Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hut-K Chaats

Hut-K Chaats
3022 Packard Road, Ann Arbor, MI, 48018
QISA(4, 4, 3.5, 3), $5-7, Vegetarian (Vegan-friendly)

When a restaurant appeals to my inner food science geek, my inner nutritionist, my adventurer, my India-phile, my gourmet, and my underdog all at once, it has no choice but to become an instant favorite. Hut-K Chaats is clearly a labor of love, and you desperately want to see it succeed.

Hut-K Chaats was started in 2011 by Mahaveer Swaroop Bhojani, a PhD and former research investigator in the department of radiation oncology, dentistry, and anesthesiology at the University of Michigan Medical School. Bhojani believes strongly in the link between food quality, nutrition, and disease, and he put his money where his mouth is (so to speak) by starting a restaurant that marries flavor and pleasure with nutrition and health. Hut-K means “different” or “not mainstream” and Chaats are Indian street foods known for blending multiple flavors in a single bite.

Although much of Dr. Bhojani’s philosophy can be found on the restaurant Website, the proprietor is more than happy to talk your ear off about the nutritional impact of sprouted grains, the fresh ingredients in his creations, and the flavors of Indian street food that are foreign to most Western palates.

In fact, what appealed to me the most was the explosion of new, exotic, and sometimes incongruous flavors. I know my way around mainstream Indian cuisine better than most Midwesterners, but I found myself in uncharted territory. My standard curries, masalas, panirs, and dosas were replaced by chaats, puris, whole grain rotis, and flatbread wraps. I was off the map and loving it.

I ordered the Shanu Chaat after Dr. Bhojani explained to me how the dish beat out five other signature food cart dishes at a cooking contest sponsored by French cookware manufacturer Le Creuset. I mean, how could I not try the dish that triumphed over the vegan stew from The Lunch Room and the truffled macaroni and cheese from Humble Hogs? This generously portioned meal contained spiced crushed chickpeas rolled in colocasia leaves, baked multigrain papdi, potatoes, peas, chickpeas, and a Hut-K special sauce that was a mix of sweet, sour, and savory. The dish itself was beautifully rendered in colorful concentric circles on the plate, creating a feast for all five senses.

The Shanu Chaat wiped me out, but I was so curious about the Back 2 Roots flatbread, that I ordered a portion to go. Later that night, holed up by myself in my hotel room, I discovered a new blend of flavor and texture. The Back 2 Roots is less a traditional Indian flatbread and more a bland chewy grain patty. However, complemented with red chutney sauce (almonds, walnuts, red pepper, carrots) and green chutney sauce (peanuts, coconut, mint, and cilantro), the mix of nine ancient whole grains and seeds plus four “newer” grains becomes a very satisfying meal.

To be sure, like any restaurant that publishes its philosophy on its Website, Hut-K Chaats suffers from a certain amount of pretention. The restaurant is not about the food, it's about YOUR health, OUR environment, MY culture (emphasis mine). Bhojani even coins the word nutrilicious, which sounds like the pet project of a Madison Avenue intern. However, you forgive all that because the food is great and the proprietors are committed to your wellbeing. If my mother ever made Aanokhi Pani Puri, I'm sure it would have tasted just like this.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


622 North and South Road, University City, MO 63130
QISA (4, 4, 4, 4), $5-13, Vegetarian (Vegan-Friendly)

“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.“
- Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau would have approved of Frida’s, a vegan-friendly vegetarian restaurant in the University City suburb of St. Louis. Frida’s certainly has its modern feel with its clean lines, white walls, and black furniture, but it also has an elegantly friendly atmosphere that extends from it bright artwork on the walls to the flowers in salt shaker vases adorning each table. Somehow, the restaurant embodies simplicity without feeling desolately spartan or artificially arboreal.

How’s that for some fancy whole wheat words? I can’t help it. I’ve only been to Frida’s once, and already I’m a better person physically, ethically, and spiritually. Some of that moral high ground is bound to seep through into my writing.

I started my meal at Frida's with a lemon ginger soda that they make on site. This beverage is a powerful combination of fresh lemon and ginger juices, agave syrup, and soda water. If you like ginger, and granted ONLY if you like ginger, this is a wonderfully refreshing drink. The very attractive and slim waitress claimed that she drank one every day, which was enough to convince me to go home and buy myself a juicer. I haven’t actually bought it yet, but for that short moment, I had images of me drinking fresh lemon ginger soda every day and looking like a Mediterranean god.

My meal was the Frida burger, a half veggie, half soy burger that was just crumbly enough to remind you it was homemade yet not so crumbly that you ended up wearing it. The burger was served on a grilled bun with tomato, cucumber, lettuce slaw with tahini dressing, and a side of hummus. The sandwich was a savory mix of flavor and texture, and it made me feel at once sated and superior for having eaten it.

There is a lot to appreciate about Frida’s. The owners know that they want to create better food and a better world, but they are sensible about it. The FAQ on the Website explains that the restaurant is not vegan (although they have many vegan options), not organic (although they purchase a lot of organic foods), not certified Kosher (although they bring in a lot of Kosher foods), and not allergen-free. But the fact that they address these concerns tells me that they understand the needs of their customers, and they are willing to work with us as best as they can. Sometimes it is not necessary to have all the answers as long as you appreciate the questions.

I highly recommend Frida’s, and I definitely recommend you try them out as well. Come on in, grab a menu on a clipboard, seat yourself, and walk your way through the many, many options. But first, order the lemon ginger soda. If nothing else, it’s a great conversation starter with the cute waitress.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Quesadilla La Reina Del Sur

Quesadilla La Reina Del Sur
2235 North Western Avenue Chicago, IL 60647
QISA (4, 4, 3.5, 3), $5-13, Vegetarian (Vegan-Friendly)

On a bustling street corner bordering a lower-middle class neighborhood in West Chicago sits Quesadilla La Reina Del Sur, a diminutive restaurant with noble aspirations. Q-La (please forgive my tabloid-sounding abbreviation) is an authentic Mexican restaurant that serves vegetarian food. That its name sounds more like a telenovella than a stereotyped Mexican cartoon character simply adds to its charm.

Q-La is clearly targeting a local Mexican population who’s experience with vegetarianism is limited to foreign words such as “tofu”, “hippy,” “activist,” and “kale.” By recreating traditional dishes with soy-based meat analogs instead of simply recreating the dishes themselves with beans and nuts, the restaurant is trying to convince a skeptical clientele that all of the comforts of home can come in a healthy, ethical package. The restaurant’s Website states as much in its verbiage: Our menu is designed and intended to satisfy even the most demanding expectations, using soy-based products we provide a verity of traditional Mexican meals that will fool anyone to think they were actually made with meat.

The look and feel of the establishment does a lot to set Q-La’s authenticity. Clean, brightly painted orange and green walls and a smattering of tables place you in the middle of a Mexican family kitchen. The Mexican music over the loudspeaker and the Spanish-language TV station only add to the ambience.

However, this stage is only a stage. The real show is the food itself.

I began with chips and three kinds of salsas, red, green, and chunky. The red and green had a moderate amount of heat but not much salt or sweetness. The chunky, more the consistency of salad than a puree, was clearly my favorite. It had visible pieces of jalapeno, onion, and tomato and the best balance of flavor.

I ordered a side of tamales with green salsa and soy chicken. The tamales were expertly prepared in the corn husks; masa surrounding a tasty filling. I ended up bringing one home to share with the family and discovered that love for tamales is apparently not a universal thing. Fine. I will never force my kids to eat tamales. They can give their tamales to me. All of them.

My main course was a “combo” huarache, which was a full plate of thick masa corn tortilla covered with lettuce, cilantro, onion, mushroom, refried beans, and soy chicken. Apparently, the word “huarache” is derived from the word for sandal because of its long flat shape. However, the similarity ends there. The huarache was a delicious mix of flavors and textures, and at only $5-7, was possibly the best value meal in town.

To drink, I ordered the Digestivo jugos, a thick blend of cactus, orange, mango, and papaya juices. Once again, I found my provincial U.S. palate delighted by exotic flavors. The juice started like a tropical smoothie on the tongue, but finished slightly differently, crossing nerve pathways in my taste center that could only be translated as “something new and exciting.”

I will definitely make another trip to Q-La to try their many different tacos, tortas, burritos, desajunos, and platillos. I might even bring my family along so that they too can experience a more authentic taste of Mexico in the midst of the cold Midwest. Perhaps I’ll introduce them to smoothies made with cactus juice, salsas that are a meal unto themselves, and street food that is far, far removed from the travesty known as “Taco Bell.” But I don’t plan to share my tamales with them. Because frankly, they don’t deserve them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Lunch Room

The Lunch Room
407 N. 5th Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
QISA (4, 3.5, 3.5, 3), $7-10, Vegan

The Lunch Room in Ann Arbor is a small, intimate vegan eatery with a rapid turnover vibe befitting its college appeal. The food is well prepared and tasty, which is a good thing because obviously very little time was wasted on décor. In fact, other than the big jars of spices behind the lunch counter itself, the only decorations that I could see were cheap, store-bought Halloween cut outs on the windows and a decorative border around the ceiling made of blue-tipped metal quills. I am not sure what the decorators were going for, but it looked like they had sewn together the pelts of many paint-dipped porcupines.

Based on my single visit, the restaurant primarily draws a young female crowd, most of them pulled straight out of the 60s through a rip in the space time continuum. The party of four next to me comprised three attractive young ladies in native garb, and a mother who looked like she was actively accepting their lifestyles. The “earthiest” of this group, a pretty blonde woman in macramé and earth tones, was apparently eschewing the regressive confines of the spoken word and was communicating in a limited set of signs that seemed to indicate “love,” “look at that,” and “cell phone.”

But then there is the food. I really enjoyed the food. I ordered a tofu banh mi sandwich with a side of chili. The banh mi was a thick slab of tofu marinated and baked to a perfect texture and flavor, covered with carrots and cilantro, and served on hearty, chewy artisan bread. The chili was thick and busy with a moderate amount of heat. Loaded with kidney beans and lentils and complemented with tomato and onion, the chili had a wonderful “meaty” quality without the cheat of processed meat analogs.

When I go back, and I undoubtedly will, I will have to try the Tuck and Roll Burrito with cumin black beans, corn, cumin-lime rice, avocado, cashew sour cream, and fresh pico de gallo. Or perhaps I will come for the Sunday brunch and try the biscuit “sausage” and gravy or maybe the breakfast burrito with housemade seitan chorizo. Or maybe I’ll ask about the Flying Spaghetti Monster sushi roll mentioned on their Twitter feed. After all, what’s vegan food without a political statement?

However, I will have to time my next visit so that it does not follow a business meeting. I definitely need to lose the tie and suit if I want to blend in with the locals. I could be wrong, but I think the pretty blonde hippie was signing to her friends, “Check out Gordon Gecko.”

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Trumpet Blossom

Trumpet Blossom
310 E. Prentiss St., Iowa City, IA 52240
QISA (4, 4, 3.5, 4), $8-$18, Vegan

Way too often a restaurant aims for one adjective only to take additional unwanted modifiers. One might go for “fancy” and become “snooty” and “pretentious”. Another might go for “homey” and take on “old” and “worn”. Yet another might go for “comfort” and end up with “greasy” and “heart attack.”

When a restaurant squarely hits its target, you have to pay it respect. Trumpet Blossom goes for “rustic” and hits it dead on.

Everything about Trumpet Blossom speaks “rustic,” from the wooden benches and chairs to the hanging 19th century wooden spoons and gourds, antique cabinets, paisley quilted cloth napkins, and beverages in Ball jars. Roy Orbison crooning over the loudspeaker cinched the image for me.

“Sweet dream baby, how long must I dream?”

Trumpet Blossom serves a wide variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, from specialty cocktails like the Kombucha Gin & Tonic to smoothies and coffee drinks. I ordered the Cobra Verde, a citrus, ginger, and green coffee energy drink made by Wake Up Iowa City, a local organic coffee company. The beverage was bright and citrusy with a slight ginseng earthiness. It was an acquired taste to be sure, but I enjoyed its bright notes. I likely wouldn’t drink a Cobra Verde by itself, but it was an excellent accompaniment to the meal.

The soup of the day was a mushroom cauliflower rice soup that was hearty with plenty of umami flavor and made me feel like a child at home on a cold fall day. It was exactly the kind of soup you imagined your mother making for you…if only your mother had made homemade vegan soups. It was rustic plain and simple.

“Crying, over you. Crying, over you.”

The house red bean and oat veggie burger was served on grilled toast, which gave the sandwich a wonderful hearty crunch that balanced the softness of the burger. The burger was topped by a maple-bourbon BBQ aioli, caramelized onion, greens, and a pickled veggie slaw. The flavor of pickle inherent in most of the dishes brought to mind sunlight streaming through the windows, picnic baskets, and weekend mornings. In other words, it spoke of all things rustic.

“I’m going back some day, come what may to Blue Bayou.”

The spiced bread pudding I had for dessert was not the best bread pudding I have ever had, but it was very good and it was certainly original, tasting somewhere between a standard bread pudding and a spiced quick bread. It rounded out the, dare I say it, “rusticness” of the entire experience.

That Trumpet Blossom is an organic vegan restaurant may seem incongruous with its old-fashioned image. Yet, what is more in touch with our rustic roots and historic sensibilities than locally sourced vegetables free from modern pesticides?

I am eager to get back there to try out some of their other creative dishes, such as pizza with tofu-cheese and sausage style seitan, tempeh reubens, Iowa polenta cakes with maple-bourbon BBQ sauce, and roasted garlic tofu kabobs with ginger peanut sauce. With luck, I’ll get there on one of their live music nights. Or maybe, I’ll be there on a quiet weekday afternoon, warming myself from the wintry snow outside. Either way, it will undoubtedly feel like a big bowl of home.

Plus tofu.

Hard Times Cafe

Hard Times Café
1821 Riverside Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55454
QISA (4,4,3,3.5), $5-10, Vegetarian

There is something exciting about discovering Hard Times Café, like you’ve stumbled upon a secret that you alternatively want to share with the world and keep close to the vest. According to Wikipedia, Hard Times is located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis and is best known for its punk and hippie ideology, gritty ambience, large selection of vegetarian/vegan food, and late hours, being open 22 hours a day.

The restaurant lacks all vestiges of pretention. My best description of the place is “Urban Homeless Chic," and I mean that in the best possible way.

The restaurant lacks all pretention and draws a mix of students, professionals, and scruffy looking men with long beards who may or may not be students or professionals. The “gritty ambience” includes beat up benches covered with tape under clean and smooth wooden tables. Local artwork covers the walls; the artist de la semaine was apparently a photographer specializing in candid portraits of street performers. A corner of the restaurant is dedicated to books and board games, which you can play while you listen to new agey music or Styx belting out “Come Sail Away.”

The menu is an eclectic mix of vegetarian and vegan dishes, complemented by a variety of teas, tisanes, coffee drinks, and sodas (including Jolt Cola and Reed’s Extra Ginger Beer). The prices are very reasonable, especially for the generous portions they give you.

I ordered the tempeh jambalaya soup, seitan gyros plate, and a cup of jasmine tea. The soup was a hearty, chunky mix of kidney beans, onion, bell pepper, and tomato, along with small pieces of tempeh that were almost an afterthought to add a complete protein. The jambalaya balanced a little bit of heat with a little bit of sweet to make a very flavorful soup.

The seitan gyros plate included large pieces of delicately spiced seitan cooked to chewy perfection, wrapped in a giant soft pita with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and red onion. Whereas the seitan itself had a very mild flavor, the accompanying tahini on the side was very garlicky, giving it a very strong tang.

I ended the meal with a vegan rice crispy bar. The crispies were anything but, but the whole bar was coated with so much chocolate that you almost didn’t mind the lack of crunch.

Be warned: the restaurant only accepts cash. Also be warned: the Cedar-Riverside is definitely NOT the ritzy side of town. However, the place obviously has a loyal clientele that love it for it’s food, low prices, and “gritty ambience”. Once you discover Hard Times Café, you may find it to be an addictive habit.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Jazzy Veggie

Jazzy Veggie
108 S.Main St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104
QISA (3.5,4,3,3), $9-13, Vegan

If Ann Arbor were a person, she would undoubtedly be that girl you wish you could have dated back in high school if only you had the nerve to ask her out. Ann was pretty, funny, quirky, whip-smart, sarcastic, gregarious, earthy, and cooler than you could ever hope to be. She rarely wore make-up or fancy clothes, and she was never part of the popular crowd. Yet somehow she always shined and was always surrounded by friends. She was always just arms reach out of your league but you were happy to spend time in her presence and were thrilled that she knew your name. Ann Arbor was just that cool.

As a college town, Ann Arbor stands out among other college towns. It is more active than Bloomington, IN, more laid back than Boulder, CO, and less sunburnt that Austin, TX. Ann Arbor is a mid to small size town of 116,000, yet it has all the cultural trappings you would expect, including science museums (e.g. The Hands On Museum, specialty food shops (e.g. Cherry Republic), and specialty book stores (e.g. Aunt Agatha’s). It hosts the University of Michigan, which I believe is considered a religion unto itself complete with deities, holidays, and sacrificial rites. Furthermore, it has two vegan restaurants and at least three ovo-lacto vegetarian restaurants.

Perhaps it is due to my romantic infatuation with the city, that I expected so much from Jazzy Veggie. I certainly respect and appreciate the restaurant’s premise: vegan comfort food. And to be absolutely fair, Jazzy Veggie is a very good restaurant that I will undoubtedly visit again. It just isn’t a “fantastic” restaurant.

I opted for the Wolverine sandwich, which contained veggie beef in Mexican marinade, sautéed onions, peppers, guacamole, lettuce, and chipotle aioli on a whole grain bun. The sandwich came with soup or a house salad; I went with the split pea soup. I added a side of coconut curry vegetables, not because I truly needed more food, but because I was curious how they turned steamed vegetables into comfort food.

The Wolverine was less exotic than it sounded, falling into the Boca burger classification of meat analogs. It was pretty good, but in the end, it was basically a Boca burger with fixings and a chipotle special sauce. The split pea soup was tasty and well spiced without being too salty, but it was not out of the ordinary. The vegetable side comprised broccoli, cauliflower, and carrot, steamed till just fork tender, and served in a mild curry sauce. I appreciated that they did not overcook the vegetables, a common mistake in most restaurants, but frankly I would have liked them cooked just a tad more and served with a spicier or more flavorful sauce.

I realize that I have only scratched the surface of their menu. I definitely want to go back and try out their Grains & Greens (e.g., Inca Queen: red quinoa pilaf with black beans, fire roasted poblano, tomato, corn, served with sautéed balsamic greens and vegetables), pizzas (e.g., Sweet Sicilian: smoked apple sage veggie sausage, caramelized red onions, mushrooms, basil, tomato sauce, vegan mozzarella), and other sandwiches (e.g., Spicy Sensation: chipotle veggie sausage, onions, and peppers in black seasoning). Perhaps with increased exposure, I will discover that I underrated the restaurant based on one mediocre experience.

On the other hand, perhaps I will discover that they are exactly what they advertise to be: vegan comfort food. Comfort food is never meant to be overly exotic or fancy. Comfort food is meant to be good, solid food that makes you happy and wanting to come back for more.

Kind of like this city.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Beans and Barley Market & Café

Beans and Barley Market & Café
1901 East North Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53202
QISA (4.5,4,4,4); $7-11; Vegetarian-Friendly

Milwaukee, all is forgiven. I forgive your poor signage, your crazy left side of the road on-ramps, your urban sprawl, and your ubiquitous road construction. I even forgive you for Miller beer, possibly the leading counter argument against American exceptionalism. I forgive it all because you have the East Side, the cultural trend-setting neighborhood north of downtown. And not only do you have the East Side, you have Beans and Barley. And not only do you have Beans and Barley, you have Beans and Barley’s key lime pie. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

Beans and Barley started as a neighborhood health food store and has built itself up to a moderate-sized specialty store and an exceptional vegetarian-friendly restaurant. The food is excellent, and the atmosphere is comfortable, contemporary without feeling pretentious. The clientele trended toward the twenty-something set, but the ages ranged up to fifties and sixties, making me feel less conspicuous, and less like I was crashing a college hangout.

I started my meal with a bowl of vegetarian chili, a spicy, hearty mix of red beans, bulgur wheat, tomatoes, onions, celery, and peppers. If you will excuse the hyperbole, it was the best chili I’ve had in a long time, and that includes my own. For my entrée, I ordered the portabella enchilada from the specials menu. The enchilada itself was stuffed with portabella mushrooms, beans, and spinach, and it was served in a small casserole on the plate. The sides to the meal were elegantly rendered. The long-grain rice was cooked with cilantro and peppers to give it a tiny hint of heat, and the corn and cooked carrots were cooked to perfection, letting their natural flavors come through. Beans and Barley serves many Wisconsin microbrewery beers, and I opted for the New Glarus Two Women, an incredibly well balanced beer that complemented the meal.

Too often, natural food restaurants excel when it comes to savory dishes, and tank when it comes to desserts. So, naturally I had to test this theory with a piece of key lime pie. Full disclosure, I LOVE key lime pie. Therefore, I take it personally when key lime pie is not done well.

This was done well. This was pure decadence, a heavenly balance of sweet and tart wrapped in a blanket of comfort and love. And yes, to answer your snarky questions, I DID need to take a moment.

I definitely plan to come back to Beans and Barley the next time I pass through Milwaukee. Maybe next time I will try the tofu burger instead of the spicy enchilada. Maybe instead of the chili, I’ll try out the artichoke parmesan dip with French bread. Maybe instead of a beer, I’ll order the jasmine pearl tea. But chances are pretty good that I’ll order the key lime pie again. Because, yeah.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

McFoster's Natural Kind

McFoster’s Natural Kind
302 S 38th St, Omaha, NE, 68131
QISA(3322), $7-13, Vegetarian-Friendly

Unfortunately, I walked into McFoster’s Natural Kind already biased against the establishment. To begin with, the Website has been suspended, which in today’s day and age is inexcusable. Second, when I called to check their hours, the gentleman who answered the phone informed me in a bored voice that they were typically open till 10pm, but since no one was there, they were thinking of closing early. This is not what you want to hear about a restaurant you are about to patronize.

Whereas I could excuse the run-down, funky interior, and mediocre service, I simply could not excuse the menu that read, “McFoster’s is a vegetarian restaurant that also serves seafood and chicken dishes.” No. Then it’s not a vegetarian restaurant. “Schlomo’s is a kosher restaurant that also serves pork and cheeseburgers.” See? It’s wrong. You either are or are not kosher. You either are or are not vegetarian.

To be fair, their Facebook page describes McFoster’s as a, “primarily vegetarian restaurant that also serves seafood and chicken dishes.” But this is a little too little, a little too late. The damage to the image has already been done.

For a vegan traveller in Omaha, McFoster’s might seem like a godsend. Certainly the organic, locally-sourced food ethic is very attractive. However, the quality of the food is inconsistent. I loved the tempura-style sweet potato fries with banana ketchup (think tomato ketchup sweetened with banana), but I was lukewarm to the Portabella Mushroom Dinner, “massaged with raw garlic, spices, and vegan butter, then charbroiled under tender; Served on a bed of organic basmati rice with a vast array of veggies sautéed with virgin olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, and spices. Vegan basil and organic cashew butter pesto on the side.” It sounded delightful, particularly since I love portabella mushrooms. In reality, the portabella was half size, only about two inches in diameter, and the supposed basmati rice was short grain brown rice.

The service, as I mentioned earlier, was mediocre at best. The waiter was a friendly sort, but he did not exude eagerness or confidence. And he forgot to bring me my smoothie.

It certainly is a shame. We need more restaurants like McFoster’s Natural Kind with locally sourced, organic vegetarian and vegan options. But maybe we don’t need McFoster’s itself.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine of Omaha

Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine of Omaha
4422 Cass St, Omaha, NE, 68131
QISA (2.5, 3, 3.5, 3) $11-13, Vegetarian-Possible

About 30 years ago, my mother traveled to Omaha, Nebraska for a conference. “How was it?” I asked her. She made a face. “It was the dullest place I’ve ever visited. There is NOTHING to do there. I asked people what they do for fun. They said they go to the stockyards.”

Thankfully, Omaha has changed in 30 years.

According to the Omaha Tourism Board site, Omaha is one of the nation’s premiere hot spots for the indie music scene. I was only in town for a couple days, so I didn’t get to sample any of the local folk, jazz, blues, or pop, but I did get a feeling for the town while driving around. Omaha is a thoroughly pleasant metropolis that feels like a fully manageable Midwest town that is slowly in the process of filling itself up with people. In short, I like it.

Despite the glut of hamburger and steak joints, the burg does have its share of vegetarian-friendly restaurants. Granted none of them stood out as being to the level of Indianapolis (my home town and twice Omaha’s size), but for the stranded traveler, there is much more to find that the salad bar at Anthony’s Steak House.

For example, Lalibela is one of two Ethiopian restaurants in the center of Omaha. Lalibela rates itself as only vegetarian-possible because only one of the 12 entries is vegetarian, but if you are looking for a moderately-decent Ethiopian meal in Nebraska, you should consider this stop. Much of the meal is quite good. The injera (Ethiopian bread) has just the right tang and sponginess. The red lentils in the center of the plate have just the right level of spice and moistness. Unfortunately, much of the meal is simply mediocre. The split peas and cooked greens were a bit too dry and the green salad tasted just like your standard ‘Merican green salad. The Ethiopian spiced tea tasted exactly like Constant Comment with lots of sugar. Oh, and for the uninitiated, the pile of pale green chutney is not cole slaw. It’s a rather potent hot sauce. You have been warned.

The décor of the restaurant can only be described as quaintly trying. The restaurant is small but clean, and it is decorated with posters from Ethiopia. Granted the Price is Right on the overhead TV and the light jazz over the speakers certainly do not add an air of authenticity. Furthermore, although the owner and chef hiding in the back is Ethiopian, the waitress was clearly born and bred in Nebraska. However, she was polite, attentive, and willing to train any new patron on the ins and outs of Ethiopian food, particularly how you eat everything with your hands.

Lalibela is not nearly as good as my favorite Ethiopian restaurant in Indianapolis (to be profiled at a later date), but for a small exotic restaurant in the middle of steak country, you could certainly do worse. I know that 30 years ago, my mother would have loved it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Aladdin Pita

Aladdin Pita
3750 W. 80th Ln., Merrillville, IN 46410
QISA (3.5, 3.5, 4, 4), Vegetarian-Friendly, $5-9

Well, now I have three reasons to stop in Merrillville, Indiana. The first, of course, is that sometimes I need to fill up on gas on my way through to Chicago. The second, is the Albanese Candy Factory, a maker of fine gummies (not vegetarian) and chocolates (hopefully vegetarian) with a show room that will make you feel like a…well…you know, kid in a candy store. Their billboards along the highway are colorful, showy, and guaranteed to make your children harangue you into stopping, no matter how late you are running.

The third reason is Aladdin Pita, a wonderful Middle Eastern restaurant in the unlikeliest of strip malls in the unlikeliest of towns. One simply does not expect to find wonderfully tasty falafel, hummus, pita, tziziki, and baba ganoush next door to an establishment named the Dawg House Pub.

I list the restaurant as Vegetarian-Friendly, and it truly is. I counted at least ten ovo-lacto or vegan entrees on the menu. All of the vegetarian dishes are clearly marked on the menu, which always gives me much greater confidence than a waiter who hedges before saying, “uh, yeah, sure it’s vegetarian. Yeah. You can eat fish, right?”

My meal began with a bowl of yellow split pea soup. I found the soup a bit too salty for my taste until I squeezed the accompanying slice of lemon into the bowl, and then suddenly the soup was a savory blend of salty, sour, and a touch of umame. The soup came with a bowl of soft pita bread and four dips: baba ghanoush, hummus, Arabian salad (cucumber, tomato, parsley, and mint), and yoghurt salad (cucumber, yoghurt, mint, parsley, and olive oil). The yoghurt salad surprised me the most. It tasted like tziziki, but it had chunks of cucumber which made it somewhere between a dip and salad. Really good either way you look at it. The hummus leaned more to the tahini than to the garlic and lemon, but was very tasty. The pita was baked just enough to be soft on the inside but still have some integrity on the outside. And that was just the first course.

I ordered the pita pie as an appetizer, which turned out to be a triangular pita wrapped around a filling of spinach, meat, or cheese. I opted for the spinach, which had a tang of lemon in it. Personally, I would have recommended adding some feta to the spinach to make it taste more like spanakopita, but it worked pretty well as is.

I also ordered the falafel sandwich, which was fried to near perfection. The falafel balls had just the right crispy outside, surrounding a soft green center, most likely due to plenty of parsley in the falafel. The falafel and pita sandwich came with tahini, cucumber-tomato salad, lettuce, onion, and tomato. The falafel were tasty, but not spicy. I was tempted to ask for hot sauce, but I was afraid that asking for unrepresented condiments would make me look like an accidental tourist at best and a rube at worst. Or vice versa. Or perhaps like an accidental rube.

My QISA ratings reflect a well-prepared flavorful meal that was just a little too salty to get a 4 Quality rating. However, the wait staff were incredibly polite and attentive, the decor included a mural that looked like the inside of a mosque, and the aural ambience included Arabic music. Nothing ruins an ethnic meal faster than the sound of American pop music coming over the loudspeakers.

The total cost of the meal, including mango juice and french fries, was just over $17, which was pretty good since I ordered way more food than I needed. I rolled out of the establishment incredibly sated. It would be a good hour before I dipped into my bag from the Albanese Candy Factory.

Finally, in deference to the good people of Merrillville, I apologize about my glibness regarding the lack of attractions in your burg. I neglected to mention Deep River Waterpark, the Indiana Ballet Theatre, the Star Plaza Theatre, and all the other wonderful places I don't yet know about, such as maybe the famous Merrillville Hanging Gardens or the largest ball of dryer lint in the world.

But for now, accept it that most people are just passing through for candy. And pita.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Café Zola

Café Zola
112 West Washington Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
QISA (4433), $10-15, Vegetarian-Friendly

It should come as no surprise that I love small, liberal college towns. I spent one quarter of my life as a student in Bloomington, Indiana, and Boulder, Colorado, and I now like to visit college towns as an adult to explore the culinary counter culture. I travel to Ann Arbor periodically for my work, and I suspect that the town will give me ample opportunity to patronize the vegan and vegetarian cuisine, alternating smoothies with microbrews, pasta dishes with quinoa salads, spicy bean burgers with barbecued seitan, French fries with…well, more French fries.

However, despite the many, many restaurants to explore, I suspect that I will be coming back to Café Zola very soon.

Café Zola, named after the French writer Emile Zola, focuses on French cuisine, with a smattering of Italian, Mediterranean, and Turkish thrown in for good measure. This independently owned and operated restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner entrees including salads, crepês, omelettes, Belgian waffles, and sandwiches. Even if one excludes all the meat dishes, one can put together an impressive menu of choices.

On a recommendation from my dining partner, I ordered the Salad Zola, which comprised fresh goat cheese, lightly breaded and baked until soft and creamy, served on a bed of greens with a Turkish vinaigrette that tasted like a combination of sesame oil and balsamic vinegar. One could order the salad with chicken; I obviously opted for the vegetarian version. And when I say goat cheese, I am talking about a 2-3 inch flat circle of soft, warm, breaded goat cheese. If you do not like goat cheese, this will not impress you. If you do…oh, my.

The meal comes with Zingerman’s Bakehouse bread and herb butter. For those of you who have not experienced Zingerman’s bread of the month club (yes, I am serious), we are talking top shelf carbs here. It took me every ounce of will power not to steal my companion’s bread after finishing my own. Since my dining companion was also my boss, I suppose this was prudent.

I completed my meal with a glass of ice tea, the flavor of which changes daily. The tea of the day was lemon basil, which was wonderfully light and refreshing.

The modern art paintings on the walls give the place a sophisticated flair, but the rustic wooden tables keep the place grounded. The service was competently unremarkable, which was not a bad thing in itself. I was there for the food, not a show.

As I said, I plan to come back. The salad was nice, but there is so much more to try. I might go mushroom crazy with the Crepe Champignon (stuffed with sautéed mushrooms, onions, porcini mushroom sauce, and crème fraiche), or the Portabella Panino (whole portabella cap grilled with roasted garlic and oven-melted Havarti cheese). Or perhaps I’ll satisfy my sweet tooth with the Crepe Normandie (sautéed apples, walnuts, and cranberries with honey and crème), the Crepe Nutella Banana, or the Black Forest Belgian Waffle (with imported brandied cherries, Ghiradelli chocolate sauce, powered sugar, and crème Chantilly).

Hell, I can have a bean burger any old day.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Broad Ripple Brewpub

Broad Ripple Brewpub
842 East 65th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46220
QISA (4444), Vegetarian-Friendly, $9-$14

Every summer for the last five years, I have celebrated my birthday by biking the full length of the Monon Trail round trip. The Monon Trail, for those of you outside Indianapolis, is a former train line, now a pedestrian/biking trail that stretches 18 miles south to north from the middle of downtown Indianapolis, past the state fairgrounds, through the trendy Broad Ripple neighborhood, up into the ritzier Carmel suburbs, eventually ending in an (as of now) undeveloped section of  Westfield. In total, the ride is about 35 miles.

I started this tradition in 2008 as I was approaching 40 and feeling old, paunchy, balding, and generally out of shape. I needed a goal, a milestone if you will that would prove to me that I was not over the hill, but rather simply extending its length. Maybe I couldn’t do anything about the balding, but by Jove (or some other outdated expression), I could at least temper the paunch, improve the stamina, increase the muscle mass…and then finish off the day with a birthday dinner at the Broad Ripple Brewpub.

And from such humble beginnings did my birthday tradition start.

I have since upped my game by biking the Hilly Hundred four times in the past five years. However, despite my successful completion of the two-day, 100-mile bike tour up and down the hills of southern Indiana, I still bike the Monon every year. And I still finish the day at the Broad Ripple Brewpub.

This year, due to lower back surgery in May, I have not been able to get on my bike. I will not be able to bike the Hilly Hundred. I may not even be able to bike the Monon Trail. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss out on the Broad Ripple Brewpub. Some things are sacrosanct.

What can I say? It’s my favorite restaurant in Indianapolis.

An Englishman and his Hoosier wife started the brewpub in Indianapolis 1990. The goal, as stated on their Website, was to, “recreate a typical English pub with its dark wood paneling, decorative tin ceiling, and cozy fire place.” What they created in fact was a family-friendly British-style pub with a progressive Midwest college town twist. And this is not easy to do.

To begin your dinner, try their artisanal hand-crafted beers, which are what you would expect from a good microbrewery. I typically go for the Lawnmower Pale Ale and Monon Porter, but I am planning on going back very soon to expand my palate to the ESB Extra Special Bitter, Wobbly Bob American Pale, Kolsch, Aussie Sumer…yes, this may take a while.

The menu offers a wide variety of standard carnivorous pub foods as well as their vegetarian redux cousins. Although I love the thick cut veggie chips and potato chips, I highly recommend starting off the meal with the Brewpub Nachos, a hearty mix of cheeses, sour cream, diced veggies, guacamole, and black beans on tri-colored corn chips. I have never been disappointed by it.

The most difficult part of your evening will be selecting your entrée. So many wonderful choices. I tend to go for their sandwiches, and I can personally recommend the Veggie Stromboli, Black Bean Burger, Baked Falafel, Nancy’s Nutty Burger, and Spinach Melt. The Spinach Melt, my wife’s personal favorite, is a creamy mix of spinach, sour cream, and jicama, grilled on sourdough bread, with Monterey jack cheese and tomato. It’s like a spinach dip sandwich with a mix of creamy and crunchy textures. My son’s have both fallen in love with the Drunken Ravioli, a spicy ravioli in a creamy tomato vodka sauce.

I was under-impressed by the Vegan Fish and Chips, which were too salty for my taste. The Vegan Dolmades look interesting, but I have not tried them yet. Yet.

If all of the above is too exotic for your tastes, they do of course have a variety of standard and specialty pizzas, including the Nutty Garden which contains fresh spinach, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, walnuts, tomato sauce, and mozzarella and provolone cheeses. I have not tried this one yet, and I don’t know why. It’s like pizza wish fulfillment for me. Next time. Definitely next time.

Truth be told, the Broad Ripple Brewpub is not a sophisticated restaurant for delicate palates, nor does it try to be one. But their vegetarian food is hearty, tasty, well-made, and creative. And it goes great with my third porter.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Heartland Forager

For the accidental vegetarian tourist traveling in the heartland of America, finding a good meal is something of a challenge. A good restaurant guide is worth its weight in gold bullion. Or maybe in vegetable bouillon.

I travel extensively throughout the Midwest for work, so I offer the following Website as a personal project, a public service to those who want the best bean burger in Minnesota, the best salad in Michigan, the best palak paneer in Indiana, or perhaps even the best garlic cheese fries in Wisconsin.

I am not a professional restaurateur nor critic. I’m just a traveling foodie hobbyist who wants to see veggie restaurants flourish throughout the country. The opinions and QISA ratings expressed on these pages are mine and mine alone.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Maggie’s Vegetarian Café

Maggie’s Vegetarian Café
311 North 8th Street, Lincoln, NE 68508
QISA(4433), 8-11$, Vegetarian (Vegan-Friendly)

I am not particularly fond of Nebraska. It’s not just the flatness of the landscape and endless monotonic farmland. The state lacks any discernible geologic personality. I remember driving across Nebraska decades ago, struggling to stay awake on the endless highway. It was painful, even worse than driving through Kansas. At least Kansas had the occasional suicidal tumbleweed bounding across the road to attack your bumper. Nebraska only had corn.

Even the University of Nebraska failed to make the best out of a bad situation. Their mascot could have faced this ennui with something ironically lethal like the Nebraska Lions, or Cougars, or even Ragweed. No, instead they chose Cornhuskers, which are typically whiny high school students taking on their first summer job detassling corn in the hot sun. "Shuck them!" is probably not the best football chant.

Lincoln, the capital city, is quiet, calm, friendly, easily drivable, and – consequentially -- rather dull. The downtown area lacks the glitz of Minneapolis, the historic charm of St. Paul, the green space of Indianapolis, the bustle of Chicago, or even the urban decay of Detroit. The entire downtown feels forgotten. And in the middle of this urban tundra, in fact blending in with the tundra, is the Haymarket District.

The Haymarket District is a fun, trendy area of restaurants, shops, and hotels that are way too cool for it’s locale. Walking through the District is like reading anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne, you have to ignore the total lack of style and imagery and focus on the content. In the middle of the Haymarket District is Maggie’s Vegetarian Café.

Given my feelings about Lincoln and Nebraska in general, Maggie’s is a genuine find. The restaurant is small, comprising only three to four tables in a sparsely decorated room, but it combines a progressive, organic, vegetarian vision with wonderfully creative, colorful, and tasty dishes.
The restaurant describes itself as an, “all-natural, from-scratch kitchen that uses local, organic, and non-GMO ingredients. We strive to use only seasonal foods sourced locally for the best taste from the ground to the plate.” And in my humble opinion, they succeed.

I opted not to try the Avocado Melt Wrap (voted The Best Sandwich in Nebraska in the Food Network Magazine in September 2012), even though I love avocado. Instead, I decided to judge them on a non-award winning sandwich, the vegan Baked Tofu Wrap (pictured above). The wrap contained oven-baked organic tofu, onions, mixed greens, fresh tomatoes, organic carrots, and a house-made sweet mustard dressing. I found the wrap aesthetically made, showcasing all of it’s colorful ingredients in an artful palette. Or is it palate? The tortilla was thin enough to hold the wrap together without overpowering the ingredients, and the honey mustard dressing was tasty.

To complement my meal, I ordered an Izze pomegranate soda and a chia allspice muffin. Because I have never in my life heard of a chia allspice muffin. The muffin had a good consistency and blended the chia well ( I wasn’t overly aware of eating seeds), but frankly it could have used just a little more sugar. Or maybe some more organic, unrefined cane sweetener.

All in all, I heartily recommend Maggie’s, and now I’m looking forward to coming back to Lincoln to try out their award-winning avocado sandwich. I just don’t want to drive here. Lord, do I not want to drive here.

Caffe Central

Caffé Central
170 O'farrell St, San Francisco 94102
QISA (4433), 5-15$, Vegetarian-Friendly

I discovered Caffé Central on a morning hunt for a non-Starbucks cup of coffee. I have nothing against Starbucks; I certainly patronize them enough on a fairly regular basis. However, I felt that San Francisco should have more to offer me than just one more chain restaurant. I was here for something different, something original, something quintessentially San Franciscan.
Caffe Central has a wide array of coffee drinks, smoothies, sandwiches, sushi, and pastries. I list Caffé Central as veg friendly because one can put together a meal that does not solely consist of simple carbs -- although their simple carbs are pretty tasty.
Over the course of two visits, I had the garden greens smoothie, the vegetarian morning sandwich, an almond croissant, and a cup of coffee. The garden green smoothie was a fruit and vegetable smoothie containing spinach, kale, apple, kiwi fruit, and ginger. I’ve tried to make similar smoothies myself at home, but the café did a much better job than I ever did, artfully blending the flavors and textures.
The morning sandwich of egg, cheese, tomato, avocado, and pesto on a cheese-topped croissant was delightful. Big chunks of fresh avocado complimented the rest of the ingredients, creating a fresh, tasty, very filling meal.
The almond croissant was flaky and sweet, just the way it should be. The other pastries in the case were beautifully made, and if they were as good as the croissant, then I could have spent many, many happy mornings there.
Ironically, the coffee was decent but average. For the amount I paid for the drip coffee, I guess I expected a more transformative caffeinated experience.
I did not try any of the bubble teas, partly because I did not have time, but mostly because I have a visceral reaction to tea drinks with chewy bits in it. When I manage to work my way up to tapioca pearl drinks, I’ll come back and update my report.
All in all, I recommend Caffé Central. It is reasonably priced for San Francisco (which means way-overpriced for the Midwest). It’s a great way to feel a little younger, hipper, and healthier without copping a snooty attitude. And at my age, I need all the help I can get.


Restaurant rating systems typically suffer from a lack of usefulness, even for the experienced traveler. For me, a single digit rating (number of stars) fails to capture the complexity of the dining experience. It leaves the reader to guess at the relative importance of style over substance, or even style and substance over comfort. How can you compare the trendy, expensive, juice bar with excellent smoothies and lousy service to the family style restaurant with the excellent veggie burgers and gregarious, handsome waiter? How can you compare the three star organic, locally-sourced corner sandwich shop with the five star fancy restaurant that only offers you a salad bar?

The QISA (pronounced kwee-sa) rating stands for Quality, Innovation, Service, and Ambience. Each element is given a single digit on a one to five scale with three being average, one being exceptionally bad, and five being exceptionally good. By anchoring the scale at a three, I start with the assumption that most of the restaurants I patronize are forgettable, not horribly bad, but not noticeably exceptional either. For me to praise or warn about a restaurant, I need to be nudged in one direction or another.
The QISA elements are:
  • Quality, which refers to taste and basic preparation. A 3-rating is average, a 5-rating is exceptionally good, and a 1-rating…well, we’ve all been there and hope to never go back. Note that the Quality refers to only the vegetarian dishes on the menu. An exceptional steak restaurant with a mediocre salad bar is still just mediocre.
  • Innovation, which refers to both innovation and creativity. A 5-rating provides me something novel, or at least a completely new take on an old theme. A 1-rating means that I left the restaurant bored with the food.
  • Service, which means just that. Most restaurants are 3-rated, meaning that you didn’t notice the service one way or another. If I have to wait too long for my food, they get my order wrong (and don’t correct it), or they are just plain rude, this is going to be a 2- or 1-rating.
  • Ambience, which is the atmosphere of the restaurant. A 3-rating suggests that I didn’t notice the ambience one way or the other. A 5-rating was transcendent. A 1-rating was uncomfortable, dirty, loud, or just plain wrong.
I list objective categories separately. Average cost of main entrees (not of the entire meal) is reported as a range. Herbivorosity (my new word for the day) is given as Vegan, Vegetarian, Vegetarian-Friendly, and Vegetarian-Possible. For sake of argument, Vegetarian-Friendly means that 1/10 of the main entrée items are ovo-lacto vegetarian (eggs and dairy, but no fish). Vegetarian-Possible means that I could find at least one ovo-lacto meal without resorting entirely to side dishes. The only other category is Vegetarian-Antagonistic, but I probably will not be rating any of those restaurants.