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Tofu or not tofu: A vegetarian’s wishlist for restaurant menus.

June 18, 2010

As a society, we seem to have finally reached the point where vegetarianism isn’t a fringe lifestyle choice anymore. According to  a recent Vegetarian Times study, 7.3 million Americans are vegetarians, 1 million of whom are vegan. Vegetarians comprise 3.2 percent of the American population. An additional 22.8 million Americans follow “a vegetarian-inclined diet”, and 11.9 million surveyed meat eaters are “definitely interested” in making the switch at some point in their futures. Not included in this survey are former vegetarians, health-conscious eaters, and foodies, all of whom may be accustomed to eating meat-free dishes from time to time. Clearly, there is a strong demand for tasty, healthy, well-rounded vegetarian and vegan dishes on dining menus.

This July I will have been a vegetarian for a grand total of seventeen years. I’ve been chowing down on tempeh and tofu for more than half of my life, since I was 13 years old. Although I don’t really think about it often, this means that every time I’ve been into a restaurant and ordered something that wasn’t off the kiddie menu, it’s been a vegetarian dish.

Sometimes this has been a successful endeavor; I’ve definitely found some tasty gems in restaurants that, from all outward appearances, seem to be focused on their meat-based dishes. Often (or maybe even usually) my dining experience is mildly disappointing; a restaurant may appear to be the type of place that would have a diverse menu, but then I get there and the vegetarian options are limited to the same old vegetable medley-or-salad rigmarole. And of course, sometimes the experience is truly disgusting. (More on that later.)

Even a steakhouse or a barbecue restaurant will have vegetarian customers. As a girl from a city with legendary pork barbecue, I can attest to this. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, but many of our friends and family members do, and they often choose the restaurant when we go out together. We would love to be able to accompany them on their meat-eating adventures without feeling left out (or worse, leaving with belly rumbles). Contrary to popular belief, many vegetarians are not horrified by being in the presence of meat; we simply choose not to eat it. For me anyway, there’s no great dividing line between Food Right and Food Wrong. I like to think that we can all dine in harmony. When I find a meat-focused restaurant that takes the time to create a special dish or two for its vegetarian customers, I feel truly respected. I have steered many a Memphis tourist toward the Rendezvous in search of their delicious vegetarian red beans and rice, and I’m always thanked for it. And every time I’m in town with a barbecue-seeking friend in tow, I pick the Rendezvous because I know I won’t starve to death there. Trust me, meat-serving friends: the payoff is mutual here.

The question is: how can restaurants that currently fall into the categories of ‘disappointing’ and ‘truly disgusting’ venture into the world of being vegetarian-friendly? I have compiled a wish list of sorts, one that is based on general nutritional needs and taste wants. Restaurants, take heed: you help me out by serving food that doesn’t bore or disgust me, and I’ll help you grab some of those 7.3 million vegetarian diners with these tips.

Vegetarians don’t eat meat.

I know. This seems so obvious! However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a server about their vegetarian options, then been directed to the seafood menu. A basic understanding of what constitutes a vegetarian (or vegan) diet is a pretty key piece of knowledge that a server should have.

Step outside the box (of frozen veggie burgers).

While vegetarian casual diners generally appreciate finding the standard veggie burger on a menu full of non-vegetarian items, my feeling is that it doesn’t bode well for your general level of creativity if it’s all that you have to offer us. Unless you have a truly spectacular veggie burger that you make yourself- i.e you’re not just microwaving something that came in a boxed 4-pack from Morningstar Farms and overcharging us profusely for it- you should probably be thinking ‘outside the box’, so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong; there are those of us who search high and low for the perfect veggie burger (I found it already, nyah nyah). Unfortunately, it doesn’t come frozen in a box. You probably wouldn’t serve something pre-packed from the freezer section of the grocery store to your meat-eating customers; why are you serving it to us?

And another thing- if you’re going to pull the boxed veggie burger trick, don’t try to pass it off as your own. If there’s one thing a vegetarian knows how to do, it’s identify which mass-produced veggie burger they’re eating. Even though I rarely eat them, as soon as one hits my mouth I think, “Boca.” Or, “Gardenburger.” I know them all, and I know them like the back of my hand. So do the rest of my vegetarian friends.

That said, please, for the love of all that is holy: don’t serve tofu unless you know what you are doing.

Tofu is one of my favorite foods. When done right, it’s delicious. When done wrong, the results can range from boring to disastrous. There are many tips and tricks to getting tofu right. If you freeze tofu, it will cook with an interesting meaty, chewy consistency. You have to thoroughly press and drain the stuff, or it won’t have much taste. There are different types of tofu, all of which cook differently. If tofu is pushed around in the pan too much, it can crumble to tiny pieces. Much like with cooking meat, there are many guidelines to preparing and cooking tofu correctly. Personally, I’d rather not pay a lot of money to eat your tofu if you haven’t bothered to take the time to master its intricacies. One time I paid seven bucks for a tofu burrito that had seemingly been soaked in brine, meaning that I was eating a veritable sponge of salt water. That was truly disgusting.

Protein, protein, protein.

Here’s another “contrary to popular belief” item for you: vegetarians aren’t generally protein-deprived, nor do we shun protein. There are plenty of non-animal sources of protein out there: soy, legumes and the ever-controversial wheat gluten (also known as seitan) are three popular choices for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. That said, if we are going to spend our hard-earned money at your restaurant, don’t put us on a Holy Grail-like quest for protein while we’re perusing your menu. Don’t merely substitute extra vegetables for a meat item and call it a vegetarian dish; do substitute for the meat with something more substantial.

Mushrooms are a good start, but they don’t have much protein- around 3 grams per serving. I recently went to a restaurant in my city that served two portabella mushrooms caps, one on a bed of quinoa (a high-protein grain) and one on a bed of avocado and purple potato. It was creative and delicious, substantial in protein, and I’m hungry just thinking about it right now. (Just FYI: the only non-animal based complete protein source is soy.)

You can also add new appetizers to your menu in order to up your overall vegetarian protein content. Edamame is a tasty, inexpensive starter that fits just as well on a pub menu as it does on a gourmet one. There are plenty of vegetarians who are happy with some cheese and crackers on a plate, seriously. Although integrating your menu with vegetarian fare may seem like a daunting task, there are plenty of easy, palatable foods that are delicious and enjoyed by vegetarians and meat eaters alike.

Interesting salads are not a bad thing at all.

Omit the chicken, shrimp or steak, throw some nuts, legumes, cheese, edamame, eggs or tofu on one of your specialty salads, and lots of us are good to go.

Price your vegetarian items fairly.

Most of the food that vegetarians eat is much less expensive than meat. We are well aware of this. Please keep this under consideration when setting your menu prices. Once I dined at a Tibetan restaurant and was charged the same price for my lentils as my friend who was eating organic chicken. As delicious as those lentils were, I never went back to that restaurant. I’m not saying that vegetarians should get some huge discount for no reason; just be fair.

Don’t forget the vegans.

Know what constitutes a well-balanced, healthy vegan meal. Learn what ingredients are and are not vegan; don’t assume that something is vegan just because it has no eggs or dairy products in it. Basically, if you stick to legumes, nuts, soy, grains and vegetables and eschew any pre-processed foods, you should be fine.

Prepare and cook/grill vegetarian dishes separately from non-vegetarian ones.

This should be a given, but it bears mentioning.

Although I know it’s a lot to ask of restaurants that specialize in meat dishes, I would love it if I could walk into a neighborhood restaurant and have one or two interesting options to choose from, rather than a veggie burger or a garden salad and french fries. Vegetarians have buying power, and we wield it responsibly. We want to eat at your restaurant just as much as you want our dollars. Serving healthy vegetarian dishes benefits everyone: vegetarians, restaurant owners, and diners who want to try new things. Give it a shot; you’ll probably be really happy with the results.

Vegetarian commenters: what do you wish to see in vegetarian dishes at your local restaurants?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2010 11:02 AM

    Quinoa does contain all of the essential amino acids. It’s lovely. Have you had much yuba? It’s the skin that forms on soymilk when they boil it. It soaks up marinades so well.
    I really miss lemongrass tofu.

  2. July 9, 2010 3:17 PM

    As a former chef, & going on 15 years vegetarian, it is with sadness that I have to agree with everything you’ve written…as in, Amen! sing it sister!
    Something that got left behind is when there is meat/fat used to *flavor* a dish, & somehow that fails to get mentioned, & there you are, discovering that little fact when you take a bite of it. People genuinely don’t understand that it will make a vegetarian physically ill, that our bodys stop being able to process animal products.

    • Doug permalink
      July 9, 2010 9:54 PM

      Oh, this too! My family thinks I’m paranoid for asking what all is used in the preparation of dishes I want to order, but it really is an issue.

      Just because the Doublemeat Medley is really vegetables, doesn’t mean I’ll ignore the fact it’s treated with rendered beef fat and eat it. ;)

  3. Doug permalink
    July 9, 2010 9:49 PM

    Found you through your Buffy Fashion Roulette, and hey, you’re a vegetarian too! Good choice.

    I cannot express how much I agree with all your points. Some (most) restaurants just don’t get it! I’ve only been a vegetarian a few years and I’ve already run into most of the issues you expressed here. From passing off a Gardenburger as their original meal, to not having a single veggie-friendly thing on their menu (leaving me to sigh and ask them to just not put meat in one of their meaty pastas or salads, leaving the meal rather unfulfilling), to completely ignorant servers who, after hearing I’m a vegetarian, recommend their turkey burgers and their good beef (seriously? Seriously.) And I spent a year trying to convince my family that I don’t eat fish, while they tried to argue that fish aren’t really like other animals.

    Hopefully it doesn’t take restaurants too terribly long to wake up and smell the soy.

  4. Rubyshoes permalink
    July 19, 2010 11:41 AM

    Thank you!! I completely agree; it baffles me how restaurants at all ends of the spectrum can’t have a single dish that isn’t mixed with bacon and has a chicken breast on top (seriously, why do all salads have to have so many meat components?)

    Thanks also for mentioning that being a vegetarian doesn’t mean we only eat vegetables – we have a wide range of options available to us!

    I recently visited a wonderful restaurant in Providence, R.I. (Chez Pascal) that specializes in pork dishes. They also had a wonderful vegetarian tasting menu that clearly was given as much attention and love as the meat dishes, and was the best vegetarian meal I have ever had. It just completely proved that restaurants can put as much effort into their vegetarian dishes as they do their meat ones.

    • msjacks permalink*
      July 19, 2010 7:02 PM

      Ooh, I live very near Providence! I’ll have to give this place a shot! Thanks for shouting them out :)

  5. Julie permalink
    July 22, 2010 9:23 PM

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this!

  6. September 4, 2010 8:41 AM

    I’m not a vegetarian, but both my kids are. (I’m very proud!) Anyway, just so you know, Central BBQ here in Memphis has a pretty good (so I’m told) barbecue portobella mushroom sandwich.

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