparts, proclaiming soy, for instance, to be the winner against beef when taking into account the environmental impact of producing both. Fair enough, as the menu reflects the ideology: not a single animal product on the menu.

Second, if your only interaction with vegan cuisine has come in the form of a Tofurky-brand Thanksgiving roast sitting untouched in a dark corner of the buffet table in a sad attempt to appease a vegan family member, forget it. Put it out of your memory. Vegan food has come a long way. Much like JOi Cafe’s counterpart, Hip Vegan in Ojai, the restaurant is leading the way in raising the bar for what vegans and non-vegans alike call edible.

Visiting on a Saturday afternoon, the restaurant, tucked into a shopping center off Agoura Road in Westlake Village, was bustling, with both indoor and outdoor seating. We chose indoors — mostly because a view of the parking lot couldn’t beat the open, bright interior decked in white and sleek wood patterns.

Order from the counter and you’ll be greeted by a wall-length menu. Everything from breakfast to lunch is offered, and though breakfast tacos sounded good (potatoes, black and red beans, spinach, zucchini and squash topped with a tofu scramble on corn tortillas with red salsa and avocado, $8.95), we swooned at the “awesome entrees” category.

The JOi Enchiladas ($13.95) were a no-brainer. Stuffed with sweet potatoes, peppers, spinach, corn, black beans, coconut, cinnamon and cilantro, and topped with a homemade enchilada sauce, avocado cream and pine nuts, the enchiladas were a unique, savory treat. The sauce had enough heat to tackle the cornucopia of fillings, but not too much to overpower the subtle avocado cream. Served with a blend of rice and beans, the portions were deceptively small, as the entree was more than enough for a hungry customer looking to be full but not stuffed.

The same can be said for the “Rad Thai” ($10.95), a vegan take on the most famous of all Thai dishes, pad Thai. Instead of rice noodles, the dish is served on a bed of zucchini noodles —often referred to as “zoodles” just for the hell of it. The dish is served with JOi’s pad Thai peanut sauce, hemp seeds, pickled veggies, broccoli, red cabbage, basil, cilantro, so-called “probiotic” kraut and sprouts. I ordered mine raw (meaning, none of the

JOi Ball, chocolate coating a crispy peanut butter center

JOi Ball, chocolate coating a crispy peanut butter center

ingredients were cooked) and selected the option to add grilled tofu (an extra $2.95).

Of course, it can’t compare to the Pad Thai from your local Thai spot, which isn’t a bad thing. Instead of the heavy, sauce-drenched noodles (which, admittedly, I love), the zucchini iteration was a lime-laden pleasantry, the kind of thing you’d imagine eating in a temple while on a three-day retreat: fresh, light and, most of all, tasty. The kraut brought out the acidity of the sauce, the peanuts added an extra crunch to the “zoodles,” which were fresh and flavorful.

Paired with the cafe’s house horchata and a Clover juice ($8.50), of which I chose “The Clover” blend of kale, cucumber, celery, spinach, pear, cilantro, mint and lime, made for a perfectly portioned, healthy lunch. To the right of the order counter is a juice and coffee bar, offering all manner of fresh-pressed juices and specialty drinks as well.

Finally, we had to indulge in a JOi Ball ($3.95). The treat, about the size of a golf ball, was described to me as being like a peanut butter cup but vegan and gluten-free. The basic description doesn’t do it justice; the chocolate-coated crispy peanut butter center made me wonder where these particular balls have been all my life.

As a part-time vegan myself (living with an actual vegan), I’ve heard every excuse in the book in regard to eating less meat. “I’ve got to have my steak!” said one Texas relative; “but … bacon!” is another popular rebuttal. Folks, I’m here to say, as a former “gotta have my bacon” Texan: The jig is up. No longer can vegans be accused of having a lesser culinary experience. As evidence, I present to you JOi Cafe.