Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Vegan in New Orleans, and other traveling mysteries: installment one.

It's terrible, the way I've neglected you. I won't try to make excuses, explain away my actions or lack thereof. I will only say how deeply I regret the time we've lost together. But alas, no use crying over spilt silk. I'm here to tell you about my travels, and possibly most importantly, what I ate as I traveled down the east side of our continent and back up again.

Our trip began on Christmas morning, calling the car service at approximately 5:45 am - far too early to eat or drink. The flight to Raleigh-Durham, on Jet Blue (which I love except for the dead cow seats that they're oh so proud of) involved little to no foodstuffs - there may have been some potato chips. And so, upon arriving at the small airport, the first order of business was COFFEE. I hadn't had any yet, and I wasn't about tho think about driving the four or so hours to Jonathan's parents' house in Virginia without a proper amount of caffeine in my system.

Luckily, thankfully, blissfully, the airport had a Fourbucks. Now, in general I hate starbucks. For all of the obvious reasons - the lack of fair trade, the high prices, the ridiculous amounts of fat and sugar and additives in most of their "specialty" drinks. But their one redeeming factor is that no matter where you are in the country, if you can find a Starbucks you've got yourself a soy latte. Ahh, the sweet saving grace that is a soy latte, how would I live without it.

Properly caffeinated, we made our way up, up, up into the Blue Ridge mountains. His parents live far out, up and away from what we like to call "civilization" - we're talking no cell phone reception people. They, in fact, live near a large Amish community that has sprung up in the last few years, overflow down from Pennsylvania. The one main benefit of having them as neighbors is the Nature's Way grocery just up the hill, which sells all manner of, well, Amish food. Jams and jellies, jarred fruits and vegetables, pastas, beans, cereal, the best damn spiced peaches and marinated mushrooms you ever had, and for reasons we'll never be sure of almond and soy milk. Do we shop up the road at Nature's Way, rather than drive the 40 minutes "into town" to shop at the Kroger? Well yes, yes we do.

I'm not going to talk a whole lot about our five days up in the mountains; meal wise it was fairly uneventful. Jonathan's parents do some gardening that's really more like small scale farming, and whatever they can't eat fresh they freeze or can or jar or pickle, so we as usual got to eat plenty of things that they had grown themselves which is awesome. Furthermore, his mother (the cook) 'gets it', and goes out of her way not to put butter on the potatoes or ham hock in the black beans - double plus awesome. We eat hearty, simple meals at the mountain cabin. Jon's dad even requested that I make my tofu lasagna while we were there, quite a surprise, so of course I did. I made tomato sauce using tomatoes that Miss Judy had jarred last summer - does it get any better than that?

We had originally thought that we would fly from Virginia down to New Orleans for Parental Visit Two, but when we went to book we discovered that every single flight from anywhere in the area got routed back through JFK - and most had a layover there. Well, we just couldn't stand the thought of basically going back to NY only to leave again, so we said screw it. We'll take a day to ourselves and have a little road trip. We took supplies with us from the Amish store: mustard pretzels, sesame sticks, their version of corn nuts, and dark chocolate covered peanuts - vegan as the day is long, oh yes, and gooood. Freakin' love those things.

We drove through a series of really prize states, places that just adore veganism: North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Oh yes, choices on places to eat were just boundless. Well, we made a stop at Cracker Barrel, because you just have to, and made very careful selections from their menu of sides. They at least tell you what crazy things they put lard in (like their corn muffins).

The second stop, made at a gas station, offered up sandwiches at a Blimpie. Much like the sandwiches that you get at Subway, it was salad on bread - typical vegetables plus pickles and banana peppers. Ahh, road food - you do whatcha gotta. Driving into NO, it was so odd to feel relieved seeing signs for Slidell... my friends from down south will understand that sentiment.

Now, to the meat of the subject (ha ha): eating vegan in New Orleans. The fact is that you can be vegan anywhere that there's a grocery store; the city you live in just determines how much you can go out to eat. This is the south, and there are definitely a good number of restaurants here that don't sell a single edible item. They make their red sauce with beef stock and you'll find chunks of ham fat in the green beans. And let's just say one thing up front: there is not a single all-vegetarian restaurant in New Orleans - not even a vegetarian-but-we-have-fish. But. You can eat here, and well, and often, if you know where to go. For any of my vegan brethren who may find themselves in the situation of trying to eat vegan in this odd little curve of a town, I present to you the following information.

Mona's Cafe.
Mona's is, in my opinion the best middle eastern food anywhere. Sure, we can get all manner of hummus and falafel in New York, but my palette for this ethnicity was set at Mona's and to me no one else's babaganouj tastes right. There are now three Mona's locations for your dining pleasure, spread conveniently around the city. I'd give you a link to their website except that they don't have one. The original restaurant on Banks street, mid city just below Carrolton, began its life as a gas station. At one point not so long ago, but before the storm, it burned down - but they rebuilt it, much to the joy of its faithful followers. I ate there with my sister (and my man of course) on our first real day in town. Another cool bonus of the Banks Street location is that attached to the restaurant is a little grocery. This isn't quite as exciting as it used to be now that I've lived in Astoria for a few years, but it's still cool and I'm happy that they're continuing to do well. The other locations are 1) in the French Quarter/Fauburg area at the corner of Decatur and Frenchman, and 2) on Carrolton in the Riverbend just toward the river from Oak Street. Go there. Get the babaganouj and the falafel and the veg grape leaves. Don't tell me about how that's too much food. Just do it. Oh, and the red lentil soup is excellent as well...

Bankok Thai.
Same neighborhood as the Riverbend Mona's, really just down the street, is Bangkok Thai. It's next door to Cooter Brown's, but we can't really blame them for that now can we? It's, well, a Thai place. And I like it. They apparently changed hands after the storm, but there doesn't seem to be any significant difference in the food or service. The atmosphere is humble, but the food is good. The house pad thai with vegetables is quite pleasing, with chunks of fried tofu and lots of nice veggies, and just a hint of yellow curry to tinge and flavor the noodles. There are many options on the menu that can be vegan; choose the "vegetables" option and make sure it doesn't usually come with egg, and you're pretty much good to go.

Juan's Flying Burrito.
Juan's has two locations, but if you want to actually have your food served to you within an hour of ordering it (or, for that matter, at all), you should probably shun the Magazine Street Garden District location in favor of the Mid City spot at the corner of Canal and Carrolton. Service there will still be bad - just not nearly as bad. It'll all be alright though once you get your food, because it's freakin' good and there is a whole lot of it. Many of their dishes do not feature meat (such as the bean burrito, the build your own tacos, the supergreen burrito, and the veggie punk burrito - my personal favorite), and they're pretty good about leaving the dairy out. They haven't quite progressed to having vegan cheese or sour cream, or tofu, but I like to believe that they'll get there one day. They also make a tasty guacamole and a mean margarita.

Sake Cafe, Wasabi, and Ninja.
Japanese is pretty much always a good option, what with seaweed salad, veg tempora, and any number of vegetable rolls that can be on offer. As far as their miso being clean (sans fish broth or benito), I haven't been to any of these recently so I would ask your server before ordering. The first and last are uptown but on opposite ends - Sake Cafe is in uptown proper but nearing the Garden District, at the corner of Magazine Street and Washington; Ninja is almost to the river on Oak Street in Riverbend - maybe after dinner you can stop by the Maple Leaf. (Rebirth plays on Wednesdays.) Wasabi is in the Fauburg / Marigny, at the corner of Frenchman and Burgundy (not pronounced like the color / wine - stress on the second syllable, please).

Pho Tau Bay.
Unfortunately, you will now have to travel to the Westbank to get the best Vietnamese food in the country - the shops in Fat City and on Carrolton shut down after the storm due to copious damage. But that's ok, because at least there's still the one locaiton, and that one's booming. All you gotta do to get there is take the bridge and then go three exits into the Wank (or, to some, the Best Bank), to Stumpf. Get off and go straight, but get into the right lane. It'll be on your righthand side in a big parking lot. And it's so, so, so, so worth it. This journey alone with validate your rental car. There is plenty of meat on the menu, but there are plenty of vegetarian options too. I suggest... any of them, as long as you also get the spring rolls - they're the kind wrapped in the stretchy rice paper stuff, and they're full of fried tofu and noodles and thai basil and goodness, and served with the most wonderful peanut sauce this side of the Pacific. Aw man, now I wanna go back there.

Alright, enough for now. I'm starving, and more convinced than ever that it in fact is possible to be a happy vegan in New Orleans - something I could never quite convince myself of when I lived there. Until next time, this is BoBo the Wonder Puppy, saying, don't forget to eat your vegetables!

No comments: