Feeding all her 'Native Friends'

COSTA MESA — Tanya Petrovna's love of cooking dates to childhood, when she helped her mother cook vegetables from other countries and traveled with her parents through Europe, sampling different flavors along the way.

Today as the founder and chef of Native Foods Cafe, a popular chain of vegan restaurants with locations in Costa Mesa, Aliso Viejo, Tustin and other cities, she draws on those familial experiences and uses international seasonings in her mostly organic fare.

She's also glad to see that cooking without animal products is becoming mainstream, largely because of increased customer demand, which was not the case when she founded Native Foods in Palm Springs in 1994.

"Customers are changing now, as they are becoming more health-conscious," Petrovna said. "I do eat vegetarian dishes at other restaurants to support their efforts."

Although Petrovna had a lot of cooking experience from childhood, learning how to cook for a lot of people at once was not without its mistakes.

"When I poured hot soup in the blender, it exploded!" Petrovna said of an early mishap. "It took a very long time to clean the mess."

But she translated that mess into success, and now there are Native Foods Café franchises in Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland and Chicago.

Costa Mesa's Native Foods, located in a white cylindrical building at The Camp, is hard to miss. Upon entering, there are wooden booths along the walls situated in a circle. There are windows all around the restaurant, making for easy people-watching at the trendy shopping center along Bristol Street.

In the center of the restaurant, servers take orders at the bar-style counter. Diners come from all walks of life — business, the arts, colleges. Lunchtime and Friday-night happy hours are said to be the busiest times.

"I like the food here very much," said Rolf Wicklund, of Costa Mesa, a vegetarian since 1991. "I've been coming here for a long time — for 14 years."

He was eating Chicago dip au jus.

The burger was made with seitan, a form of vegetable protein extracted from wheat.

"Our most popular items are portabello sausage burger, ensalada Azteca, chicken run burger and twister wrap," said restaurant manager Jennifer Stucky.

Dishes are made from a variety of ingredients, such as coconut milk and spicy dishes, and some are so savory that diners forget they are low-fat and vegan.

"I change the menu four times a year to keep the menu interesting," Petrovna said. "Sometimes I think of a name and create ingredients to go with it, like what happened to the scorpion burger, and sometimes it's backwards."

Health-conscious adults are on board, but will kids eat there? There's mac and cheese and some other standbys, each in vegan interpretations.

"The kids' menu has fake chicken nuggets that come with brown rice and dipping veggies, so that kids will have a more balanced diet, which is different from other restaurants that often just offer fries with the chicken," Petrovna said.

*Adulthood without meat

The biggest challenge Petrovna faces as a chef is the long hours, as she works seven days a week traveling, creating new recipes and doing cooking demos. She swims, bikes, does yoga and cares for a cactus garden to stay in shape and release stress.

She also rescues feral cats and homeless dogs.

It's all part of the meat-free lifestyle. Petrovna, 51, went vegetarian at 18 and turned vegan 15 years ago. On a recent and busy Friday night, wearing tan khakis, a pair of flip flops and a loose white top, she is easygoing and interacts with the customers, knowing many by name.

"I have written two cookbooks and am working on my third," Petrovna said. "I want customers to be able to eat vegetarian foods at home that they like here."

At Native Foods at the squared wooden tables are little cards with recipes on them — which change every month.

Petrovna puts lists of community events for customers to attend on the cards as well.

She loves to pass on the recipes to her customers, whom she calls "Native Friends."

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