Last spring I overheard chef Leah Chase address a group of students at Dooky Chase Restaurant: “I understand we’ve got some vegans here today. I think y’all are weird! I was vegan before it was cool – during the wars. Now what am I going to feed you?”
By the time she was 4, my daughter Cecilia made waiters chuckle when she ordered the medium rare steak upon which she pretty much sustained herself: “Four minutes on each side, no more. If it’s overcooked I won’t touch it.” I was charmed.
Newly 17, in January my omnivore went full-on vegan. Once the “Diet of the Depraved,” (to paraphrase Percy Shelley) vegan food culture has taken hold as an increasingly popular lifestyle choice here in the land of fried chicken and oysters. Eight months into her new lifestyle Cecilia has lost a few pesky pounds, overcome her insomnia as well the minor acne that plagued her from time to time, and she no longer seems to be at the mercy of the hormones that could once set the house afire.
I have accepted that this new lifestyle is more than a fad but I’ve missed the input of my favorite dining companion. We recently set out to identify some “mainstream” restaurants with vegan offerings beyond the afterthoughts of mixed vegetable plates and fruit bowls.
Lacking both dairy and animal protein, the Vegetarian Roti at The Rum House is big enough for two to share. The soft, fresh bread is stuffed with flavorful curried vegetables, wilted spinach and creamy coconut mango rice. It comes with a side of fresh sweet potato chips.
The spicy tofu appetizer at Lilly’s Café is intense and satisfying, pairing small fried cubes of firm tofu with a fiery glaze of chilies, ginger and scallions and a bowl of Lilly’s incomparably perfect steamed jasmine rice. The vegan pho, egg rolls and spring rolls are also far more than mere afterthoughts.
Not surprisingly, Photo Tau Bay has a lengthy selection of fresh vegetable dishes, but it’s the vegan pho that gets my vote as the standout. Like the rest of their broths, the one used for the vegan soup is rich and complex with faint hints of star anise and cinnamon serving as a backdrop to screamingly fresh herbs, vegetables, and cubes of marinated and fried tofu.
Home of the “baco,” Ba Chi Canteen offers the tasty Vietnamese taco-like things stuffed with a choice of curried tofu, creamy spicy tofu, sweet chili tofu or honey ponzo tofu with pickled ginger. Each satisfying little package is a mere $2.95, making a sampler plate entirely within reach. Ba Chi also has an impressive selection of vegan noodle bowls, pho, bahn-mi and some fun appetizers. All varieties of the absolutely not vegan chicken wings (spicy lemongrass, Saigion and garlic butter) are excellent.
The Soon Doo Boo Ji Gae at Little Korea looks a bit off-putting. Essentially a miso stew, the concoction hits the table in a sputtering little cauldron filled with simmering broth, vegetables and a pudding-like substance that I soon learned as unfermented soft tofu. As flavorful and compelling as it is strange to behold, the heat of the soup is cut by tossing in some of the chilled, fermented kimchi that comes on the side.
Who among us doesn’t want to dine like royalty then pay like a pauper? During September 8-14, more than 50 restaurants will participate in the annual Restaurant Week, during which diners can partake of two-course luncheons for $20 or less and three-course evening repasts for $39 or less. Participating restaurants include all of both chef Emeril Lagasse’s and chef John Besh’s restaurants, as well as Commander’s Palace, Ruth’s Chris, SoBou, Le Foret and many more.
The week will kick off with an open fête at The Chicory, during which guests can sample “sneak peeks” from the specialty menus. For more information, visit WeLiveToEatNola.com
Ba Chi Canteen: 7900 Maple St., 373-5628
Lilly’s Café: 1813 Magazine St., 599-9999
Little Korea: 3301 S. Claiborne Ave., 821-5006
Pho Tau Bay: 113 Westbank Expressway, Suite C, 368-9846, PhoTauBayRestaurant.com
The Rum House: 3128 Magazine St., 941-7560, RumHouseNola.com