Healthful food can be delicious and nutritious, too.
That’s the philosophy of vegan chef Mat Bardroff and his sister, Jenna, who’ve opened Vegan Cafe Jax in St. Nicholas.
The cafe is a collaboration between the brother and sister and a Jacksonville family practice physician Rene Pulido, who is an advocate of natural plant-based medicine, according to the restaurant’s website.
Describing it as “a tasteful eatery,” the Bardroffs hosted a soft opening of the cafe Monday. The restaurant’s grand opening is Tuesday.
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“It’s been going fantastic. Everybody is loving the food … It’s been very positive and encouraging. Everybody seems very happy,” Jenna Bardroff, cafe manager, told the Times-Union at the end of their first day on Monday.
Located at 2624 Atlantic Blvd., the cafe joins the ranks of Jacksonville’s relatively few all-vegan restaurants, such as Murray Hillbilly, Sweet Theory Baking Co., Grenville Kitchen and KraVegan food truck.
“Our mission is to provide really healthy amazing food at an affordable cost since it can be difficult to find some vegan options in restaurants that typically are affordable,” she said, noting they want to be accessible to everyone.
Most meals are priced around $9 and include a side dish, Jenna Bardroff said.
Ethics, health concerns prompt vegan lifestyle
Mat Bardroff specializes in vegan cuisine as well as other health-conscious food.
A longtime vegan, he previously served as fine dining chef for the Ritz Carlton. His culinary career also includes working in quick food, country clubs and fine dining restaurants that focused on animal-based menus.
“It was really bothering him to work in an environment that was serving a lot of primarily animal proteins. He did it for his job and loved cooking and loved the science and art of cooking, but it was really uncomfortable for him to have to cook food that he personally didn’t want to eat,” his sister said.
Ultimately, Mat Bardroff decided to pursue his longtime dream — “to establish a dining experience where customers can feel confident that everything on the menu will be of their body’s best interest, as well as have a positive impact on the planet and all of its inhabitants.”
He wanted to use his fine-dining chef skills to create the familiar and traditional flavors that people love with healthful ingredients, she said.
All of the cafe’s food is 100 percent vegan. The Bardroffs work to ensure the produce is from local farmers and that their coffee and teas are ethically sourced.
“We aim to source primarily organic foods and we strive to make our meals healthy so that your body will thank you for dining with us,” Mat Bardroff says on the restaurant’s website.
Jenna Bardroff has been vegan for 14 years — initially for ethical purposes “to do the least harm to people, animals and the planet.” She wanted to minimize her impact on the environment.
She has Lyme disease, and two years ago she grappled with chronic pain and had difficulty walking from the initial stages of arthritis. That led her to research the reported health benefits of veganism and a vegan lifestyle.
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“I adopted a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle, which means eating primarily non-processed foods and eating foods as it should be in its whole form,” she said.
Two weeks after changing her diet, she said her pain and other symptoms completely disappeared.
“What motivates me today is sharing the health benefits with people,” she said. “To show that by adopting a healthy way of life we can improve our lives in so many ways for our own health. And then by doing so, we’re actually benefitting others in the process.”
The lifestyle change led her to achieve a longtime dream.
“I actually hiked the Appalachian Trail last year. Something I never thought I’d be able to do,” she said.
A look at Vegan Cafe Jax’s plant-based menu
Topping the lunch and dinner menu are sandwiches, wraps, burgers, and bowls.
Among the sandwiches is a mushroom Reuben — Mat Bardroff’s favorite sandwich — made with marinated mushrooms, raw sauerkraut, melted cashew cheese and horseradish tomato dressing on rye bread.
Other favorites include a Southwest grilled cheese with black bean puree, jack cheese and tomato chipotle aioli, a smoked jackfruit barbecue sandwich and a black bean burger.
Available as a bowl or a wrap is the popular Rainbow Quinoa. It features chilled tri-color quinoa, red cabbage, green peppers, carrots, cucumbers, pickled cranberries, celery, spiced walnuts, fresh herb cashew cheese spinach and green goddess dressing, she said.
The mac and cheese is a creamy cheese sauce, heirloom tomatoes and pickled veggies.
Among the soups are black bean, minestrone and a soup of the day. Featured side dishes are chilled marinated lentils, cucumber salad and sesame slaw.
Avocado toast made with avocado puree, pico de gallo, pickled onions and fresh herbs leads off the breakfast menu. It’s available all day, made with fresh bread, Jenna Bardroff said.
Desserts are a rotating selection of pies such as maple-glazed banana sweet potato pie, as well as a variety of cookies, cakes and cupcakes.
Among the favorites are maple-glazed banana sweet potato pie and Cranberry Almond Bread Pudding with whipped banana and pistachio crumbles.
She said people also can start the day with breakfast offerings such as waffles — different varieties made fresh daily — or a tofu scramble sandwich featuring marinated tofu, tomatoes and arugula,
In addition, there is a rotating selection of smoothies, juices, kombucha, freshly brewed teas and coffee, Jenna Bardroff said.
The restaurant uses a self-ordering system, allowing customers to place their own orders, which are usually prepared and ready for pick up in about five minutes. Online orders are also accepted.
The cafe is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and is closed Friday through Sunday. Breakfast is offered from 9 to 11 a.m., and lunch service begins at 10 a.m. Jenna Bardroff said the restaurant expects to extend its hours in the future.