Openings and Closings

J's Garden Cafe in Pembroke Pines: Healthy Caribbean and Vegan Eats

In Hollywood, California, there's an explosive trend happening in the culinary world, one that is taking over tables everywhere from the high-end restaurants in West LA to the lunch spots in Beverly Hills. It's not the rise of smoked meats or bite-sized servings; it's the raging popularity of plant-based diets. Yes, vegans and vegetarians are changing the way Southern Californians are dining out. 

Here, in Hollywood, Florida, the trend hasn't latched on quite so feverishly -- but it's started. Specifically, with a small restaurant known as J's Garden Cafe. The restaurant's concept represents the hottest approach when it comes to pleasing vegetable-loving folks: an omnivore's restaurant that courts meat-eaters, vegans and vegetarians alike by preparing meaty and meatless dishes that surpass the bland, boring dishes so many people associate with the vegetable-focused fare.

The owners -- Marie Junis and her daughter Thamye -- don't consider themselves in the restaurant business. A former healthcare professional, Marie has spent much of her career teaching others about the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle. And when Thamye, a former Pembroke Pines middle school teacher, decided to become vegan, it opened her eyes to a new business venture.

"How do I make a meal [for my daughter] without meat, or bake a cake without eggs, butter and milk? I had no idea how I was going to make anything without all the ingredients I was used to cooking with," Marie told Clean Plate Charlie. "So I began experimenting."

Marie's homemade recipes and dishes were so good, Thamye and her mother decided to open their own restaurant in Pembroke Pines just west of Hollywood, a neighborhood spot that would help others make it easy to incorporate clean, healthy foods into their diet without compromising on taste or quality. The mother-daughter team opened the restaurant in July, and today their small shop on the west Hollywood Blvd. is frequented by a wide range of patrons that include local college students, professors and business professionals. 

"The challenge for vegans is finding a place that can accommodate their needs, while also serving the larger non-vegan eaters. We wanted a concept that was 2-in-1, something that would give both vegans and vegetarians a place to go, as well as people who eat animal products," Thamye told Clean Plate Charlie. "A meeting place that offered healthy options no matter what your diet may be."

The menu is split for those who like it clean, and those who like to eat their animals -- half vegan and half-standard Caribbean fare, many representative of Junis' Haitian heritage. The real draw here is the vegan menu, as many of the recipes incorporate elements of Haitian cooking that result in exotic flavors and seasoning. Everything on the menu is cooked to order, and most dishes are baked, grilled or steamed. Only a few traditional Haitian eats -- like fried plantains -- are fried in oil.

The J's "Green" pizza is one of Thamye's favorites, a blend of caramelized onions, sauteed bell peppers and mushrooms with a homemade basil pesto sauce and served on a whole wheat crust ($5.50). The menu includes starters, like the Nutty Green Beans, which blends almonds, pecans and hazelnuts with a lemon-garlic vinaigrette ($4.5). For larger portions, try the new veggie lasagna bowl, vegetables layered with vegan cheese and housemade pan-roasted tomatoes ($8). J's best seller is the citrus beet salad, slices of grapefruit and orange added for a "tangy" sweet, lightly seasoned with olive oil, sea salt, pepper and chopped basil ($4/$6).

There are also several soups offered daily, hearty picks like black bean coconut or seafood bouillon (served on the weekends). A vegan option thanks to plenty of fresh vegetables and herbs, the pumpkin soup is now a regular menu item, once served only on Sundays, as it is in Haiti. A traditional celebration dish, it was so popular with the regulars that Marie decided to go against tradition and serve it all week.

For the standard Caribbean menu, Marie has pulled from her Haitian roots to offer appetizers like her cod okra bits, small chunks of cod fish lightly pan-fried with malanga (an edible, tropical plant), parsley and a hint of heat from scotch bonnet peppers ($4). Pair it with the staple Creole djon djon rice, made with green peas and a mushroom-based sauce that turns the rice black as it infuses its flavors ($3).

For a take-home treat, the Junis' also offer several Haitian "condiments" in 16-ounce mason jars ($4 to $6). There's manba, a spicy peanut butter, or chiktay, smoked herring with scotch bonnet peppers, carrot, red onion, lemon juice and olive oil. The house favorite is the pikliz sauce, a spicy Creole cabbage slaw that is used to flavor everything from rice to sandwiches, said Marie. 

"Just because you are a vegan doesn't mean you don't like to go out do eat," said Thayme. "It just makes it a little harder to find a place you can have fun with."

To learn more about J's Garden Cafe visit their website and Facebook page, or call 954-893-9935.

Follow Clean Plate Charlie on Twitter  and Nicole Danna @SoFloNicole