I’m not vegan. I’m not vegetarian. But, one thing I’ve learned is that many restaurants that do specialize in vegan or vegetarian fare tend to go that extra mile to satisfy their customers’ cravings. It’s not all salads and carrot sticks – by far.
Successful vegetarian restaurants know that they are playing to an audience that has carnivorous cravings, too; so they’ve upped their game. Mouthwatering flavor and skilled preparation methods make fruits, vegetables, and grains the stars of these masterful culinary shows.
As I wandered through the newly revitalized downtown of Asbury Park on Cookman Avenue, I came across a delightful vegetarian café that knows how to serve up a hearty home-style meal – the Twisted Tree Café. It’s four blocks from the beach and every meal is under $9.
With a name like that you might expect a large tree, with gnarled branches, reaching toward the skies outside of its storefront – but no – that’s just their logo. Instead, there’s an array of colorful umbrellas casting a bit of shade on their sunny, pet-friendly outdoor seating, inviting you to try their baked tofu, naturally sweet smoothies, three bean chilis, lentil burger, and their famous ‘Twisted Quesadilla’ among an array of other appetizing offerings. And don’t worry – there’s plenty of comfortable and casual table and couch-side seating inside so you can cool off on very toasty summer days.
Owners Steve and Naomi Pagidas bought the Twisted Tree café from previous owners a few years ago. The two restaurateurs were formerly a part of corporate America and were becoming more geared towards doing something healthy.
“We wanted to show people that good food can taste good,” said Steve Pagidas about his inspiration to become a vegetarian restaurant owner in the renaissanced Asbury Park. “It’s not about being vegan or vegetarian.”
“My childhood memories kicked in,” he stated when he spoke of why he liked the idea of settling into Asbury Park. “Now I’m a part of trying to bring it [Asbury Park] back to its heyday. I remember playing skee ball and being on the merry-go-round as a kid. Something drew me here.”
Pagidas is not the first business owner in Asbury that I’ve spoken to who has also said that the business community and customers are very friendly here. They actually hang out together after hours!
“Asbury is so down-to-earth,” continued Pagidas. “Bruce Springsteen used the bathroom here once and people didn’t blink an eye,” he stated, to place emphasis on how casual and comfortable the atmosphere is. [Oh, and for the record, I can now say I visited the same bathroom and restaurant Bruce did, as well! Hah!]
I admit, until recently, I had passed up restaurants that advertised themselves as vegetarian. There was no way I wanted to give up my meat. (And I still don’t want to on a regular basis!) However, when I sat back and took a look at what I was already eating every day, and noted the foods I really enjoy, a good portion of my diet consisted of fruits, vegetables and grains. Why not learn how to enjoy them in ways I never imagined? Opening my mind to that concept, opened doors for me when it came to trying new foods, and is one of the reasons why I opened the door to Twisted Tree Café.
“People always get scared,” Pagidas said of most non-vegetarian patrons who are about to embark on their first tasting journey when they enter his café. “I always tell them, ‘Just taste it!’” He’s right! You really can’t pass judgment on something you haven’t tried.
Let’s talk about one of the café’s offerings that is very universal when it comes to adults, kids, and cuisine in general: cookies. “In a normal cookie you have butters and sugars. Ours don’t have them. That’s the difference in vegan. The flavor explodes. It’s not covered up with heavy stuff,” Pagidas explained.
Upon hearing that, you just know I had to try one of their big sellers – homemade ginger cookies. Honestly, he’s right. This was a softer, version of a ginger snap cookie, and larger than any commercial one you could purchase for sure. It was fresh tasting and the ginger didn’t sting your throat on the way down. It was pleasantly sweet but not going to send you into sugar shock. I was thinking at this point, I’ve got to taste more.
Before setting foot into Twisted Tree, I’ll be honest, all my experiences with tofu were bad ones. I had tried soaking it and seasoning it; stir frying it, and baking it. Nothing seemed to make me want to eat it – not even when I occasionally closed my eyes and ordered something with tofu in it off of a random restaurant menu. With that in mind, I wanted to put the Twisted Tree to the test – my test. I decided if they can make me like tofu – they’ve accomplished something worth writing about! I took a deep breath and looked the owner straight in the eye and followed up my order of a ‘Two To Mango’ smoothie (very ‘yum’ and refreshing on a summer day), with (drum roll please) - Baked Tofu.
Baked Tofu, the way Twisted Tree Café prepares it, is seasoned tofu on homemade oat and multigrain bread, with tomato, roasted red pepper and vegan pesto with a ginger-miso dressing. The bread, pesto, and dressing is all made fresh, in the restaurant. And, Pagidas shares a pet peeve of mine – being served a tomato that is not ripe; so you can rest assured that if you order anything with tomato in it here, it’s going to be bold, red, ripe and juicy – not like its estranged off-season pink, flavorless, mealy cousins you may find on menus elsewhere.
“We don’t own a microwave or a fryer. It starts from scratch and goes from there. We make our own dressing and pesto,” boasted Pagidas. I really like that idea! No fryer! No microwave! Fresh! Nothing is reheated. No preservatives necessary.
Still seeing I was skeptical about what I had just ordered, Pagidas reassured me, “All this food we are serving here is food you’ve grown up with. People have just added sauces and seasonings. We’ve just stripped that away.
My baked tofu arrived hot and toasty straight from the oven with a cold glass of unsweetened iced green tea on the side. A splash of blackberry sage flavoring is added to give it natural sweetness without the sugar in it – and I liked it a lot! Long story short, the baked tofu was even better than I could have imagined. The tofu was tender, and not dry. It doesn’t quite have the consistency of chicken, but the color reminded me of it. Generally I’m not a huge fan of roasted red peppers, but there was just the right amount of pesto on this sandwich to make it sing! The ginger-miso dressing gave each sink-your-teeth-into mouthful a burst of fresh zingy flavor; and the toasted bread made from scratch added a counterpunch of slight sweetness that balanced the bite.
Yes, I admit it – I like tofu. I never thought I’d see the day when I would say that. Thank you, Twisted Tree Café for showing me tofu done right!
“If you eat clean for a while your palette appreciates it. You taste things that you haven’t before,” explained Pagidas. I never needed convincing. I just nod my head in concurrence. If you point me to a food portion that didn’t come pre-packaged and processed, count me in!
If you’d like to stop in at Twisted Tree Café rather than dine in, you can select from a laundry list of all-vegan smoothies which contain no sweeteners, no yogurts, and deliver delight by combining oat milk, hazelnut milk, or juices. Ever have a PB&J smoothie? Well, you can get one here! They also serve up a soy-java smoothie, for that quick caffeinated fix which combines smoothie goodness with a shot of espresso in it.
Twisted Tree Café also serves cappuccinos, lattes, espressos, and Americanos, in addition to Tazo teas. Then you have their trademark ‘Twisted Cider’, which is a concoction of pear and apple juice with your choice of steamed milk, and topped with caramel and cinnamon. This is caffeine free.
Other menu highlights are their tofu meatballs, which were ranked in the top 5 in the nation by PETA; black-eyed pea gumbo with okra, chipotle and tofu; and the Twisted Quesadilla, which is so popular that people come in and request it even if it’s not on the daily specials menu. Imagine soy chicken, in house sundried tomato spread, your choice of cheese, roasted red pepper sauce, and onions, (avocado optional), all incorporated into an addictive quesadilla combination. (I’m trying this next time I’m there!)
There are many gluten free options, too. Almost all of their soups are gluten free, and they have gluten free wraps that don’t crumble. There’s a baked tofu wrap with roasted red peppers and hummus, and if you’re still not ready to turn over a vegetarian leaf, you can also order tuna and smoked salmon wraps and request regular dairy cheese, too. Pagidas notes, that those who usually go with tried and true tuna usually see what their friends are eating around them and get so intrigued, the next time they try something else that’s meat free!
They have nine or 10 muffin varieties, including banana-apple-cinnamon and banana-chocolate-chip, which are gluten free.
Don’t just take my word for it that this is a great place, though! Twisted Tree Café was voted the Best Healthy Eatery in Monmouth County, the Best Mom Hangout, the Best Soups & Smoothies by the readers of Monmouth Life & Health Magazine, and has also received awards for having the best Wi-Fi, best cookies, and the best place to bring your pets since they have outside seating, too! Recently, Chef Nathan Lyon (one of the final four on the second season of The Next Food Network Star) and host of “Good Food America” traced my footsteps and filmed an episode of his show at the Twisted Tree Café, too!
“We pride ourselves on the face that every plate comes back empty! It makes us feel good. We serve just the right portion to feed you and you don’t overpay for it,” commented Pagidas.
“This is what we love; so we offer what we love,” he continued. “The biggest thing is people coming in and saying, ‘I eat meat, but this is the best I’ve ever tasted.’ Hearing things like that are the best.”
Twisted Tree Café, located at 609 Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park, NJ is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11am – 7pm, with late nights til 9pm on Friday and Saturday. No reservations are required. Dine in, or take out. They do take advance orders for cakes, muffins, and cookies in quantity – just give them a call (732) 775-2633.
You can connect with them on Twitter @TwistedTreeCafe or drool over their pictures and posts on Facebook, too. Oh, and they’re closed for the season from Thanksgiving through mid-January, so take advantage of the warm weather indulgence now!