When I first committed myself to a plant-based diet, I immediately felt a sense of peace and relief that my food choices finally jibed with my personal beliefs and ethics, not to mention my digestive system. At the same time, I worried that I’d be losing a part of myself. Since beginning to eat meat after college, I had developed a passion for food adventures. Finding interesting and exciting restaurants was my favorite hobby, and food had become the vehicle through which I experienced new places and cultures. Really, the reason that I had started eating meat again in the first place was to have the freedom to enjoy more kinds of food without stressing. Yes, there are lots of pretty good vegetarian restaurants out there, but eating tempeh meatloaf seemed far less exciting than slurping hand-pulled noodles in a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall.
To my relief and surprise, though, I’ve found that with a few small adjustments, it’s actually been relatively easy to find delicious and fulfilling plant-based options no matter where I go or what type of cuisine I’m in the mood for.
The rules are simple:
1) Eat at regular restaurants. It may seem counterintuitive, but with the exception of an incredible meal at Vedge in Philadelphia, all of the most memorable plant-based meals I’ve had have been at mainstream restaurants. In my experience, vegan restaurants rarely serve food that is rich, tasty, or complex enough to satisfy an omnivore. Just because you don’t eat animal products, though, doesn’t mean you’re a second rate citizen and deserve to be served lackluster food. On the other hand, when a well-respected “regular” restaurant develops a vegetarian or vegan dish, they need it to taste good enough to appeal to anyone, vegan or not. This means they’ll probably go out of their way to make sure it is surprisingly flavorful. (The one exception to this rule is if you’re craving a vegan imitation of a meat dish. Trust me, you do not want to get the vegan Philly cheesesteak from a fast food place where none of the cooks are willing to taste the fake meat.)
2) Let go of obsessing over being a perfect vegan. My rule of thumb when it comes to eating out is to order items that seem logically vegan, but not to worry myself over the possibility of trace amounts of animal products. I remind myself that even if there’s a little egg in my noodles, for example, the health, environmental, and ethical impact will be negligible in the scheme of things, as in comprising something like .0001% of what I eat in a year.** Now, I personally have a hard time with the idea of meat (or meat broth) making its way into my food so, if I suspect it’s likely to be used to flavor an otherwise vegetarian dish, I will ask about it to see if it can be omitted, and it usually can. That being said, if a waitress tells me a dish is vegan, I trust her and chow down.
2) Research your food options beforehand. There is nothing more annoying than having to walk from restaurant to restaurant reading menus in search of vegan options when you are starving and crabby. I, for example, once had a total meltdown after walking through Harlem for an hour in search of a suitable brunch place. Had I just done a little research beforehand, though, I would have been able to make a beeline to any of the several viable vegan options in the neighborhood. Nowadays, virtually every small town or neighborhood has at least one restaurant with good plant-based options. Sites like Yelp and Menupages will not only allow you to review menu offerings in advance, but will also give you access to recommendations from local vegans about where to eat.
3) If a restaurant doesn’t offer a vegan main course, get creative and make-up your own. When I went out for New York Restaurant week, I was disappointed that few places had vegan options on their prix-fixe menus. Ultimately, I put together my own delicious multi-course meal out of a few different side dishes. Similarly, my go-to brunch dish has become huevos rancheros minus the huevos, or sometimes I’ll have hash-browns with an English muffin and avocado. If there’s no vegan option on the menu, have no fear. It’s likely that the cook will be willing and able to tweak an existing dish or to create a simple new one that you can eat using ingredients they have on hand.
4) Learn to cook restaurant quality food using authentic local ingredients. Indian food is one of my favorite cuisines. In theory, it is naturally very vegan friendly, though dairy-free options are difficult to find in practice (many traditional dishes are, for example, thickened with oil and nut creams when made at home, but with dairy in restaurants). When I can’t experience a culture through restaurant food, my solution has been to instead spend time in local markets, perusing and purchasing authentic ingredients, which I then use to make delicious versions of favorite dishes myself. I still trek out to Jackson Heights, Queens or Devon Avenue in Chicago for Indian food adventures, only now they typically involve searching shops for the right garam masala mix to use in my own seitan masala, or the proper lentils to make a smokey dal tadka.
**Sure, some “true” vegans would turn their noses up at allowing even trace amounts of animal products to creep into their diet, but I personally see a suspected teaspoon of butter as far less dangerous than the risk of making myself so crazy and anxious about ingredients that 1) a plant-based diet looks stressful and unappealing to others, or 2) I get so frustrated that I decide to completely throw in the towel. (See my article here: https://justaboutveg.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/just-about-but-not-quite-vegan/)