Vegetarian On the Road
My book, New Vegetarian, is the very good reason that I didn’t blog last week. I was in a two week-long period of travel, starting with a tour of Texas and ending in a stint in New York City. I had a great time cooking and demonstrating, and came back ready to take vegetarian to a new level.
Traveling, though, can be a time when you need your old hunter-gatherer instinct. Getting a meatless meal on the road can be a challenge, depending on where you go. From the disappointing airport options (cinnamon buns and pizza, anyone?) to the crapshoot of hotel restaurants, you end up spending some time scouting it out. I try to think of the time I spend checking out my options at the airport as aerobic activity, as I patrol the entire food zone, dragging my bag and sporting my stuffed laptop backpack, seeking something acceptable to eat.
Sometimes the Luna Bars in the backpack are the best option.
But when you get to your destination, you have to start scouting. This time around, I came up against a familiar question. Do I go to a place that calls itself “vegetarian”? Or do I go to a well-reviewed, well-respected restaurant and check out the veg option? Sadly, most of the time places that are dedicated veg are less interesting to me. I’m glad to relate that eating vegetarian was easy at all of the above.
My first foray was in Dallas. A little place called Cosmic Cafe was just around the corner from my hotel, with a funky paint job and a yard full of Indian statuary, it proclaimed its vegetarian status proudly in a city known for beef.
The outside, as you can see above, says Indian food. A safe haven for meatless diners, Indian restaurants are usually good bets, even when they don’t say anything about the v-word. Cosmic Cafe, though, is not really an Indian restaurant, as I came to find out. There in the home of Tex-Mex, much of the menu consisted of tacos, burritos and pizzas, all with Indian accents. The heady aroma of curry spices wafted from pots simmering on the stove, so I hoped for greatness. My pizza, built on a nan bread and bathed in sort of curry flavored tomato sauce, was loaded with vegetables and scattered with croquettes of a lightly spiced black bean burger.
The fusion of Dallas, India and vegetarian was a little odd, but it was a satisfying and tasty lunch. Vegetarian places always seem to be trying to stay afloat, and in Texas, making everything into a burrito must be a strategy for making the food familiar. Funky, cheesy, and often rebellious, veg places like this one are always unique and creative.
Fast forward to another vegetarian restaurant. In New York City, close to the famed Kalustyan’s spice shop, I had lunch with a friend at Pongal, an Indian place that proudly proclaimed its vegetarian status.
Here, in the city that never sleeps, the chefs at Pongal have no need to update their vegetarian traditions. There were no burritos or pizzas, only authentic dishes from Southern regions of India known for their meatless cuisine. The food was excellent. One thing that stood out was that the fried foods were wonderfully un-greasy. Usually the deep-fried breads are a decadent treat, and once they cool you realize just how oily they are, but not here.
My dining companion had the Pongal thali, and we shared with abandon. Steamed Iddly, fried poori, carrot chutney, and medu vada, the little fried lentil donuts, were making their way across our table as we feasted. No melted cheese, no meat, nothing but pure Indian vegetarian, and it was delicious.
In the end, it is hard to compare restaurants, especially in far distant corners of the country. Each speaks to its community-Cosmic Cafe to the local yoga and veg crowd, comfortable with something a little more familiar. Pongal was crowded with Indian-Americans, and the serious ethnic diners that populate one of the most international restaurant cities in the world.
There is a place for both, the sincere and the authentic. The hippie and the immigrant, the political and the nostalgic.