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.