The customer at Wilco Farm Store in Petaluma could be heard from two aisles away, insisting that a cashier try the new, neighboring Magdelena’s Savories & Sweets on her lunch break.
“It’s vegetarian and vegan,” she said with great enthusiasm. “But you wouldn’t think so; it tastes so good. And the cinnamon roll, it’s so huge and delicious.”
I already had made the drive to the shopping center at Old Redwood Highway and McDowell Boulevard specifically to visit the cafe — first stopping in at the new Wilco for some barn supplies — but this made things more interesting. After all, if you can’t trust animal feed store clientele for plant-based dining recommendations, who can you trust? If you’ve ever heard livestock owners scrutinize hay quality down to the individual leaf and stem, you know what I mean.
Magdelena’s owner Greta Canton has been analyzing her food this critically for 36 years, after becoming a vegetarian at age 16.
“Back in 1986, it was very much a hippie thing,” she said. “I remember arguing with my mother over whether chicken broth was technically meat or not. She undoubtedly thought it was a vegetarian item.”
Canton attended Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, drawn to its Tibetan Buddhist philosophies. She read the book “A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things,” by Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel about the world consumption of chicken.
“Something that ordinary — the amount we eat, the space it takes to produce,” she said. “What we do to genetically alter them to maximize the type of breast cut we want, how many chicken bones will be left on the planet well into the future. Not to mention the human connection of what it does to workers in this supply chain, and the pay gap to get that chicken cheap.”
Finding like-minded people made Magdelena’s a reality. Canton had spent the last decade with Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewing Company, where she became friends with two of the original investors, Norman and Deirdre Cram. After Heineken International bought Lagunitas in 2017, the Crams let the dust settle, then offered Canton a loan from their profits.
“It was a form of stewardship,” Canton said. “They believe in a living wage and a pay-it-forward philosophy. Their thought is that their loan to me will spread out in positive measure to the community at large in the form of jobs and purchases from local vendors.”
Cozy space, focaccia pizzas
The current economy has meant a slow start for the cafe that opened just a few weeks ago, in a compact space that used to be the bare-bones Brasil BBQ. A sign on the door reads, “Thanks for being amazing and understanding,” as Canton works through a lack of staff and some supply challenges.
So Magdelena’s offers a limited menu for now. Decor is a work in progress, though it’s already cozy, with mint-colored sponge paint walls, bistro tables and upholstered chairs, live plants and farmhouse artwork.
But even on that limited menu, don’t miss the focaccia pizzas. A cross between artisan and home cooking, the comfort food pie is baked in sheet pans for a pillowy, chewy crust crafted from Petaluma’s organic Central Milling flour. It’s a hearty meal — the individual pizza is 6 inches by 9 inches, medium is 9 by 13 inches and large is a sizable 13 by 18 inches.
The base is housemade vegan marinara with a pleasing peppery kick and robust herbs. If you go vegetarian, the cheese mix is mozzarella, Jack, Parmesan and cheddar; or go vegan with a blend of Petaluma’s Miyoko’s Creamery cashew milk cheese and coconut-based Chao Field Roast cheese seasoned with fermented tofu (for vegan, add $2 -$4).
You might get a special like one day’s pie topped in basil and the Herbivorous Butcher pepperoni made of tomato and tapioca ($13-$24). But the signatures are stars for excellent reason. I love the interplay of flavors in the Greek Pizza, smothered in San Francisco’s Black Sheep Foods shawarma spiced plant-based lamb, almond feta, Miyoko’s mozzarella, roasted red pepper, red onion, kalamata olives and a bight kick of mint ($14-$27).
Even more intense flavors pop through with the Korean pie, a sizzle-your-lips spicy-sweet delight of shredded trumpet mushrooms slow cooked in Korean barbecue sauce with red onion, chiles and cheese ($14-$27).
The Buffalo Cauliflower Blue pizza is another winner, of seasoned and baked cauliflower, celery, ranch sauce and blue cheese ($13-$24). Think of it as a version of the increasingly popular cauliflower wings on local menus, where the vegetable is tender and meaty on the inside and crispy on the outside.
Lemon sweet rolls
“I am a flavor freak,” Canton said. “The more the merrier. Being a vegetarian has made me very eclectic, and I like the idea of experimenting with taste profiles.”
Thus was born her savory and sweet rolls, too ($5.50 individual/$30 half dozen). On display in a glass case, the puffy, soup bowl-size beauties beckon in sweet flavors like cinnamon slathered in vegan cream cheese; lemon with lemon frosting; or chocolate with espresso frosting.
The Golden cinnamon roll is particularly superb, crafted with Golden Mylk, a caramelized coconut milk infused with cardamom, black pepper, turmeric and coconut sugar. The finishing touch is lots of earthy-sweet, vegan Chai cream cheese on top.
There’s also a “Just Egg” recipe with garlic, cheese and “Facon;” or Soyrizo with pickled jalapeno, cheese, garlic and fresh cilantro (add $1-$6 for vegan cheese on either roll).
This is pure, textured, spiced, vegan soy protein, Canton assured a customer who lingered at the display case and proclaimed that some chorizo products are made with pork salivary glands, lymph nodes, cheeks and fat.
Alongside bohemian local beverages like Soul Fixx Guava Cardamom Kombucha ($4) from Healdsburg, the cafe serves beer and wine. Splash down with an Old Caz Bukovany Pivo Czech Pilsner ($5) from Rohnert Park, for example, or vegan Pacific Redwood Organic Red Table Wine from California ($6 glass/$18 bottle).
As things gear up, Canton will unveil new items, like red velvet or pesto vegetable sausage rolls, veggie rice bowls, sandwiches, salads and more daily specials, plus a deli area stocked with plant-based cheeses and meats.
“I am not militant about being vegetarian or vegan,” she said. “It just seems like an easy choice for me when faced with the environmental circumstances we find ourselves in. If we can eat together and help the planet heal, just a tiny bit in the process, then that’s something I want to be a part of. I hope others will like our food and feel the same way.”
Well, I’m in. When the food is this delicious, that choice is no effort at all.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in The Press Democrat’s Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.