On the building that used to be the Tower Café, on Van Ness south of McKinley, signs went up a month or so ago.
Indigo. Au Lac Vegetarian Café.
I’ve been by once a week or so, on my rounds from Yoshi Now! and the thrift and antique stores in the Tower, hoping to see some sign of activity. Keith and Jill of Camerad, who had also spotted the place, had demanded a review from me as soon as possible.
Tonight there were cars in the parking lot. I lucked into Au Lac/Indigo on its first day open.
From the outside, I had thought that perhaps the space was to be subdivided, but once I was inside, I got it – Au Lac is the restaurant portion and Indigo is the juice/coffee deal. (I think I’m getting that right; I didn’t get a drink on this occasion.)
I chatted with Matt Bishop about the place’s first day: “We’ve had people coming through all day, it’s just great,” while Trung Tran whipped me up some Tofu Delight (special tofu, asparagus, onion, w/rice, $5.95). Matt, who is a native Fresnan with plenty of beverage service experience, has a vision for the space to also come to host live music eventually. They’ve got a good nook for it on one end of the room – I thought they might be having an opening party tonight based on the look of the setup when I came in.
Trung told me he’s been a vegetarian for 14 years, and that he apprenticed at a number of vegetarian restaurants across the country before putting Au Lac together, as culinary schools, he said, are no help to vegetarian chefs (and having considered culinary school myself, I had to agree). He ticked off cities he’d worked in, “San Francisco, Philly, Arizona, L.A….” and noted that what he was trying to do with the Au Lac menu, which has 14 items, was draw the best of what he learned from each of the places he spent time.
My asparagus was good – crisply fresh, nicely cut in long bias pieces and perfectly stir-fried, with a tangle of translucent onions and long chunks of tofu and ham-style tofu slightly crisped in places all in a light, slightly chicken-like sauce. It was exactly what you’d hope for at a fast-vegetarian place: fresh, well-executed, uncomplicated, satisfying. (Did I mention it was $5.95?)
Trung promises he has more up his sleeve, too – he asked me if I’d ever had pho, and I told him sadly that I’ve never been able to, as I’ve never come across any that was vegetarian.
“When the weather turns colder,” he said, “not this time of year. I have the best recipe for vegetarian pho.”
Now, it’s not fair to do a restaurant review based on one dish and one visit. I’ll have to go back, but of course now my cover is blown, as I got chatting with the very personable Matt and grilled Trung on his restaurant background. So all of you Fresnans, vegetarian or not – they’re open for lunch from 11:30 to 2:30 and dinner from 5 to 8, and they’re right between the Tower and City College. Head over there tout-suite and review it yourself! They had a great first day, they said – and we need places like this to have great days – I hope Fresno can give them plenty more.