The Taste of Integrity: Karma Road
by Ilyse Simon and photographs by Amber S. Clark,
February 25, 2008
Courtesy of Chronogram Magazine
The FedEx man sits at the counter eating a tofu scramble burrito dressed with vegan walnut pesto for the first stop of his day. He's a three-time-a-day regular who comes in for an assortment of spicy, minty, or invigorating organic teas, a hearty lunch, late night snack, or smoothie for the road. Owners, partners, and cooks, Jenn and Seth chat with him and know his taste preferences intimately. (Unlike me, he doesn't like roasted red peppers on his salad.) Karma Road is an informal hangout spot, but [its owners] are food purists. A vegan cafe, Karma Road is built on the pillars of fresh, organic, and local foods from the plant kingdom. It has a small, well-stocked deli case that calls out to vegetarians with recognizable ingredients like beans, tempeh, and whole grains. From organic mango, banana, and ginger smoothies, spicy soy cheese breakfast burritos, to homemade veggie burgers, the menu covers breakfast through dinner and all the snacks in between.
From the kitchens of the Natural Gourmet Cookery School to the galleys of Angelica Kitchen in Manhattan and a natural food cafe on Long Island, these chefs have cooked their way up to New Paltz, setting up shop in a light-filled space on Main Street across from the Water Street Market last February. [Karma Road's] passion is serving good, clean food in an environmentally sustainable way. "It's important for people to make a statement that they are choosing a meal without any poison in it," Seth says. There are no genetically modified organisms, no pesticide laden grapes, and no irradiated spices on the menu. "Ninety-eight percent of everything in the store is organic," Seth says. "It makes for greater overhead, but we can't put something in someone else's body that we wouldn't put in our own bodies." Karma Road prides itself on sourcing high quality ingredients that are organic and local when possible. Seth says, "In the winter we source from organic vendors, but in May local produce starts coming in - with peppers, string beans, and kale. During the summer, our organic tomatoes are picked that morning and we use them that night. People can't believe our kale salad is not cooked because it's so tender. It's picked that morning. Local cucumbers, apples, and lettuces are picked that morning and burst into your mouth. The fruit in our fruit is organic and just tastes better."
On a recent trip to the tropics, I sampled a coconut smoothie made with a young coconut minutes off the tree. With machete in hand, the "barista" whacked open the coconut, mixed the juice with some fresh papaya, and voila! It was the taste of perfection. The young coconut smoothie at Karma Road was instant transport back to the sunshine and beaches of the tropics. Made with young organic coconut water, organic coconut meat, agave nectar, and vanilla, this nutty, milky, somehow chocolaty drink (though no chocolate is in it) jumped into one of my top 10 all time taste sensations. At $5.99, it's well worth the splurge and has etched Karma Road onto my foodie map. I hear I'm not alone. "College students habitually stand at the counter counting out their last coins for a smoothie fix," Seth says. Karma Road did win the 2007 Hudson Valley Magazine award for best smoothie.
A great thing about the menu at Karma Road is that you can sample most foods before you commit. My mother, for example, is apprehensive about unfamiliar foods. She tasted a few "unknowns" and decided to stick with familiar ingredients. With an inborn fear of mayonnaise, she sat down to a fat avocado, carrot, and sprout sandwich with tahini dressing ($5.99). Once assured that the rich looking sauce was not mayo, she devoured the whole thing and has kept a Karma Road business card by her bed in her "files-for-the-future."
A well-stocked deli case offers rotating items such as baked tofu, BBQ tempeh stew, brown rice pasta with vegan walnut basil/parsley pesto, and an assortment of curries, pilafs, beans, and grains priced per pound. A plate piled full of a smattering of dishes runs from $6 to $10. The locally grown butternut squash, spinach, and pea curry is a vibrant-looking mixture. Not spicy, it is well paired with the sharp parsley taste in the nutty quinoa pilaf. A twist on a Chinese classic, the sweet and sour tempeh with its soft cubes of tempeh is coated in a more sweet than sour sauce, made with brown rice syrup, mustard, apple juice, and a bit of molasses.
Though it's a stretch to call it pizza, the moist quinoa and rice "pizza" -more like a grain casserole, actually - is made with oregano-spiced tomato sauce, some garlicky greens, and a smattering of soy cheese, for $3.99 a square. The chunky tofu salad is nutty and crunchy with organic celery, organic almonds, and mellowed with a velvety vegan "mayonnaise." Nestled between two whole- grain slices of bread with veggies, it's my ideal comfort food lunch. Crisp alfalfa sprouts came alongside-with sweet roasted red peppers on top dressed with a mild, lemony tahini dressing. The organic red peppers are marinated in herbed olive oil with a sweet bite from a bit of apple cider vinegar. The garlic mashed potatoes are thick and chunky with a strong but not overpowering garlic flavor. BBQ tempeh here is sweetened with molasses and was an authentic reminder of the tastes of summer without being cloyingly sweet. A Karma Reuben with roasted tempeh, zippy sauerkraut, and vegan Russian dressing for $5.99 - or topped with avocado, melted soy cheese, or loaded with the grain and bean of the day for $8.99 - is a deal for a happy and healthy meal.
There's neither feeling of deprivation nor a lack of dessert at Karma Road. All the sweets are made without wheat, white sugar, or dairy, yet there's chocolate in almost every one. The coffee blondie is made with spelt flour and studded with organic chocolate chips, melding the blondie's robust coffee flavor and dense, moist consistency ($3). The crispy oat chocolate chip cookie hand dipped in organic chocolate surprised me with a hint of cinnamon ($1.99). Or there's a chocolate-in-my-peanut butter soy smoothie thick enough to eat with a spoon ($4.89). The chocolate chip banana bread made with spelt flour is moist, fruity, and stocked with tons of chocolate ($3.99).
What foodies, farmers, and restaurateurs know is that every decision has an environmental impact. Reducing erosion, preservation of ground water, and energy conservation are not on the menu, but each bite at Karma Road has that effect - just like a factory farmed burger and pesticide sprayed side salad contributes to erosion, pollution of ground water, and global warming. It is a political act to refuse to purchase and prepare genetically engineered foods, factory farmed meats, and pesticide-laden vegetables. Using organic foods grown with sustainable methods may be more expensive for the bottom line, but treats the earth with a gentle hand.
Karma Road's philosophy means that there are no basics like egg salad or tuna sandwiches. It means that a piece of organic chocolate chip banana bread is $3.99. It also means that customers don't have to worry if there's genetically modified soy in their scramble and that vegans can eat without concern if there's dairy in their veggie burger. And, I know that the celery in my tofu salad and the spinach in my curry is organic - important because both are in the top 10 for pesticide-containing foods. (Some research suggests that organic produce has a lower water content than its nonorganic counterpart. This results in a higher concentration of nutrients and stronger flavors which make the organically grown carrot taste better than a one grown with petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.)
Conscientiousness extends past the pantry and kitchen and out to the front door. For example, the savory baked tofu, in-house roasted red pepper, and vegan pesto sandwich is served with a recycled paper napkin. The napkin sits atop a handsome table made locally from recycled wood. From the low - VOC paint on the walls to the energy efficient light bulbs, this pair has gone to an extreme to make their business concur with their politics.
Whether on your way to the mountains, to school, or just for a stroll through town, Karma Road is a healthy rest stop on the way. Great for a quick snack or fast and nutritious lunch, it's a cafe where you can feel good about spending your dollars knowing that what you purchase is good for your body and the better for the planet. Karma Road is also available for vegetarian catering, specializing in vegan wedding and birthday cakes. It is open daily from 8am to 8pm. Keep your eyes peeled for Karma Road cooking classes, bakery items available online, and monthly guest speakers. (845) 255-1099