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Ojai: Small Town, Big Vegan

by Matt Bell

Vegan paella, made with seasonal veggies, saffron rice and marinated artichoke hearts, from Azu, a popular tapas bar in town. 

Rolling down your windows is a must as you drive along the two-lane road toward the small town of Ojai, CA, about an hour and a half from Los Angeles. Located about 30 minutes inland from the surf-filled beaches of Ventura and set at the foot of the majestic Topatopa Mountains, the scent of orange blossoms that fills the air whisks you away to a state of rustic Zen.

Bereft of chain stores and oftentimes a cell phone signal, Ojai is an idyllic melting pot of artists, farmers and erstwhile urban dwellers who have created one of the most vibrant vegan-friendly culinary scenes outside of any big city. There are more vegan options per square mile in this 4.4-square-mile town of less than 8,000 people than in some big cities.

An appreciation of veganism has long been a part of Ojai, which was put on the map, culturally speaking, about 100 years ago when guru Krishnamurti set up his first school and world-famous foundation there. By the 1950s, Ojai had become a well-known haven for bohemians and peace-seekers—just the kinds of people drawn to the vegan lifestyle.

Some say a spiritual vortex is what has attracted so many mindful people here, but another likely draw is the fertile land. Farms in the surrounding area grow an unusually diverse assortment of produce like avocados, figs, olives, grapes, apples, walnuts, pomegranates, pears and passion fruit. Citrus grows particularly well—local Pixie tangerines are nationally renowned. The best place to get a cursory overview is at the local Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market (Sundays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.), which is a head-spinning kaleidoscope of gorgeous produce and vegan baked goods.

Like the farmers’ market, Ojai’s vegan scene is very homespun. The Farmer and the Cook is an organic, vegetarian and vegan Mexican cafe and market, whose owners, Steve Sprinkel and Olivia Chase, also farm and cook most of what you find on the menu. With easy prices, outside picnic tables and live music, it draws big crowds on the weekend. 

The mix of spiritual and creative types who have helped shape the Ojai persona has always made it an offbeat travel destination, but for locals, it has meant great vegan eats. “It is a small agricultural community and we’re all homebodies, so a lot of us grow and cook our own food,” says Elizabeth Haffner, owner of Azu, an upscale-casual tapas bar in town. When it comes to cooking with veggies, the conversation here is naturally elevated by the competition and coming together of minds, as witnessed by Azu’s wildly popular vegan paella made with artichoke hearts.

Vegan Mario, a vegan shop and cooking workshop just outside town, is another establishment pushing the boundaries. Mario and his copartner, wife Amanda Congdon (who discovered vegan cooking as a cure for a life-threatening heart condition) says they can vegan-ize almost any recipe. Just some of the things you’ll find on their menu (and can learn to prepare in a cooking class): chia pudding, pumpkin mylk, probiotic soda, raw cheezecake, pumpkin-seed ricotta cheeze and sourdough cinnamon rolls. 

Hip Vegan is a nod to classic on-the-go vegan fare with seven different types of wraps, and eight sandwiches and salads featuring anything from hummus to locally grown avocado . The area’s only luxury hotel, the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa  recently added four new vegan plates that focus on fresh local produce, like southern California sliced melon. Its spa treatments all feature OSEA, a Malibu-based, vegan and gluten-free skincare line

Ask anyone in Ojai who helped pioneer the town’s vegan scene and they’ll invariably lead you to Rainbow Bridge Natural Foods Market. It began as “Solar Wind” in the ‘70s, one of the early health-food stores. Today it is the town go-to market, which even employs its own vegan health-food grocery store manager, “whose task is to ever research healthier, better, more socially conscious products for our store,” says Albert Barossa, the deli manager. 

But it’s more than just a market, and a trip to the Rainbow Bridge deli might be one of your favorite Ojai food-related experiences. The menu changes daily, but look for the Vegan Curried Tofu Salad or the Gluten Free & Vegan Cashew Lasagna. Then take your fare across the street to Libbey Park and read a book, or toss it (gently) in your pack for lunch after hiking along the serene trails of nearby Los Padres National Forest.

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