Walter "Buddy" Hungerford is a "classically" trained chef who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N. Y., in the early 1980s. Patricia Davis, his wife, got her bachelor's degree in nutrition from Immaculata College in Pennsylvania, but it wasn't until she attended Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., that she learned about natural medicine, holistic nutrition and whole foods cooking.
A stint in the school cafeteria, which was completely vegetarian at the time, is where she learned a lot about vegan and vegetarian cooking, too.
"When we decided to do this restaurant together, we thought that it was important to offer choices on our menu to please everyone vacationing at the shore and - of course - our locals as well," says Davis.
The Bongo Cafe in Ocean City has become a place where carnivores and vegans can coexist at the same table, with options for the meat eater, vegans, vegetarians, lactose-intolerant and gluten free, making the dining experience an enjoyable one for all.
The operators of Bongo Cafe are serious about their menu, but the atmosphere is all about fun.
"We wanted to do a beach-themed restaurant that makes you definitely feel as though you are at the shore," says Davis.
"Our best memories of being here are from childhood, so a lot of our decor is very retro, '50s and '60s," says Davis. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach movies run on their flat-screen TV and movie posters cover the walls along with seashore memorabilia from summers past.
The Bongo Cafe is a blast from the past with a social conscience that doesn't feel forced or phony.
"It's good all the way around to really think about where your food comes from and what you are putting in your mouth," says Davis. Wishing everyone could source all of our animal products from good, humane sources, Davis knows we are not quite there, yet.
Even in the Garden State of New Jersey it can be difficult at times to provide a restaurant with all of the local produce it requires at a reasonable price.
Davis understands many serious vegans don't always want to eat in a place that also offers meat. The philosophy at the Bongo Cafe is a simple one.
"Because we are at the seashore and because people are vacationing, we offer food that everyone in the family can eat," says Davis. A concept pretty much unheard of over the years.
One of the more popular vegan entrees is the grilled tempeh skewers with cashew satay sauce. Made with cooked and fermented soy, tempeh is one of the few things the kitchen doesn't make because it would take forever to ferment the soy.
Sliced from a flat loaf, the tempeh is marinated in their toasted sesame-ginger dressing and served with the cashew satay sauce that combines coconut milk, tamari and sweet chili sauce with seasonings such as cilantro, garlic, ginger, curry powder and cumin.
"I don't want to have peanuts in the restaurant because there are so many peanut allergies," says Davis who does use other nuts, such as the cashews in the satay sauce. "It's a very interesting mix of flavors and it's really good."
"The cashew sate sauce is kind of the star of the show," says Davis.
Over time, Davis has managed to sneak a few more things onto the vegan menu, believing that with alternative protein products you need to be more creative. When she added seitan to the already extensive menu that Hungerford somehow manages to turn out from his small but efficient kitchen, he had to ask what she was trying to do to him.
"I will probably add some more specials next summer, like a lentil loaf with a cashew gravy, one of my favorite vegan dishes, a vegan lasagna, and some things that are a little more interesting like vegan enchiladas," says Davis. "He (Hungerford) doesn't know about that yet."
Grilled Tempeh Skewers with Cashew Satay Sauce
•1 package tempeh
•1 cup toasted sesame-ginger dressing (see recipe)
•8 bamboo skewers (soaked in water)
•1/2 cup cashew satay sauce (see recipe)
•Organic field greens
Cut tempeh "loaf" into 8 slices. Marinate tempeh in toasted sesame dressing for 10 minutes, reserving some for dressing. Skewer tempeh lengthwise onto bamboo. Grill or pan saute tempeh about 3 minutes on each side until golden brown. Split cashew satay sauce between two plates. Lay hot skewers on sauce, and finish with tossed field greens and sesame-ginger dressing.
Makes: 2 servings, 4 skewers per person