We just spent the past several chapters exploring supermarkets, natural food stores, farmers’ markets, and online retailers. After all that exhausting shopping, it’s time to sit down, relax, and let somebody else do the cooking. So in this chapter and the one that follows, we’re going to check out the vegan options that exist in restaurants.
This chapter is devoted to non-vegetarian restaurants, and how to know in advance which of these places are reasonably vegan-friendly. I will also cover which common restaurant foods are least likely to contain animal products.
Non-vegetarian restaurants can be quite accommodating to vegans. So let’s begin by looking at the least appealing options of all, just so we can get them out of the way.
Subway offers salads and the erroneously named Veggie Delight sandwich. If you do decide to purchase the Veggie Delight, be sure to have them hold the cheese and the mayo. Plus, you’ve got to order it on white bread if you want to avoid the honey. This is one of the most boring sandwiches ever made; iceberg lettuce anyone? And the fact that it’s almost as expensive as their meat-based sandwiches is totally unfair. But with nearly 30,000 locations worldwide, it’s never hard to find a Subway, and so a Veggie Delight can be an OK option if nothing else is available. When driving long distances, it’s good to know that there’s a Subway on the Interstate every twenty miles or so, and that you can therefore reliably get vegan food without any advance planning. One final point about Subway, though: the knife they use to cut the sandwich in half is an entity of supreme nastiness, since it cuts hundreds of meat sandwiches a day and they never seem to clean it. So on the rare occasions that I eat at Subway, I always ask them not to cut my sandwich in two.
Taco Bell is another option. The best thing on their menu is the plain old Bean Burrito. Ask for it “fresco style,” which means they’ll leave off the cheese and swap in a surprisingly good fresh salsa. If you’ve got an extra buck burning a hole in your pocket, have them also add rice and guacamole. Unlike Subway, where you can see your sandwich being made and let out a shriek if they’re about to squirt on mayonnaise, the Taco Bell stuff is made back in the kitchen. The incompetence of Taco Bell’s food preparers is the stuff of legends. Let’s just say that if Taco Bell ever decides to do drug testing, they’ll have to fire half their workforce. So never bite into a Taco Bell burrito without first opening it up to see if there is some evil animal product lurking within.
Now that we’ve gotten Subway and Taco Bell out of the way, the chain options improve enormously. P.F. Chang’s Bistro is a terrific Chinese-style restaurant with lots of vegan stuff on the menu. In fact, every option in the “Vegetarian Plates and Sides” section of their menu is vegan. Note that most of this stuff contains cane sugar, which may be filtered through bone char. But I don’t consider this an issue worth paying attention to—Chapter 24 explains my stance on animal ingredients.
The amazing thing about P.F. Chang’s is that the décor is surprisingly swanky, yet it’s impossible for any one person to eat more than about $15 worth of food. Nearly all of P.F. Chang’s offerings are veggie-based stir-fry dishes, and they do an amazing job with eggplant as well. They’ve got more than 190 restaurants in the United States, and as full-service chains go, they really can’t be beaten.
My two other favorite chain options are Chipotle Mexican Grill and Qdoba. Of the two, I favor Chipotle since they make a real effort to source organic ingredients for their food, plus their chips are sensational. Also, Chipotle consistently serves huge burritos, whereas I’ve found Qdoba’s offerings are sometimes way too small. There’s really only one item I recommend at either of these chains, and that’s a bean burrito with rice, salsa, and guacamole. If you’re at a Chipotle, have them add the grilled peppers, and if you’re at a Qdoba, ask for the grilled veggies. Chipotle’s corn salsa is also fantastic, and you can ask them to add some hot sauce as well. But make sure you only order black beans at Chipotle restaurants since their pinto beans annoyingly contain pork.
For vegans, both of these chains impose what I call the burrito tax. That is, they charge you the same price as everyone else for a vegetarian burrito, even though you’ve asked to leave off the cheese and sour cream. It’s a major bummer, since you pay what everyone else pays but you get substantially less food, despite the fact that cheese and sour cream are two of a burrito’s costliest ingredients.
Now that we’ve considered chain restaurants, let’s take a look at non-vegetarian independent restaurants.
When deciding what sort of independent non-veggie restaurant to patronize, it makes sense to choose by cuisine. Some cuisines are perfect for vegans, while others you should avoid at all costs.
By far the most vegan-friendly cuisine is Middle Eastern, which sounds like a bizarre thing to say since the the kitchens of these restaurants invariably showcase a revolving hunk of lamb on a spit. The thing is, so long as you’re not eating meat, virtually everything else in the restaurant will be vegan. Eggs simply don’t show up in Middle Eastern cooking, and dairy products are a rarity. The breads and rices and main entrees, so long as they don’t contain meat, are pretty much guaranteed to be vegan. Many Middle Eastern places serve pita bread stuffed with falafel, hummus, or baba ghanouj. You can’t go wrong with any of these choices. Alternately, you may be able to order a wrap-style sandwich served in a flatbread called lavash—which I consider a far tastier option than pita bread. And just about every Middle Eastern place will offer a vegetarian plate containing falafel, hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouli, pita, and tahini dressing. In a few falafel joints, most of these actually Greek rather than Middle Eastern, the hummus or the tahini dressing may be adulterated with yogurt, so be sure to ask. Everything else I’ve mentioned should always be vegan.
If I can’t get Middle Eastern food, my second choice would be Ethiopian. Every Ethiopian restaurant will offer a half-dozen different vegan stews. They’ll serve a large dollop of each variety of stew on a giant sour fermented vegan pancake called injera bread. Typically, this will be served family style, with your dinner companions gathered around, tearing off pieces of injera, and dipping it into the various stews. A small percentage of Ethiopian restaurants cook using clarified butter, or kibur, so call ahead to ask. But since vegetable oil is so inexpensive, nearly all Ethiopian restaurants cook without butter. Ethiopian restaurants may occasionally plop a dollop of sour cream at the center of the meal as a garnish, so be sure to specify that you don’t eat dairy products.
If you can’t get Middle Eastern or Ethiopian food, after that the drop-off gets pretty severe. You can go to a sushi place and order pretty much anything featuring seaweed, rice, and veggies. Just be sure to say you don’t eat eggs, and, of course, fish. Vegan sushi is fantastic, one of my favorite things to eat in fact. But you’re always better off making it yourself, since sushi restaurants usually charge vegans fish prices to eat a bunch of rice and veggies. And besides, making sushi at home is fun and easy, and you can use a better and fresher selection of veggies than any sushi restaurant will offer. Plus, there won’t be any skanky fish smell.
Mexican food can be workable, but it’s a minefield. You have to watch out for chicken stock in the rice, and occasionally lard in the tortillas. The guacamole may be vegan, or it may contain sour cream. Order your beans whole instead of refried, unless you’re sure that the refried beans are made without lard. Many Mexican restaurants warm their tortillas on the same grill on which they cook their meats; I don’t consider this practice to have ethical implications but I do find it disgusting.
If you’re in the mood for a light meal, a freshly-baked bagel can be a nice choice. Unfortunately, while bagels made from white flour will nearly always be vegan, whole wheat bagels often contain honey. If you’re lucky, your bagel place can add some hummus, sprouts, and tomatoes and suddenly you’ve got a legitimate vegan meal.
I suppose you could always hit a salad bar, but those places consistently disappoint and annoy me. I mean, you would think a salad bar would be a vegan paradise. But the soups won’t be vegan, the muffins and breads won’t be vegan, and the dessert options won’t be vegan either. On top of all that, you’re even shafted with your choice of dressings—pretty much your only vegan options for dressing will be oil and vinegar or Italian. I get angry just thinking about it. Let’s move on.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel, you could always get a cheeseless pizza. Unfortunately, many of the big chains put dairy products in their dough. Luckily, an authentic neighborhood-style pizzeria will make their dough from scratch, with just flour, yeast, water, sugar, and salt. And the sauce will be vegan too. Just keep in mind that many pizzerias dust their pies with parmesan, so be sure to ask for no cheese at all, including no parmesan—claim a dairy allergy if you must. As with the burrito tax I mentioned earlier, you’re generally stuck paying for a cheese-bearing pie even though the most expensive ingredient is being left off. Bastards.
Since we are now nearly out of options, I’ll finish by telling you the restaurants I avoid at all costs. I generally don’t do Indian at all, unless I know for sure that the place goes out of its way to cater to vegans. Dairy shows up in way too much Indian food and is often undetectable what with all the spices.
And you can forget about Chinese food, with the exception of P.F. Chang’s. At most non-vegetarian Chinese restaurants, chicken stock can be in practically anything, and you’ll never know. Of course, if an Indian or Chinese restaurant is the only option in your community and you feel like you can create a trusting dialog with the owner, you might be able to reliably find out which options are vegan.
There are of course dozens of other restaurant chains that I don’t have room to cover in this chapter. Fortunately, there’s a website, VeganEatingOut.com, that brings together current vegan-oriented information for every major restaurant chain in America. So if you’re ever stuck attending a gathering at Applebee’s or T.G.I.Friday’s, you can check VeganEatingOut.com beforehand to find out just how up the creek you really are.
Your best bet, of course, is not to go to a single restaurant I’ve mentioned in this chapter. If at all possible, I patronize vegan places. I favor vegan restaurants because I like to be certain that my food is vegan, and also because it’s important to keep money within the veggie community. As we’re about to see, there are some truly amazing all-veggie restaurants out there for you to enjoy, with more of these restaurants opening every year.
Next Chapter: Veggie Restaurants
Return to: Table of Contents
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