By Anneli Rufus
How simple do you like your simplicity?
At Potala Organic Cafe, simplicity is a feature, not a bug. From that knoll of plain brown rice on your plate to the fact that only tea, water, and wine are served here, Potala's simplicity is long in the making: a few decades if you calculate the career of the Tibetan-born chef-owner who prefers to be known by just one name, Palden, and his fellow chef, Tenzin. The men trade duties at Potala, each planning and preparing meals on separate days. Palden first learned to cook from his mother, as a child, then trained with experts after immigrating to America. Tenzin spent many years helming the kitchen at North Oakland's macrobiotic mecca Shangri-La—formerly Manzanita, formerly Organic Cafe. But Potala's simplicity is two millennia in the making, if you consider the spiritual roots spurring the vegan, 100 percent organic fare served under the steady gaze of Buddha statues in this humble, spotless space whose high standards and meditative silence make it feel like part home away from home, part shrine.
Simplicity permeates Potala's eye-contact-says-more-than-words service. Simplicity permeates its understated, sandy-toned decor. The logical conclusion to this paragraph would be: Simplicity manifests most magnificently in Potala's food. But ha. This paragraph doesn't end that way.
That's because Potala's food looks simple, but isn't.
Sure, it amounts mainly to steamed seasonal produce, boiled beans, and whole grains. But, prepared largely according to the low-fat, plant-based macrobiotic regimen that was passionately championed in this country by Japanese lecturers Michio and Aveline Kushi in the 1950s, Potala's fare is not as basic as it looks. Immaculate sourcing, ingenious recipe-creation (including a few nonmacrobiotic novelties such as potatoes and peppers), and ancient philosophy inform every drink and dish served here—from cinnabar-red split-pea/vegetable purée to onion-flecked chickpeas to Patianna Sauvignon Blanc to velvety, agave-sweetened chocolate-hazelnut or Key lime pie.
Palden doesn't quite see it that way. Opting for simplicity—no surprise there—he calls what he cooks here four days a week and what Tenzin cooks on the other three days "just healthy food."
"Everyone wants to eat healthy food, right?" Tenzin asks.
Well, no. They don't. And that might be the biggest dining trend of the last 25 years.
Yes: A significant sector of the population seeks "healthy food." Granted, "healthy" means different things to different subsectors. While vegan pastries would disgust Paleo folks, and Paleo-style plantain chips would repel raw-foodists, all types of "healthy food" have ascended to unprecedentedly artisanal heights.
Simultaneously, these are high times for what cardiologists might call the world's unhealthiest foods. Try finding a trendy restaurant, especially if it's a hipster hub, that doesn't serve pork belly, head cheese, and/or duckfat-fried frites—with butter, bacon, caramel, and cream in and on everything.
So just as this era is devastatingly divisive politically, economically, and racially, it's culinarily, divisive too. "Healthy eaters" and head-cheesers segregate themselves with indignant glee, inhabiting totally separate restaurants.
Hence, Potala—named after the Dalai Lama's traditional palace—where, whatever your spiritual stance, if you've foregone flesh, you'll feel at home. Maybe, given its obvious and unpretentious devotion, you'll feel even more at home here than in your actual home.
Simplicity makes ordering easy. Help yourself to unlimited hot mugs of low-caffeine kukicha twig tea. At the counter—which is the exquisite wooden bar left behind by this space's previous occupant, Thai restaurant Ruen Pair—order off a dry-erase-board menu whose offerings change daily and are relatively minimal: a few sweets, a few vegan beers and wines, one type of tea, and a prix-fixe single-plate combo-meal, starting with soup and served in the huge hungry-sherpa size or the still-very-filling "medium." A diehards-only option is the "simple meal," a prix-fixe combo plate prepared without oil or any seasonings.
And any of the dishes comprising the prix-fixe meals can be ordered à la carte. That's it.
Awaiting your order, noting the presence on your table (in the atrium-esque semicircular anteroom or the square main room) of not just a salt shaker but also additional shakers containing cayenne and toasted, salted sesame seeds, you start noticing something odd about the ambience: something increasingly attractive that you struggle at first to define.
It's silence. That's another basic human right that is absent from hipster hubs. Remember all those times when you sat shouting across trendy-restaurant tables not in anger but in order simply to be heard? Hipster hubs make themselves as loud as possible, on purpose.
No music plays at Potala. As if by pre-arrangment, diners speak in feather-soft tones if at all. Servers smile with a certain reverence, as if these plump, delicately savory great northern beans they place before you possess honor and/or souls.
Soups are so heartily flavorful here as to be small meals unto themselves—although, granted, they're served without crackers or bread. A scrumptious jade-hued pea soup dotted with tiny, crunchy starbursts of green onion invites you to engage in the macrobiotic tradition of chewing every mouthful, even of soup, not 12 or 20 but 100 times before swallowing.
Because the menu changes daily, it's pot luck. Your combo-meal might include wild brown rice. And/or steamed collard greens with earthy brown mushroom/beet sauce. And/or feel-the-protein black-eyed peas with carrot strips.
The brown-rice/mustard dressing on your baby-greens salad might be sweet and spunky and downright seductive.
Cut into bite-sized chunks and stewed with zucchini and kabocha in a savory golden broth, daikon might suddenly be transformed, elevated miles above its usual disagreeable self.
And, as often happens in silence, everything slides into splendidly surreal slo-mo. In which flavors and fragrances bloom exponentially because they're no longer competing for your attention with anything else. A forkful of tooth-tender steamed collard greens feels and tastes like OMG steamed collard greens, teased into artisanry with a terracotta-vivid puréed leek/carrot/mushroom sauce whose pirouette-across-the-palate subtlety is anything but simple. House-baked cookies—oatmeal-raisin, chocolate-chip, and crumbly, fruity, frilly, suprisingly fancy almond/apricot, almond/strawberry, almond/blueberry "gems"—look like pretty stained-glass windows and taste like lingering hugs.
Invigorated and soothed all at once, you suddenly wonder why you ever watch TV or use your phone or do any other such things during meals, because eating is sensual. Eating is ritual. And sitting here in silence taught you this.
Which makes you realize something else about simplicity: that slathering butter and bacon onto anything is so crowd-pleasingly easy as to be almost cheating. Compare that to taking bare nd undersung ingredients—your collard green, your bean—and keeping them bare or nearly so but rendering them irresistible: That's not simple, really. That's not simple at all.
1045 San Pablo Ave.,
Open daily 11am-3pm & 5:30-9pm.
Beer and wine.
Accepts credit cards.
Simplicity permeates at Potala where garbanzo soup accompanies wild-grain rice, split peas, baked yam, kabocha, turnip, collard greens, and a mixed salad. Photo by Pat Mazzera.