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Helen Bennett Harvey promises that no animals were harmed in the making of this blog. Vegging Out is a recipe for a new way of life. Or at least a new way of eating. Pull up a chair. Contact me at:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Have Vegan, Will Travel

By Paul Bass

Who’d have thought -- fresh macaroni and cheese, on the road, with a side of steak?
For a vegan?
I wandered, I looked to the north, and I found it.
Hitting the road as a vegan sure has changed.
I discovered this feast (under $10) at a vegan oasis in a hard-hit stretch of northwest Washington, D.C. I managed to take this picture before gobbling it down.
These discoveries have become a recurring experience. Since I started leaving New Haven once in a while.
I never used to travel much; North Haven’s a road trip for me. So I didn’t realize how out there on the hustings, it has become possible to find exquisite pure vegan dining -- not just vegetarian, but 100 percent dairy and egg-free -- in just about any major city.
Then I got a job that brought with it free trips to new-media conferences.
At first I figured I had to pack plenty of Yves shrink-wrapped meatless Canadian bacon and Tofurkey slices to supplement the bagels or rolls that used to serve as meals on the road.
The conferences tend to take place in swanky hotels in the middle of downtowns. No signs of vegan meals, outside of those rolls.
Fortunately, the conferences tend to be boring. And unless it’s for a story, I’m no good at schmoozing or hanging out at the bar. But I love to walk for miles to check out new cities. And Google pointed to vegan culinary possibilities on the outskirts of each of these places.
So I had time and the inclination to set out to explore, which seemed fitting, since to me veganism has always been a spiritual search, a Sisyphean quest to scrub clean the soul.
That’s how I found the plate of food in the picture. I was in D.C. It was getting dark. Armed with a Google map, I wandered for miles, past the soulless centers of political power, through tidy, modest residential neighborhoods, into a battered zone that must have resembled what Jimmy Carter saw when he paratrooped into the South Bronx.
There, amid abandoned or near-abandoned storefronts (but across from gates to Howard University), on Georgia Avenue NW, was Soul Vegetarian. All vegan, the restaurant is run by a Black Hebrews group. They serve hugs along with the buffet.
Vegan food fits with their philosophy. They have an uneasy relationship with Orthodox Jews, but seem to get along fine with the rest of us.
I discovered that as well when I came upon another one of their restaurants, on the south side of Chicago.
I was, again, staying at a sterile downtown hotel miles away. I called the Soul Vegetarian East for directions. They recommended the King Drive #3 city bus. The woman behind the wheels took one look at the white guy with the yarmulke getting on and asked, “Are you going to the vegetarian restaurant?” Then she regaled me with stories all the way there, about how much fun it is to drive people around, about the old people she looks out for on the route, about a painful episode in her teenage years (she started crying and stopped talking for a bit, but kept driving), then about how much she likes Chicago.
She dropped me off at another stretch of desolate blocks of burned-out homes, liquor stores, drug dealers -- and then the vegan oasis, the Black Hebrews restaurant next door to a Black Hebrews all-natural fresh juice bar. Complete with Tofutti Cuties, if I remember correctly. Although I was so full from the South BBQ Twist Sandwich, cornbread, and strawberry-and-protein powder smoothie, I didn’t have room left for dessert.
Great as those two spots were, San Francisco had the topper, a place called Herbivore.
It was a two and a half mile walk from where I was staying. The restaurant is in the Mission District. A narrow, cozy spot (think the old Claire’s, pre-Schiavone, but with table service), it’s squeezed in amid blocks of urbanism on steroids: a mission next to a used bookstore next to a flophouse next to gourmet shops next to mercados next to hipster live-music dives.
In the end, it was a choice between the soy chicken or seitan schwarma wrap. (Soy chicken’s my default.)
Then I saw the desserts: Mississippi mud with vegan ice cream. I remember Mississippi Mud with real ice cream. Just like I remember McDonald’s -- and high school. Who knew vegans could eat this stuff?
Actually, I couldn’t. I was too full.
Not that I was complaining. I went back out to walk another two and a half miles, to Nob Hill, to Divisadero. (I was checking out a nightclub there called The Independent. An Americana group that sounded good on the Web was on the bill.) I was one block away from the club when I looked to the left and saw: Herbivore. Again.
It wasn’t a mirage. Turns out they have two of the restaurants in San Francisco. In the Mission District. And here. My fumbling with Google maps earlier that afternoon had failed to show the route that would have saved me an extra two and a half miles of walking.
Thankfully. Now I had time for the Mississippi mud.
Subsequently, my daughter and I came across an amazing Latin-themed vegan joint in Brooklyn (with chicken marinara that brought back childhood flesh memories). A funeral in Harlem led to the discovery of an exquisite okra, soy chicken, sweet potato plate at a vegan paradise on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.
But those were other journeys...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vegans don't want to kill animals for food, how do they feel about killing unborn babies?

March 04, 2010 3:39 PM 
Anonymous Mary said...

Ahhh... this makes me yearn for a vegan road trip. Herbivore is one of my favorite spots in SF. My weakness was their Tofu Rancheros with cornbread - delish!

Have you explored vegan soul food in CT? I think I recall you writing about Elaine's Healthy Choice right here in New Haven, but have you tried Shandall's in Bridgeport? When you return from your travels, I'd highly recommend a visit. There's also a new place that opened in Hartford on Sisson Ave. (where Kebra N'Gast used to be) called Fire & Spice (unrelated to the restaurant of the same name in Hamden). I've heard good things about it - you won't leave hungry.

March 04, 2010 4:10 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Bass a celebrity? LOL.

March 04, 2010 5:17 PM 

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