These are meaty times. Times of cook-offs and lardons, and of “low and slow,” “marbling” and “sous vide” as part of the lexicon.
In recent weeks, I have eaten lamb, quail and rabbit in one sitting, via a tasting menu at the new midtown restaurant Localis; tried the prime rib at the downtown carvery Empress; and sampled several cuts at the grill-your-own-steak place Arthur Henry’s.
After so much animal protein, an omnivore’s thoughts turn to alternatives – to those vegetarian dishes that stand out despite all the meatiness around them. Some I discovered while reviewing restaurants. Others sit on a longtime personal list of go-to vegetarian items. Others I sought out specifically for this roundup of 10 dishes, on the recommendations of vegetarians.
But I will not lead vegetarians down the garden path: This collection is hardly comprehensive. Nor does it offer a shortcut to health.
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Some items are fried. One relies heavily on eggs. One happens to be the only item at Sunflower Drive In – the venerable natural-food restaurant in Old Fair Oaks – served on white bread. Delicious, buttered, sourdough white bread.
But I kept vegetarians and/or vegans squarely in mind when omitting the usual salads, pastas (with one, non-flour exception) and pizzas from this list. Those items often compose the sum total of these diners’ options at restaurants. I wanted to go beyond them.
CARROT NUT BURGER, Mother
Twenty years ago, the nutburger at Greta’s Cafe (which sat at the 19th Street and Capitol spot now occupied by a Chipotle) changed my idea of vegetarian burgers. This one did not taste of tofu-flavored sponge. It was substantial, slightly salty, slightly sweet, and just caramelized enough to offer a hint of crunch. It set a veggie-burger standard unmatched until earlier this year, when I tasted this carrot-nut number at Mother.
That’s no coincidence.
Chef and Mother co-owner Michael Thiemann worked at Greta’s. Thiemann calls the cafe’s owner, Greta Garverick, “one of my greatest mentors,” and said her cafe’s burger inspired his. Greta’s hippie burger, in turn, drew from Sunflower Drive In’s, Thiemann said.
$10 (vegan, but available with cheese). 1023 K St., Sacramento, (916) 594-9812, mothersacramento.com
CHANA MASALA, Bombay Bar & Grill
Garbanzo beans, tomato and onion meet in a broth enriched and enlivened by Indian spices. This dish tastes nourishing and substantial without being heavy. It carries enough heat (we ordered it medium) to register without upsetting the flavor balance.
$9.95 (vegan). 1315 21st St., Sacramento. (916) 441-7100. bombaybarngrill.com
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, South
I wrote a sonnet to the (vegetarian) hush puppies when I reviewed this Southern-food restaurant. South’s green tomatoes also deserve time in the spotlight. Parsley, diced sweet peppers and nutty Parmesan offset the tomatoes’ tartness. South also uses the fried tomatoes for the vegetarian version of its shrimp po’ boy, adding spinach and house-made herb buttermilk dressing.
$8. 2005 11th St., Sacramento. (916) 382-9722. weheartfriedchicken.com
HUEVOS DIABLOS, Oak Park Brewing Co.
This one goes out to the ovo-lactos. The dish comes with five deviled eggs (or 2 1/2 , if we’re getting technical) and a salad of arugula and Peruvian sweety drop peppers. The key component of the “deviled” mix is earthy, spicy soyrizo.
Though fake-meat products made from soy often taste less like meat than flavored rubber, soyrizo is an exception. As with real chorizo, I don’t need or want to know what’s in it. Only that it improves whatever it touches.
$8. 3514 Broadway, Sacramento. (916) 660-2723. opbrewco.com
LIVING NACHOS! Green Boheme
This raw, vegan dish is so (forgive me) alive with flavor that Green Boheme’s exclamation-point usage is appropriate. This dish, through spicy “beans” made from walnuts, creamy “cheese” derived from cashews, and “rice” composed of jicama, evokes traditional nachos while adding unprecedented (for nachos) bursts of freshness.
Head chef Brooke Preston served her raw, vegan, organic food on Del Paso Boulevard in Sacramento for five years before closing that spot last year. Green Boheme reopened in Roseville this past summer. Calvin Worthington, son of the late car dealer and TV pitchman Cal Worthington, is now a partner in the restaurant.
Worthington first worked for Green Boheme as part of a Le Cordon Bleu culinary-school externship. He stayed on, he said, after falling in love with the flavors Preston creates without aid of oven or stove.
$14.95 (vegan). 1611 Lead Hill Blvd., Roseville, #160. (916) 474-5609. the-green-boheme.myshopify.com
MUSHROOM MILLET BURGER, Sunflower Drive In
At first, all you taste is the winning combination of sourdough bread and mushrooms that were grilled with soy sauce and carry a satisfying umami flavor. Then the burger’s patty, made from millet and basmati rice, takes over. It offers the same homey, almost-elemental satisfaction, on one’s tongue that polenta offers. But every dish I’ve ever tried at this charming, low-slung drive-in in Old Fair Oaks – owned by Rebeckah and Dennis Click since in 1978 – has tasted homey and fresh.
$6.49. 10344 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks. (916) 967-4331. sunflowernaturalrestaurant.com
NUTTY TACO, Sunflower Drive In
When I first tasted it years ago, this taco’s filling, made from sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds, cashews and spices, evoked Jack in the Box tacos’ mystery filling. But after a few bites, it was clear they share no qualities beyond a lack of clear meatiness.
A grilled corn tortilla matches the nut filling’s earthiness. Diced tomatoes and cheese lend the taco tanginess, and Sunflower Drive In’s signature sprouts add intriguing texture and a hint of bitterness. And unlike Jack in the Box’s taco, this one doesn’t only taste good at 2 a.m.
POTATOES AND ROASTED POBLANO PEPPER HARD TACO, Cafe Capricho
The poblanos are fire-roasted before being grilled and then combined with potatoes (they are cooked separately) in a corn tortilla. The whole thing takes a dip in the fryer before romaine hearts, queso fresco and crema are added. The poblano’s spice cuts through the starch and cheese, lending a hint of edge to this comfort-food dish and vegetarian staple at Cafe Capricho, a casual, counter-service, mostly Mexican East Sacramento restaurant.
$2.75. 3269 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, (916) 457-3916, cafecaprichoeastsac.com
SOPA VERDE DEL CAMPO, Cielito Lindo Mexican Gastronomy
Chef-owner Ramiro Alarcon, classically trained in his native Mexico City, is doing wonderful things at this East Sacramento restaurant housed in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken building. This tomato-based, vegetable-packed (squash blossoms, spinach, corn kernels) soup leads with wholesomeness and finishes with a spicy kick.
Cup: $6. Bowl: $9 (vegan). 3672 J St., Sacramento. (916) 736-2506. cielitolindo.us
ZUCCHINI PASTA, Green Boheme
Green Boheme uses a “spiralizer” to turn zucchini into strands that are shaped like spaghetti but still hold their squash crunch. The dish comes with a choice of three sauces: marinara or this vegan restaurant’s versions of pesto and cheese sauces. I sampled and liked each one, but chose marinara because I suspected that, when combined with the zucchini, it would taste like a more solid, crunchier version of gazpacho. It did, and not just like any version. It tasted like the freshest gazpacho I’ve ever had.