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Source: Vegetarian Cuisine with a Psychedelic Flair 

Wednesday, May 11 2011
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As he set down my Cosmic Brain Trip ($7) — an elixir served in a cocktail glass with a swizzle straw and a lot of ice — the owner of Source, a new vegetarian restaurant in Design Gulch, crooned, "Buckle up!"

The sweet, lightly effervescent mixture — made with jun, a rarefied variant on kombucha — had a quirky bitterness that presumably came from its secret ingredient, "mood power." I sipped the drink with my cluck and artichoke sandwich and french fries, warning my boyfriend that he would have to drive home if I embarked on Mr. Toad's Wild High. Those of you who didn't flood your bodies with chemicals in your 20s might end up on the far end of the next galaxy; my cosmic brain trip consisted of feeling fuzzy for half an hour before returning to the earthly plane.

Source, which is in the half-vacant boundary lands between SOMA and Potrero Hill, defines itself as a "multidimensional dining experience," a restaurant that incorporates music, art, and good vibrations. More critically, it's all vegetarian and mostly vegan, which automatically makes half the people I know prick up their ears.

Andrew and Mitchell Fox's 2-month-old restaurant turns out, indeed, to be a multidimensional dining experience. One dimension is a pleasant vegetarian diner, a good spot for lunch in a half-empty corner of the city. The other dimension appeals to people who like their water ionized and "energized," their air filtered of every possible contaminant, their light tinted therapeutically, and their soundtrack dominated by Sade and Sanskrit chants. There's no section in the restaurant critic manual about evaluating the energization levels of water, so I'll leave that dimension to the customers who appreciate it and stick to the sandwiches and salads, which are mostly fine, and the entrées, which are mostly not.

Source is decorated somewhat like a corporate cafeteria, with plain wood tables, metal chairs, and two projectors with psychedelic visuals turning the back corner of the room into rave territory. There's a roofed patio with heat lamps and canvas walls that can be rolled down when the wind picks up. Mitchell runs the open kitchen, which takes up a big chunk of the space, while Andrew shifts from the cash register to roving the room, checking in on customers. At both lunch and dinner, the room is rarely more and rarely less than half full, and it's hard to tell which of the crowd are nearby tech workers and which are vegetarians from other neighborhoods who've traveled east to check the place out. If San Francisco were one large high school, those two groups would be eating lunch in the same corner of the cafeteria.

Despite the fact that customers order at the counter and pay before finding a table, it might be advisable to sit down and study the menu. The veg folks I brought started reading the list and found themselves paralyzed by choice, and everyone took a few minutes to decipher the terms — "cluck" means fake chicken, "bow wow" means a Field Roast soy-based sausage — before making any decisions. (Although they're not charged with taking orders, the servers who bring water and silverware readily give translation assistance and recommendations.)

Fitting the casual room, the best of Source's food is all in the realms of Americana — simple dishes with familiar flavors. The burger, for instance, served in a pita with a side of fries, is an intriguing one. Bleeding beet juice, the soft patty is made of black beans, wild rice, soy protein, and vegetables. It has a smoky, appealing heft to the flavor that asserts itself no matter whether it's topped with mushrooms, onions, and swiss or avocado and "oink bits" (both $8.95). Salads are solid, too: A Caesar salad ($9.95, or served as a side with any sandwich for $2 extra) comes dressed in a garlicky groundnut dressing with crispy fake parmesan strips; a heap of pickled beet chunks tossed with baby spinach, groundnuts, and goat cheese ($10.95) is well balanced between sweet and acidic.

The sandwiches are served on glossy, crisp-crusted rolls baked in-house and, like many of the dishes on the menu, based on the same portfolio of good-quality, prefab fake meats. Given the mild flavors of the fake meat and the size of the rolls, whether a sandwich succeeded or failed depended on the potency of the toppings. A cluck and artichoke sandwich ($8.95) didn't have enough goat cheese and roasted garlic to do the job; the cluck club ($8.95), which I enjoyed twice as much, overflowed with sweetly caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, and facon bits. And while I didn't attempt to trip out on any other elixirs, the housemade ginger beer ($3.25) had a fresh, sharp buzz that was easy enough to ride. (There's no beer or wine on the menu.)

Most of my excursions outside the comfort-food zone ended in a rout. There were burnt-tasting dosas filled with paradoxically underseasoned and chile-spiked vegetables ($9.95); a simultaneously gloopy and gritty truffled macaroni and cheese ($13.95) drenched in truffle oil; and a strange version of dan dan noodles ($11.95) — a mound of soba covered in undercooked vegetables, tofu, and a sweet, ineffectual ginger-sesame-almond sauce.

Back to the easy stuff. Namely, to the pizzas, which are baked in a gas-fired brick oven molded into the shape of a Chinese dragon's head. Rounded-edged rectangles with a high, puffy lip, the pizzas emerge from the dragon's maw mottled and crisped by the flames, with a cap of creamy, lightly tart mozzarella made by Mitchell himself. The smashed potato pie ($10.95) was topped with mushy potatoes blended with three cheeses and roasted garlic — the mushiness was off-putting at first, but the flavors kept me eating — and the cluck scampi ($13.95) with big chunks of fake meat, roasted peppers, and fresh basil was solidly constructed.

As someone who works in the neighborhood, I'd be more likely to return for lunch if the owners edited the giant menu down to the dishes they do best. Source's customers may benefit from the energized water, but what they're really buying is a sandwich with a side of fries. The tangible dimensions are the ones Source's success will depend on.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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