State College has been blessed with more vegan options since early February of 2012 when the Original Italian Pizza on 906 West College Ave. dedicated a section of its kitchen and menu to 100% vegan food preparation. Many improvements have been made over the past 3 months, with the menu is still changing and expanding. It is a sincere wish on my part that it will continue to improve and be a wonderful place to dine for many years to come.
A woman from our region reviewed the atmosphere of aardvark kafé as “homey” but other than the fact employees eat and surf the internet in the dining area, I am not quite understanding that description. Unless she was referring to the dying poinsettias that were on a cart in a corner from the first time I visited or the large screen tv, but I am thinking not. The interior has been simplified somewhat over the past months and it gives a clean feel to a typical OIP restaurant with a counter. The only thing that has ever been displayed on the television on my visits was titles of the music being played – it is a monster of a tv for such a small place and seems totally out of place.
No customer Wifi seems to be had at aardvark kafé and upon my first visit the only way to access the vegan menu was online. Facebook is the main way the owner/chef communicates the menu changes, price changes, or when he decides that he wants to close early. This is closer to fine for those who are techno savvy and it certainly was no good to me the time that aardvark kafé closed while I was on the bus. I was meeting Jim there for lunch but our second visit to the restaurant was a complete washout.
The third time found the food improved from the overly salty Teriyaki Basil Mushroom Pocket we shared the first time. The Crab Cake with red pepper “aoli” (no garlic in it) was no longer on the menu but we were there for the Chili. Just like the first time we visited, we were told it would take about 20 minutes for the menu items we chose. The Chili came out well seasoned, a nice temperature and decent portions. Twenty minutes is a bit of a long wait when you are 2 of only 3 customers and the other was an employee and/or had already been served.
The prices have always been higher than what we normally pay for a vegan only cafe or diner style menu in the Pennsyltucky region. To compare, Eden – a Vegan Café (100% vegan cafe) has a similar Hummus Platter for $5.75 (aardvark’s is $8.00) and a portion of Mock Buffalo Bites for $4.25 (aardvark’s is $7.00). Once on Facebook, aardvark was trying to get a feel for how customers would respond to a brunch for $18.00 a person. I compared an almost identical brunch at Broad Street Market in Harrisburg for 1/3 the price, $6.00.
It is only here that you will be able to read about my brunch price comparison post since the owner/chef deleted it from their Facebook wall, as they are more than welcome to do. By bringing it up on this review, I want customers (current and potential) to know how the establishment takes solicited information and criticism. Other examples on Yelp, Urban Spoon, Happy Cow, when a dissatisfied customer posted their review, it elicited knee jerk defensive responses (now changed to syrupy sweetness on Urban Spoon) and a plea on Facebook to rally supporters to post reviews to balance the negative. Keep all of this paragraph in mind if and when reading any comments that might get posted at the bottom of this candid and comprehensive review.
I think it is only fair to mention that, especially in this case, it is not just myself whose opinions are weighing in on this specific review. Ultimately I take the credit and the blame but this allows their honest opinion to be added to my review with only myself taking the fallout. Along with myself, this review represents the experiences of 6 separate diners. I will eventually excerpt this review for the above mentioned restaurant review Web pages. Do note, I was the one who added aardvark kafé to Urban Spoon.In the case of this review, it has been a total of merely 3 months since the opening. The enthusiasm of the owner/chef can be contagious but also overwhelming. He has been known to announce a special for $20.00 but after a only a couple of hours increase the price to $30.00 and encourage diners who can’t afford it to split it. That would be unfortunate for those who read the first price, jumped into their car to come across the Seven Mountains and were in transit to take advantage of it when the price changed. It is poor business practice to announce prices of specials before it has all been settled. Since the time the “kafé” has opened, a few of my secret diners (not all vegan) and I have tried 9 separate regular menu items. Most of the food is quite good in spite of having awkward names that don’t describe the dish. At least menu items like Jayyid Harvest’s Simple Heat or Humana Humana Hummus at Brew’s n Bytes give you more of a clue to what the dish with be compared to aardvark’s names like The Merrick or Mick Mick Mick.
If judged on food alone aardvark kafé would be pretty darn good. The Almost Raw Veggie Sandwich was good except for the teeth numbing cold roasted red peppers, and the marinara on the Sweetball Sandwich was perfectly balanced and thick enough that it doesn’t ruin the signature OIP bread that my omnivorous sister loves. The Buffalo Tofu Bites our neighbors shared with us were just hot enough to enjoy and the cubes of tofu were a good size unlike the sorry ones served at Bullfrog Brewery. Regrettably, no foods seem to be locally sourced.
The Cheese Pizza is sadly nothing special. One friend of mine called it “roller rink pizza.” It may be because the chef admits to not tasting anything that isn’t vegan, relying upon the recipes from the prior ownership and other employees that work at there. To quote the infamous chef Gordon Ramsay, “A head chef who doesn’t taste his food is asking for trouble. It’s the only way to maintain control and keep up standards.”
Our neighbors got the Hand Cut Sweet Potato Fries for their kiddo and I counted on observing their experience to help me determine the “family friendliness” of aardvark kafé. I noticed the 1 1/2 year old kept trying to eat them but putting them back onto his plate. Those fries could be a perfect finger food but as it turns out, peels left on those sweet potato fries–not delicious. It might have worked if they had a crispier exterior like the tofu bites. The fries, not being offered a high chair upon sitting down and wrongly relying of hydrating their kiddo on a little cup of tap water reflects that the place could seriously do better for the under 2 crowd. Hipster vegans are now growing their own kids and it is a demographic that should be catered to in a restaurant like this.
To clarify about the tap water, it is another atypical thing to know before going. There is no free water, only water to be purchased in bottles. Patrons are welcome to bring their own neoprene or bike type bottles (or even BYOB after 5pm). I feel badly for people who haven’t researched this information before visiting and have to make the decision whether or not to purchase an Aquafina(!!) bottle of water. I have actually chosen to go without drinking anything until I got home the one time I forgot.
I don’t rate a place on the food alone; service, accessibility and overall vegetarian dining experience all matter. I think it is really important for vegetarian diners to know this restaurant is NOT 100% vegan. When I read “Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant” at the head of their Facebook page it gave me the impression that EVERYTHING in the restaurant is at least vegetarian. This is not the case. Separate vegan food prep station, menu and food – yes but the restaurant serves meat and the label is misleading.
To add to the confusion, there is no storefront sign directing you to find aardvark kafé from the road. You have to know that it is inside the Original Italian Pizza and the parking lot is easy to miss. I suggest when heading from town, heading West on W. College Ave., that you be ready to turn left as soon as the traffic becomes 2 way. This is across from where the old O.W. Houtz used to be (now leveled). On the entry door is an 8 1/2 x 11″ paper sign on the door assuring that you are at the correct place.
That same paper also directs you to order at the counter. If the staff is busy and is unable to greet you, it is easy to miss. Prior to the sign on the door, one of the few employees was the only person in the dining room as we stood in confusion upon our first visit… he was eating and didn’t alert anyone that we were waiting. Customers are asked to order at the counter, yet the staff bring your food to your table. They don’t readily direct you to forks and knives from the self-service station yet there are no trays or anything that tells you to bus your table. I have seen orders taken at table too if that helps make things even less understandable. It’s hard to learn the drill when things aren’t consistent.
At the top of the list alphabetically but nowhere near that quality wise; this is a restaurant I selfishly want to succeed. Unfortunately I have, as of September 2012, had some really lousy food at this place as well as more inconsistent advertising and food prep practices. I have dropped the rating to less than an average dining experience and can not recommend it to vegetarians nor vegans.
Over-sized portions of gross, undercooked food with missing advertised ingredients (crunchy raw onions, anemic slices of tomato and no vegan mozzarella in the 20″ long Veggie Calzone that was so soggy that the bottom fell off when I tried to cut a human sized portion) is not what I want to spend $20 on. That includes the tip to the non-vegan cook. When I was introduced to Less he was not a vegan and, as far as I could see, he did not use the vegan work station. So much for the advertised “everything on this menu is 100% vegan – prepared by a vegan – at 100% vegan workstations” (Oct. 2012 the verbage was changed to “created by a vegan”).
I have the photos and even more details if anyone wants to contact me privately, PennsyltuckVeggie@hotmail.com. I am tired of wasting time even typing about this place and yet need to update Happy Cow, UrbanSpoon and Yelp. I can’t see ever wanting to go back. If I want an OIP style veggie sub, I’ll go to the Brother’s Pizza & Pasta near Luna2 and tell them to hold the cheese.