All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
A little more than 22 years ago, Praveen Sachdev sat and sipped chai with friend Kumar Pallana in a little house off Oak Lawn Avenue. Sachdev was used to popping over for tea and rifling through his friend’s books. Sometime into his cup, Pallana confessed that he wanted to leave the city and move to Hollywood. Pallana said he envisioned a brighter career for himself, and he later popped up on the big screen as Mr. Pagoda in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Before that, he was Mr. LittleJeans in Rushmore and, before that, bore his own name in Bottle Rocket. As his career took off, Pallana told Sachdev to take over the little house and cafe on Oak Lawn.
So, on March 11, just over two decades ago, a casual conversation over a cup of chai led to the most unpretentious, unconcerned vegetarian restaurant in Dallas. Pallana died in 2013 at the age of 94 in Oakland, where he lived with his son. His former Oak Lawn home lives on as Cosmic Cafe, serving radiant food in an equally brilliant setting.
“I’ve been guru-hopping all my life,” says Sachdev, Cosmic's owner since the beginning. He's leaning backward in his chair in a black T-shirt. Sachdev speaks softly, his voice as calming as the music quietly playing in the dining room. He's always been interested in owning a restaurant and makes it sound easy: “I had a dream, yeah. I love to experiment.”
Sachdev has taught meditation for years. Upstairs, where Pallana used to sleep, there’s a meditation room. Downstairs is Cosmic's matchbox kitchen, a tiny room that sizzles under a row of plastic tubs of Indian spices. The feel of the restaurant, splashed with painterly colors and sculptures and a patio breeze that’ll make you feel like you’re a few miles from an ocean, is sincere, enjoyable. This is not an insufferably trendy cafe that treats vegetables like they were discovered by mining artisans in 2005. It doesn't treat vegetables like precious artifacts. It’s just relaxing, comforting vegetarian food, served quickly and humbly.
“I’m not a vegetarian. If someone offers some meat with love, I’ll take it," Sachdev says. "That’s kept me apart from all these sprouting restaurants.”
The Tomato Dreams soup, which is vegan, is a bright flash of light. It’s pure tomatoes. It’s a silky liquid, lip-smacking with garlic and the buzzy mind-heat of fresh ginger, warming with basil and pepper. Served with some toasty naan points, it’s a winter star. I sit with a bowl, taking a deep breath between bites and feeling like there’s no stress left in the world (although there’s plenty).
Looking around, it’s easy to wonder if Cosmic Cafe has felt the pressure of change over two decades. Sachdev laughs at the question.
“Oh completely. I miss the hippies. This was more like a coffee shop atmosphere,” he says, lamenting the gentrification of the food culture. “My idea is not to make healthy vegetarian. It’s tasty vegetarian. Vegetarian doesn’t mean you’re more spiritual. The Dalai Lama eats meat.”
Later, Cosmic Cafe’s Mandala Pizza shows up. It’s a humble dish — something you'd whip up for yourself at home and devour — of toasted naan loaded to the brim with a fresh, jammy tomato sauce, sautéed onions, spinach, and cubes of zucchini and mushrooms. The whole pizza’s neatly topped with mozzarella cheese. Nearby, a customer orders spinach enchiladas, marveling at the fusion of the dish, and asks his server, “Is that cheese ... vegan?”
She quickly responds, “No, no,” as if the real meaning is “don’t panic.”
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The Mandala Pizza won’t change any lives, but as a meal that costs less than $10 and feels as healthful as it sounds without suffering on flavor, it’s a fantastic lunch. Sometimes, that’s all food needs to be.
“I don’t understand the imagery of meat that’s not a meat,” Sachdev says, basically subtweeting the vegan brisket that was trending here late in 2016.
“That’s like deception to the eye. Call a vegetable a vegetable," he says. "Why would you want to do that?”
Cosmic Cafe, 2912 Oak Lawn Ave.