In a lush, sheltered courtyard beside the United University Church, carnivores and vegans alike gather for the Good Karma Café, an all-you-can-eat vegetarian lunch service hosted by the Office of Religious Life every Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 2 p.m.
For $7, patrons savor penne, peanut butter and chocolate halva and an unusual drink made from lemons and guanábana fruit. But it’s the salad dressing that has them drooling.
“How is this dressing so healthy and so good?” asked Tim Conley, a master’s student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism who also works in the Office of Religious Life. “I tried to make it a couple times, and it never tastes like his, so I just quit trying to make it. There’s something in there the chef’s not telling me.”
His sister Crystal Conley, assistant director of the Structured Curriculum Program at the USC Center for Academic Support, agreed. “I’m putting the dressing on the pasta and not just the salad. We’re going to have to come back next week.”
The Good Karma Café is in its second popular incarnation, thanks to the good deeds — and dressing — of chef Sarvatma Das. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, Das’ lunch service drew crowds of 200 per meal for a decade. One of the regulars was Varun Soni, who attended graduate school and taught in Santa Barbara before becoming the dean of religious life at USC.
Soni quickly realized that USC’s large population of Hindu and Jain students have religious dietary restrictions that mandate vegetarianism. Soni also became aware of a petition, signed by 1,000 students, requesting more organic, healthy and vegetarian options on campus. He called up his old friend Das, and the Good Karma Café was reborn.
“This food is not simply vegetarian food, but it’s actually consecrated,” said Das, a monk from Buenos Aires who has done everything from running a surrealist newspaper in Uruguay to living on a beach in Brazil. “You offer it with love and then you share it with others. That’s the idea.”
As Das spoke these words, Garrett Broad, a vegan student who is pursuing his Ph.D. at USC Annenberg, wandered into the courtyard for his first experience of the Good Karma Café. Das informed him that the halva contained dairy and offered homemade vegan chocolate instead.
At a nearby table, sophomore architecture major Paulina Shahery sat down with two strangers — senior cinematic arts majors Jack Robbins and Andi Riveron. The three started joking around like old friends.
“I’m not vegetarian, but I just like the environment and the idea of this,” Shahery said. “And the food is so good — fresh and amazing — and there’s music. Incredible. I hope this stays a secret, kind of!”
“Use the small print,” Robbins quipped.
This sense of community is the true heart of the Good Karma Café, which strives to be more than the new vegetarian option on campus.
“We’ve noticed that this is one of the most communal hours of anyone’s week,” Soni said. “People sit next to complete strangers and have conversations with them and become friends. It’s not just a place to eat. It’s a place to commune, to converse, to reflect, to introspect. It’s a sanctuary outside of the busy urban existence that most of us lead. Listen to some music. Hear the waterfall. Smell the roses. Eat some fresh, healthy food. Hang out with friends. And you’re recharged and reenergized to go on with your day.”