Tarnished Treasure: 24 Carrots in Tempe Misses the Mark

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I believe that you should eat whatever makes you feel good and stay away from whatever doesn't. When I heard about 24 Carrots, a Tempe restaurant and juice bar specializing in vegan cuisine, I was excited, because meat-free food has come a long, long way since the advent of the Tofurkey. Unfortunately, for a restaurant that specializes in promoting vegan and raw food, 24 Carrots offers little in the way of innovation, and the food is just not great.

There seems to be a gaping void at 24 Carrots. The space feels incomplete, the source of the ingredients is shrouded in mystery, the food is generally missing flavor, and the service is spotty at best. There is no sign above the storefront. Handwritten notes and store hours are Scotch-taped to the doors. I would be willing to give the slow service and half-finished décor the benefit of the doubt if this were a brand-new restaurant. But 24 Carrots opened its Tempe location in December after a five-year stint in Chandler -- it seems the owner has had more than sufficient time to work out the kinks.

See also: Sasha Raj of 24 Carrots in Tempe: "I Wanted to Work for a Transparent Company"

The service at 24 Carrots is kind and thoughtful -- when you can get it. On multiple occasions, I waited at the register for several minutes before being acknowledged -- a dealbreaker at counter-service establishments. I never saw more than 10 people in the space, but staff was consistently unavailable to pick up on the little things (a lack of appropriate utensils, a 20-minute wait for a cup of coffee).

On a side note: 24 Carrots employees have beautiful, glowing skin and posture that's a little too good. It's enough to make you want to eat nothing but unseasoned raw vegetables and fake cheese all the time.

The cafe is simply not built for speed. Food consistently took too long to arrive at the table, and beverages (especially juices) often arrived after the rest of the meal. Though 24 Carrots' juices are the most redeeming menu offering, this is not a spot to stop in for a smoothie on your way to work. Allow yourself ample time to receive your drink. If you're in the mood for coffee, skip the non-dairy milk drinks and opt for regular brewed (Café Justo) coffee or tea.

The restaurant's website offers a non-specific platitude about where ingredients are sourced, with no substantiating information: "What you leave out of your menu . . . is as important as what you choose to include." Neither the menu nor the website provides details about farms or farmers that supply the restaurant's ingredients or whether these ingredients are conventionally or organically produced.

The dishes at 24 Carrots have two things going for them: They're beautiful and the portions are huge.

The carrot avocado soup is easily the best item I tried, if only for the fact that it contained a depth of flavor that no other menu item managed to achieve. The soup itself is a little confusing; it's served neither hot nor cold, and the texture is fluffy -- think lukewarm carrot-flavored Snack-Pack. That said, the flavors were intrigu-ing and outside the boring vegan box. The flavors -- tangy lime, sweet earthy carrot, buttery avocado, and an unidentifiable savory base note -- were well con-structed.

If you tried to forget the concept of what a taco is, you might be able to think of the Raw Tacos at 24 Carrots as awesome. But then you taste them. The walnut "meat" is seasoned with an aromatic mix of cumin and chili powder, but the bitterness of the walnuts overwhelms the flavor. The cashew cream sauce lacks discernible traits besides "creamy" and "gritty." Super-fibrous cabbage leaves wrap around the taco filling, and smaller pieces of cabbage fill the tacos. The plate comes with a side salad made up mostly of cabbage, too.

Jalapeño Poppers are a sacred thing. Sadly, the Raw Jalapeño Poppers served at 24 Carrots trample on all that is good about the real thing. A spicy almond paste sits piled atop pieces of red bell pepper, lending excessive heat but not much else to the dish. There is no jalapeño visible. Dried cranberries and almond slivers are sprinkled on top of this misappropriation of a beloved appetizer. Bottom line: Cranberries and almonds have no place in a popper. In fact, I'm gonna rip a page out of Kate Moss' book here and say that nothing, absolutely nothing, feels as good as real cheese tastes.

In the ideal vegetarian restaurant of my dreams, entrées are nutritionally sound, provide complete sources of protein, and are delicious. Unfortunately, 24 Carrots is not my IVR. It's all or nothing on the protein front, and some dishes are made entirely of plant protein while others neglect it altogether. For breakfast, the obligatory tofu scramble takes several forms. The Arizona Bowl is a conglomeration of yellow-stained tofu, soy-based chorizo, and beans. Fresh tomatoes and pea shoots add texture and brightness to what is otherwise just a bowl of mushy soy.

If you find yourself at 24 Carrots for lunch, skip the Bountiful Burger Basket. This dish couldn't quite find its bearings; its ingredients changed throughout the course of my visits, somewhat illogically. The patty itself was like a bad first kiss: a sticky mess of flavors that fumbled around but never quite meshed.

Here's my advice. If you don't know how to cook and you're new to the whole vegan thing, give 24 Carrots a try. It's got all the fake meat and standard vegetarian fare you could possibly dream of. If you are looking for transparency, good service, or innovation, go somewhere else.

24 Carrots 1701 East Guadalupe Road, Tempe 480-753-4411 www.24carrotsjuice.com Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday

Arizona Bowl $10 Carrot avocado soup $4/$6 Raw Tacos Supreme $11 Bountiful Burger Basket $11

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