Be honest. When you think of vegans or vegetarians, you might think of frail, sickly, animal lovers who eat nothing but tofu and dandelions. The idea of changing your entire diet can be an intimidating thing, that’s understandable, but you should know: shut up! You don’t have to worry about giving up great tasting food and becoming a malnourished hippie if you want to explore going meatless. And if you don’t believe me, just head over to Oasis Vegetarian Café.
Located in Riverside off Pierce Street in the La Sierra Natural Foods market, the independently run and family owned Oasis Café has been in business for over 16 years, serving up 100 percent meat-free food; everything from classics like burgers and corn dogs to flavorful Latin dishes like tamales and authentic pupusas. But what sets Oasis apart, aside from being named the best vegetarian restaurant in the I.E., is their passion for satisfying customers with mindful, healthy options.
Brothers Pablo and Branko Fernandez took over the café a year ago and have gradually been adding more healthful options to their menu, including bringing in more raw vegan and gluten free options, eliminating their soda fountain in the coming weeks and replacing it with their own handmade natural sparkling juice drinks and using lots of locally grown, fresh, organic produce from Unity Farms in Riverside. The latter of which go into creating weekly specials, which when I went down there, included a nutrient dense salad with locally grown bell peppers, cucumbers, spinach, kale, avocado, and their own vegan dressing.
One new aspect Pablo said he was most excited about is “a pretty different and new concept of a juice bar” to be introduced within the next few weeks, with more superfood based juices, all of which are going to be raw and organic.
He explained that while animal welfare and environmental concerns are huge to Oasis (they’ve phased out usage of Styrofoam products, are working on getting reusable plates to replace paper ones, composting whenever they can, and sourcing as much local produce as possible), their primary, lifelong focus has been on health and wellness.
“When I think about what’s the most important thing you can start with, I always think about personal health, because if you’re not personally healthy, it’s going to be really hard to really affect change outside of yourself. You can find people creating massive change out there in the world that might not have any type of personal health philosophy, but if we’re going to talk about food—we’re a café. For me, that’s where it’s going to start.”
And let’s talk about the food.
The café’s handmade options, like their Vegan Steak Burger, named the best veggie burger in the Inland Empire and served with lettuce, tomato, onion and a housemade vegan tofu dressing on an organic sprouted whole grain bun, are by far their best sellers. (P.S. You can even buy their steak by the pound, and you should.) I brought along a meat-eating friend of mine to the cafe, where Pablo and Branko treated us to the famous burgers (I had mine in wrap form with spinach, pico de gallo and avocado), and after tasting his burger, questioning whether or not it was really beef and seeing the $4.99 price tag for the burger, he observed:
“That’s another misconception I think people have, is how pricy [vegan food] is. I go to Jack in the Box, and I spend $8 or $9, get a burger and it makes me sick. So I won’t go to Jack in the Box for six months, until I get a craving for it. Then I’ll go, spend $9 and it’s just ridiculously expensive.”
“Yeah, and it’s mass produced food product. It’s not even real food,” said Pablo.
For me, growing up I was never a huge breakfast person, but after eggs, bacon and cheese became off limits for me, I craved it. Oasis hooks me with by far the best breakfast I’ve had since with their massive Steak and “Eggs” Burrito: their house marinated steak, cooked up with seasoned scrambled tofu, onions and tomatoes, with a little soy cheese added on by yours truly, all in a warm wheat tortilla. Some of their breakfast specials include vegan pancakes and hot oats with quinoa, fruit, nuts and agave nectar.
Vegan Latin American food may sound like an oxymoron, but Oasis is doing it right. Their tamales are Central South-American style, with corn masa, steak, tomato sauce, olives, red bell peppers, wrapped up in plantain leaves. Their vegan pupusas are made from masa, filled with beans and soy cheese, cooked over the grill, served with sauerkraut and a special tomato sauce. Carnitas, chicken potato taquitos, burritos and chicken & steak bowls are also available.
Choices like Portabella mushroom sandwiches with grilled onions, Grilled eggplant wraps with hummus, seasonal fruit salads with flax seeds and soy yogurt, fresh vegetable juice, vegan milkshakes, fresh young coconut water, vegan tiramisu and cupcakes make Oasis much more than the standard snack bar it used to be before the family took control 16 years ago. And they’re constantly experimenting with new things out (see: vegan donuts, stuffed bell peppers, Guatemalan tostadas, spicy Thai coconut soup, vegan pizza etc.), so head over and see what creative meals they’re cooking up on any given day.
Their exceptional food is one of the reasons customers keep coming back, but the other part of the equation is their passion for doing good in the community and beyond—and it shows. The cafe is located right across from La Sierra University, a Seventh Day Adventist college, and caters to the large vegetarian population there. However, Pablo estimates that more than 60 percent of their customers come from outside the community. “We have a lot more customers coming in from all over the I.E. We’ve had our biggest increase in business in the last six months.” He attributes a lot of this to social media, like their Yelp and Facebook pages (check out for daily specials and events like Free BBQs and vegan bake-offs), but also to the fact that the general public is becoming more aware of how beneficial a healthful, meat-free diet can be.
And being from Guatemala, the brothers are very dedicated to bringing health and wellness to Riverside’s Latino community especially; the cafe will be apart of a free Spanish language health conference for the Hispanic community of Riverside, Pablo is working on an interactive online resource for users to gather education and information about health and wellness, as well as an “I.E. hit list information packet” that includes information about the importance of health and well being, and where you can achieve this locally throughout the Inland Empire at places like farmers markets, natural food stores, community centers, community and family events.
Their commitment to their community shines through in the customer service too. “I would just say that if people want a different vibe and energy from most places, just come here and check us out, because they’ll get it for sure. And if they come twice, they’ll probably start being called by first name. We’re more about having a connectedness, because if we’re going to spend this much time here, that’s worth a lot more for us,” Pablo says.
“Our guiding principle, as corny as it sounds, honestly, is just love, man. We just love our people. We’re in here sometimes 12 hours a day, and our team, we love each other in here. And when we have customers come, I tell them, ‘We really have to show them we love them.’ Not in just the food that we make, but when we receive people, it’s always open arms. That’s really important to us.”