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Native Foods Cafe to open Tuesday with vegan bites, kale for the lunch crowd

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Chicago-based fast-casual restaurant Native Foods Cafe will open Tuesday near the busy intersection of 18th and M streets NW, an ideal corner for hawking food to Washington's lunch crowds.

One catch: Native Foods, a brightly colored, 116-seat space designed not unlike most fast-casual restaurants, serves no meat, cheese or other animal products. Consider it the Panera of vegan restaurants: a quick little place to eat such dishes as french fries fried in rice-bran oil, crispy soy-and-wheat-based "chicken" club sandwiches, Greek "gyro" bowls with seitan on quinoa. (See the whole menu here.)

The vegan restaurant, which started in Palm Springs, Calif., in 1994 and began rapidly expanding in 2011 to its current 22 locations, has had its sights set on the District and Northern Virginia, where it plans to open eight locations in the next year, says Andrea McGinty, the chain's co-owner and CMO. "The people who come in our restaurants, 95 percent are not vegan or vegetarian," McGinty says. "They just like good food, and I like to look at it like, we have good food that just happens to be vegan."

After next week's opening in the Golden Triangle neighborhood, a location in Penn Quarter (701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) will follow in just a few weeks.

Over many years, the District has seen its share of vegetarian and vegan restaurants come and go; some might remember the ill-fated Vegetate, which was to bring fine dining to Shaw. Recently, Soul Vegetarian, Java Green and Cafe Green have closed. Among those still thriving are Loving Hut in Falls Church, Sticky Fingers (which will soon open a second location) and Woodlands Vegan Bistro.

Increasingly, however, conventional restaurants have been adapting to serve vegan and vegetarian customers, and doing so with great success. Busboys and Poets offers vegan items; Meridian Pint, Brookland Pint and Smoke & Barrel each have vegan choices; Estadio and Doi Moi have vegetarian/vegan menus to help diners navigate the choices; and plenty of fast-casuals, including ShopHouse and &pizza offer options for those who eschew meat and dairy.

Native Foods differs in that many of its dishes are ideal for those looking to eat a little healthier: It takes its inspiration from various global cuisines, offering such dishes as a Saigon Roll (with herbs, tofu and brown rice in a wheat wrapper) and an ensalada azteca with avocado, jicama, quinoa and a mango-lime vinaigrette. A sesame kale macro bowl comes with steamed kale and tempeh atop brown rice, while the Heart Beet sandwich features "beet steaks" atop rye. If it sounds a bit like what you ate at the local co-op during your vegetarian phase in college, it kind of is, but served in a pretty package: Eat in-house and the restaurant will deliver your food on real china with silverware. For photos of the food, keep reading below.

Native Foods Cafe

1150 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-296-1674. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.