Finding the trifecta of food perfection (vegan, organic, and most importantly TASTY) can be difficult, especially on a college campus where fast food is the go-to lunch fare. Even most of the salads and vegetarian options are not very healthy. Luckily, last semester one of my students introduced me to the Good Karma Café, a bastion for vegans and starving students alike.
The Good Karma Café is hosted by The Office of Religious Life and the United University Church, and run by chef and Hindu Monk Sarvatma Das. Das is often at the ‘front lines’ serving students and staff and initiating witty banter. A long-time monk, cook, world traveler, writer, and artist, Das never fails to hit me with a sidelong comment that starts an impromptu conversation—about the mystery novel he’s working on, for example.
The Good Karma Café is Das’s brainchild, but was initiated at USC thanks to the Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, who saw the need for better vegan and vegetarian options to accommodate the Hindu and Jain communities on campus, as well as vegetarians more generally. All of the food is consecrated according to Vaishya Hindu tradition. Yet you’ll find just as many meat-eaters at vegetarians lining up at the Café because the food is so fresh and flavorful—and the setting is so enticing.
The Café serves up organic, all-you-can-eat vegan meals on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 12-2pm in a pleasant sunken courtyard next to the Unity University Church on 34th Street. You can eat at one of the many community tables outside amongst soothing fountains, flowers, and vines, or inside the adjacent mess hall. On Tuesdays, Das serves classic Indian fare called kitcheree—a thick rice and bean ‘stew’ filled with vegetables and lovely mild spices. On Wednesdays you can get your Italian on with a hefty dose of pasta (Das rotates between marinara and homemade pesto sauces).
Both meals are served with organic mixed greens topped with a home-made almond dressing that has such a strong following that Das now sells bags of it on-site and online. You also get a big scoop of Halava with every meal—a sweet, semolina based dessert that melts in your mouth. The flavor of halava changes each day, ranging from walnut-chocolate chip to vanilla hazelnut, cardamom raisin, and more. All are De-Lish.
For those who like to burn their taste buds out of existence, the Good Karma Café always has a sufficient supply of hot sauce on hand (I’m a major self-proclaimed spice wuss, so alas I cannot comment on the hot sauce), as well as a cooling drink—the flavor of which rotates like the halava. Some of the flavors I’ve seen include lemon tamarind tea, pineapple passion fruit, and lemongrass fennel.
An entire meal, including main course, salad, dessert, and drink, costs $10. Ten bucks may not sound cheap for a student meal, but the servings are generous, and the best part is that you are welcome to seconds (and thirds if you really want, though I imagine you might explode by that point!). Better yet, the servers are happy to fill any Tupperware containers you bring so you can take extra food to go as well. I usually have enough left overs to last me for at least one, if not two, extra meals.
If you happen to find yourself in or around the USC campus on a Tuesday or Wednesday around lunchtime, especially if your stomach is growling, do yourself a favor and hit up the Good Karma Café. Your belly (and maybe your karma) will thank you!
Good Karma Cafe, University of Southern California
Individual food reviews:
This rice dish is quite rich and filling. Definitely chock full of wonderful spices, beans (e.g. lentils and mung beans) and mixed vegetables (potatoes, zucchini, carrots). I am not sure how much oil or ghee (clarified butter) is used, but the Chef sources mainly organic ingredients and appears to take great care in making good quality, healthy meals. I usually can’t finish a full helping because the kitcheree is so hearty. Definitely satisfying, and tastes great mixed in with the salad served on the side. I imagine this is a gluten-free dish as well as rice is the only grain. If ghee is used, this dish is not fully vegan, only vegetarian.
Health: 4.5 out 5 stars (may have oil or ghee, but generally appears very healthy)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (the richness makes it hard to finish a whole serving)
I haven’t had the opportunity to try one of Chef Das’s marinara sauces yet, but the pesto is OUT OF THIS WORLD. Wholesome fresh basil and olive oil succulently coat organic pasta. The pasta was also cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of chewiness to firmness ratio–so delectable! Even though the pasta is filling, I could easily eat a whole serving because the pesto has such wonderful, tantalizing flavor. This is one of the best pesto sauces I have every tasted.
Health: 3.5 out of 5 (due to high oil content and high carb content of pasta)
Taste: 5 out of 5 (That’s right! This is a big flavor winner!)
Divya’s Almond Dressing
This is a remarkably creamy vegan dressing that is used on all the side salads served with the main meal. A small amount packs a whole lot of flavor, and seems to go with EVERYTHING (even the halava!), not just salad. The ingredients are simple: almonds, nutritional yeast, amino acids (a vegan sort of soy sauce type mix), oil, and water. But the ratios must be perfect, because the result is divine. You could make something similar at home (in fact, I just recently tried), but something about this version just can’t be topped.
Health: 4 out of 5 (high fat content, but its good fats from nuts, plus some oil, not sure what kind they use; all natural, no fillers)
Taste: 5 out of 5
Assorted flavors. I am never disappointed with the halava, regardless of what flavor is being served. The walnut chocolate was one of the best ever, but I’m biased as a complete chocoholic. The dessert is sweet but not sickeningly so (as some Indian desserts can be), and makes a nice end to a wonderful meal. Not appropriate for gluten-intolerant folks because this dish is made with semolina, a type of wheat. Also may contain ghee, so not vegan (though Das sometimes has an alternative vegan option as well).
Health: 3 out of 5 (Das doesn’t use refined sweeteners, but you still are getting some sugar and wheat with this dish)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5