BEST BET: ETHNIC RESTAURANTS
Eating at Chinese, Thai, and Japanese restaurants is easy and satisfying if you just know a few tricks. When ordering, tell them that you are “pure vegetarian” (in many places, “vegan” is a foreign term), and explain that you do not want any animal products in your food. Then you must spell it out: no egg, no pork, no fish oil, no chicken or beef broth, no MSG (it’s vegan, but it’s not very good for you). Thai restaurants love to put fish oil in everything, but will leave it out on request.
Most Asian restaurants serve a variety of delicious tofu dishes and most will substitute tofu for meat in any of their dishes. Remember that tofu is a “chameleon” food – it takes on the flavor of the sauce or spices with which it is cooked. Oriental food is often cooked in a wok or on a grill. If you order deep-fried tofu or veggies, just make sure it is not fried in the same oil as the chicken wings, yuk. Also, most oriental restaurants use vegetable oil, with no lard. Restaurant soups are usually made with chicken or beef broth; however, Chinese restaurants will often specially prepare a soup (usually tofu & oriental veggies) without the animal broth – ask the waiter.
Even Japanese sushi restaurants usually offer vegan avocado or vegetable rolls.
Mexican restaurants are another good choice; however, before being seated, ask if their refried beans are prepared with lard. If the answer is yes, as it is in many authentic Mexican establishments, simply tell them you don’t eat animal products and leave. Of course, calling first will save you time and trouble. Since the beans would be your main source of protein in the meal, there is not much point in simply eating chips and salsa.
If the beans pass the test, make sure you let the waiter know that you are “pure vegetarian,” and you would like a bean taco or a bean burrito, etc. with no meat, no cheese, and no sour cream. No matter how well you enunciate “bean,’ it can too easily be mistaken for “beef.”
Also, guacamole is often made with mayonnaise in restaurants because mayonnaise is cheaper than avocado; so, ask before you order!
Remember that it is common for Mexican food to have cheese on everything. Sometimes I request guacamole or avocado instead of cheese on my bean tacos or taco salad. And I always remind them to add lettuce, tomato and onion because after being so adamant about “beans only,” sometimes they are downright afraid to add anything else!
MIDDLE EASTERN & GREEK RESTAURANTS
Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants are great choices for vegans, offering many delicious pure vegetarian items. Hummus (ground chickpeas, olive oil & garlic), tabouli (a tangy grain and parsley salad), and falafels (deep-fried balls made with ground chick peas and spices) with pita bread make a wonderful filling meal. Tahini sauce, which is ground sesame seeds, garlic and olive oil, is delicious as well as high in protein and iron. Often the grape leaves are stuffed simply with basmati rice, spices and olive oil. You may want to check before ordering the baba ganouch (an eggplant dish), as it is often prepared with yogurt.
I have also had some wonderful meals at Indian restaurants around the country, which usually have vegetarian sections in their menus. However, it may be wise to call ahead and request dishes and bread made without ghee (clarified butter, which is often used in Indian food). Cream is also used in some entrees, including dal; but they will often substitute olive oil for both ghee and cream. And remember that “paneer” means cheese.
Italian restaurants are often good choices, especially if you’ve had protein at another meal. The protein source in Italian food would come from the beans in the minestrone or pasta fagole soup, which are sometimes vegan (ask!). There is actually quite a bit of protein in pasta (which is mostly seminola) and also in whole grain pasta. Just watch out for the parmesan cheese; it’s in everything! You are almost always safe ordering pasta with marinaro sauce, but make sure it has no parmesan or romano cheese on it or in it. Often you can get a good “pasta con broccoli;” that’s pasta and broccoli in an olive oil and garlic sauce. Again remind them, no parmesan on top. The same goes for the “pasta primavera,” (pasta and veggies); ask for an olive oil and garlic sauce instead of a cream sauce, with no parmesan. Sometimes you can get a pesto sauce made without cream on any of the pasta dishes or on pizza. If you order pizza ask for extra sauce (vegan marinaro or pesto) and no cheese, with whatever veggies you like from their selection. Usually the thin pizza crust is made without eggs, as is the pasta, especially the penne – inquire.
Also, if you are having salad, make sure it comes with no cheese, egg or meat. Generally Balsamic vinegarette is vegan, but sometimes their house Italian dressing has cheese or cream in it. If no dressings are vegan, ask them to toss the salad with oil & vinegar and salt & pepper.
Italian, French and sour dough breads are almost always made with no eggs. Good Italian restaurants will often bring olive oil with fresh garlic in it (yum!) or olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping the bread – if not, ask for it (and add a little salt & pepper).
Italian and “continental” restaurants will often prepare a vegetable plate that gives new meaning to vegetables! Generally, Italian restaurateurs are willing to work with you, and often enjoy the challenge.
FRENCH & CONTINENTAL RESTAURANTS
Many upscale French and continental restaurants will prepare an awesome “vegetable plate” for their vegan customers, but it would be wise to call ahead and ask. Sometimes a “low-cholesterol entree” is offered on the menu, which may include a portabella mushroom and innovatively prepared veggies. Since these chefs often pride themselves on their cream sauces, it is important to stress your non-dairy request. Some of these experienced culinary geniuses can make vegetables literally sing; but how expensive a handful of vegetables can become, may be a shock!
Many of the family-style restaurants, such a T.G.I. Fridays or Ruby Tuesdays, stay abreast of the latest trends, trying very hard to please as large a cross-section of the public as possible. So one page away from the “baby-back ribs” on the menu, you may find a small vegetarian section. This could include anything from a vegetable plate or a veggie burger, to pasta primavera with white wine sauce. The trick here is to find out whether the sauce is vegan, i.e. has no cream, milk or cheese, and whether the veggie burger contains eggs or cheese. And before ordering those French fries, be sure to inquire whether they are prepared in their own vat of oil or if they take their turn to sizzle right after the chicken legs. Most restaurants, nowadays use 100% vegetable oil.
And please, could the burger be fried on a cleaned grill?
WORST CHOICE RESTAURANTS!
Even if you are dragged by your unenlightened friends or business associates to a (ahem) steak house, you don’t need to sit glumly sipping iced tea or beer, while your stomach bellows its grievances with a sound not too unlike that of an angry bull. You can survive (barely) on a baked potato with margarine (stress no butter or sour cream), and a salad with Italian dressing (if it’s vegan), or, in a pinch: vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. Remember, however, there are many dairy-laden pitfalls at the salad bar. Pickin’s can be pretty slim once you’ve eliminated the creamy pasta salads and the German potato salad with ham! But sometimes you’ll luck out with an array of fresh veggies that mix together quite well.
Bread can help as a filler in such establishments and French, Italian and sourdough breads are almost always vegan. Many steak houses offer margarine as a substitute for butter for those carnivorous clients who are watching their cholesterol – hmmm!! Upscale steakhouses may even have olive oil, and maybe balsamic vinegar; so dip away!
Country-style restaurants probably take the prize for the greatest potential of starving a vegan. Even though there are lots of vegetables on the menu, forget about a vegetable plate, as there’s probably not one veggie that isn’t adulterated with ham, cheese or both. You can try to go the baked potato and salad route, but sometimes the only potatoes offered are mashed (with lots of milk and butter), or au gratin (laden with cheese and butter). The typical salad is pretty sad: iceberg lettuce with a little tomato on top. And forget dressings. You may luck out with a low-cal Italian, which they might keep on hand, in order for their dieting clientel to have salad with their biscuits and gravy. Or they may be able to provide a fresh lemon wedge, which could be squeezed over the salad. Be sure to request that they leave the bacon bits and the shredded cheese in the kitchen.
KOREAN BARBECUE RESTAURANTS
Whatever you do, avoid Korean barbecue restaurants! I discovered that there was a new oriental eaterie in town, and after calling them and confirming that they offered tofu dishes, I decided to try it out. So as my vegan friend and I were being seated, I noted that all of the clientel were oriental. Hum, could be a good sign of authenticity, I thought pleasantly. Well, that was indeed what it was!
We began to casually peruse our menus, when suddenly our eyes met, incredulous looks contorting both our faces. “Eww, yuk!” I couldn’t hold back. Right there in black and white, dishes were proudly described, such as: “large intestines of cow, goat and sheep, with vegetables.” And it only got worse from there! The thought of my tofu being cut on the counter next to somebody’s large intestine was a very sobering thought.
Needless to say, we exited with haste!
All in all, it is possible to eat out, and to eat out deliciously, and still maintain a pure vegan diet. Again, I stress the importance of establishing a rapport with the management of any restaurant you frequent. It is the closest way to maintain the purity of the diet without barging into the kitchen and hovering over the chef’s shoulder; which, by the way, I do not recommend trying!
Whenever you eat out in anything other than a vegetarian restaurant, you run the risk of having your tofu sliced on the cutting board right after the prime rib and with the very same knife. So, once a cordial rapport is established, the management will come to understand how “kosher,” or shall we say “vegan,” you wish your food to be prepared, and will respect that. After a few good tips, the waiter will even begin to look after your welfare in the kitchen.