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If you’re heading north on the 41 past Fresno’s city limits, it won’t be long until you’ll notice open space unfolding all around you. Climbing higher into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, you’ll soon find yourself enveloped by nature, trees, and fresh air. Less than an hour’s drive from downtown Fresno, you’ll find Oakhurst (once known as Fresno Flats), a census-designated place of around three thousand people, nestled just below the southern end of Yosemite and, as of just a few months ago, the home to Love Café, Madera County’s first vegan restaurant.
A family-run labor of love
Since 2018 began, Oakhurst locals and visitors have been greeted by an eye-catching mural featuring a curvy red-haired pin-up girl posing invitingly and wearing a ranger outfit. She’s seated in a forest with distant Yosemite dwarfed behind her, and a blue bird perched on her knees. Her name is Jane the Love Ranger, and she’s the concept of Love Café’s owner, Tricia Louise. The larger-than-life figure seems to mirror the larger-than-life personality and fierce determination of Tricia Louise herself, just as it embodies the whimsical spirit and commitment to Mother Nature that pervades Love Café.
A family-run labor of love, the café bills itself as a place “where hearty comfort food meets compassion.” And indeed, mandalas on the ceiling and decorative Buddhas scattered throughout the interior of the restaurant suggest a hipster ashram. But don’t expect a sermon. “We don’t want to be preachy; that’s the thing, ‘cause I could get that way,” Tricia Louise explains. “I could. Trust me. There’s times I can get a little preachy, but before we opened, I told my husband, ‘I don’t want this to be a place for people to feel uncomfortable because we get all preachy and feel “better than” or make them feel “less than.” ‘ I don’t want that. I want them to feel safe to come in here and enjoy a vegan meal and get out without anybody making ‘em feel shitty about themselves.”
The intention to create a friendly and welcoming place has paid off for Tricia and her husband Kent Tracy, who supervised the overhaul of the space—a structure dating back to the Fresno Flats days—including the exquisite tiling in the separate building that houses the restaurant’s elegant bathrooms. A big, cozy couch sits at the heart of the dining room, and patrons enjoy posing for pictures on it beneath the Love Café sign. The vibe of the place feels more like you’re visiting your cool aunt and uncle than going out to a restaurant. And that’s likely due to the fact that this is such a personal endeavor for Tricia and Kent, as well as their son Cosmo and his girlfriend, who are both vegan and also work at the café.
While Cosmo had promised his mom he’d help out for two months, he’s been here for five now. Things don’t always go as planned, it turns out. After the much-ballyhooed chef who Tricia had recruited ended up lasting only three days from the opening, “I was slammed—so busy—from the day I opened that I almost would have lost my cookies because I didn’t have anybody cooking,” Tricia confesses. To complicate matters, for the first two weeks, Kent was stuck in bed with “that crazy flu that was going around last winter,” so it was up to Cosmo and his girlfriend to pitch in and save the day, working 13-hour shifts with Tricia. “He cooked breakfast and lunch every day,” Tricia says with evident pride and wonderment in her son. Now Kent “makes breakfast every morning, and then goes and does his tree service every afternoon. So he’s really stepped up, where he wasn’t planning to do that either.” All of this has brought a tight-knit family even closer together.
Because the whole family is vegan, Tricia explains, “it’s really hard to eat out, and we’re very social people; we like to eat out.” So creating the restaurant of their dreams was the goal. Hoping to fuse her passion for animal welfare with her knack for wowing non-vegan dinner guests with her vegan cooking, Tricia visualized a place that could be a platform for subtly educating and informing people about veganism and environmental issues while above all delighting them with the food, letting it speak for itself and do all the persuading on its own merit. “This is the restaurant I’d want to find,” she says.
Healthy, vegan food that’s fun
Love Café regular Bryce Tyson is certainly happy to have found it. He’s a local vegan who comes in for a meal just about every day. He says he likes the fact that no animals were harmed in the making of the food and that he feels comfortable being around people who “get” his veganism. On occasion when he comes in, “I see other vegans that I know from California. All of a sudden they’ll pop in from the Bay Area or L.A. or something.” He also enjoys seeing people who are not vegan come in for the first time, try the food, and be surprised by how good it tastes. He likes that despite being healthy and vegan, it’s still “fun food,” so you can have your burger and fries, “and you can still have it vegan.” It’s comfort food that feels super indulgent, not at all the penitential experience that some expect vegan eating to be.
While the menu references ingredients like chicken, cheese, milk, bacon, sausage, and burgers, all of these are actually plant-based alternatives to the animal-derived products they’re named for. “There are no animal products or by-products in any of our food,” the menu proudly proclaims. Open for breakfast and lunch, Love Café’s breakfast offerings include a veggie scramble, a loaded breakfast burrito, banana berry pancakes, fruit smoothies, an acai bowl, and biscuits and gravy. The lunchtime menu includes The Garden (a veggie-laden sandwich), a Tempeh Rueben, a BBQ-chick’n hoagie, chicken curry, a classic BLT, meatball marinara (on a Dutch-crust roll), the Bridge Burger (featuring “bacon” and “cheddar” that you’ll swear are the real thing), Thai Peanut Fries (wedge-cut fries smothered in cole slaw and peanut sauce), a soup of the day, and chili with cornbread. In addition to refreshing kombucha on tap, beverages include locally roasted coffee, fresh loose teas, fresh-squeezed juices, and smoothies. And yes, there are fresh-baked desserts as well.
One of the first trash-free restaurants in California
Love Café’s compassion extends further than only the animal kingdom. Its earth-friendly practices reflect Tricia and Kent’s deep concern for the planet, making Love Café a rare breed among restaurants. All of the menu’s ingredients are organic, meaning none of it is genetically modified or sprayed with pesticides; bees haven’t been poisoned, nor have soil, water, or air been contaminated by the production of the food.
In addition, Tricia proudly announces, “We’re the first restaurant in Madera and one of the first in California that are trash-free.” Kent elaborates, “We try to have zero waste here at Love Café. We compost all the food that’s scraped off of the plates, and all of our paper towels are all unbleached natural materials, so it’s all compostable—the coffee, coffee filters, obviously—and it goes back to the actual garden that’s growing our food,” Kern Family Farm in North Fork, “a large, really cool organic farm. So when they bring us our veggies, they take the compost buckets away, and then they bring empty compost buckets, and the cycle continues.” The café’s takeaway containers are earth-friendly as well, and even the straws are biodegradable, made of corn.
Tricia Louise came by her earth consciousness honestly, having been raised by a “true Mendocino hippie mama” on a commercial pot farm in the early ‘80s. “She was very much into the environment and into gardening and into good food. And so I just had that in me, and it’s gone from there. And I always just keep reading and learning and figuring what’s best.”
On the farm where she grew up, animals were raised for food. “I never participated in fast food or anything,” Tricia says. “And so when I moved away from home and started eating out at restaurants, I would get sick…I couldn’t understand what was going on, and my dad would say, ‘You’re a female; you’re not supposed to eat all those hormones’ ” that are used in industrial animal agriculture.
Plant-based diet and a return to health
Sixteen years ago, Tricia fell ill with kidney problems so severe that doctors told her she needed a transplant. “I was getting really sick. I was having problems with my vision, I was just declining,” she explains. She went online, searching for natural help for her kidneys, ultimately finding a company that sold a 30-day supply of a tincture with purported kidney benefits. “It tasted like horse poop and mushrooms…it was terrible,” she recalls. The instructions that came along with the medicine explained that its greatest efficacy would come from taking it without meat or dairy. Wanting to harness the maximum effect possible from the tincture, she gave up meat and dairy. After the first month, her vision had returned to 20/20, and her energy levels were increasing, so she followed that up with a second round, continuing to stay off meat and dairy. “At the end of those 30 days, I went in for my ultrasound, and then I did blood work after that, and they ordered another set of blood work, because they could not believe that my kidney had completely healed. And so since then I have not eaten meat or dairy,” she says. She’s also had no problems with arthritis or sleep apnea, two conditions doctors had told her to anticipate due to heredity. Today, she says, “I don’t have any conditions, and I don’t take any medications.”
As she’s become more passionate about veganism and the environment over the years, Tricia’s wanted to do something to help spread the word. She didn’t think being an activist on the street would be the best role for her, as she might “just freak out and lose my mind if somebody said something awful and hateful.” Instead, she’s chosen to win hearts and minds through delighting people’s bellies. “So this is a really safe ground for me, where I can feed people and just make people happy,” she explains. “If someone comes here to eat and they’re vegan, they’re just gonna have fun, and they’re gonna love it. But it’s also for the people that aren’t vegan, so they can get a taste of what an option is, and then they leave here and they tell people, ‘I ate this, and it wasn’t meat, but it was delicious.’ And they leave with a little bit of knowledge,” which creates a “ripple” of awareness in the world.
She notes that people have different reasons for being vegan, and for coming into Love Café. Some do it for the animals; some do it for their own health; some do it for the planet. Some do it for all of these reasons. To Tricia, they’re all good reasons.
“And then we have our big meat eaters that come in and…they come back, and they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t eat dinner tonight. This is so weird. I’ve never missed a dinner. I was so full from lunch and satisfied, I didn’t eat dinner.’ And then they keep coming back.” She likes allowing folks to reach their own conclusions. “It seems to be working,” she concludes.
Where to find Love Café
Love Café is located at 39993 CA-41, Oakhurst, CA 93644. It’s open for breakfast and lunch, Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m.–3 p.m. You can reach Love Café by phone at (559) 642-LOVE, like them on Facebook here, or drop them a line via email at email@example.com.
Postscript: For followers of the Magic Fresno series, please be advised there’s a great metaphysical shop full of crystals and gemstones just up the highway from Love Café. It’s called Artifacts, and it’s located at 40671 Hwy 41 suite E , 93644. You can call (559) 658-6300 for more information, or check out their Facebook page.