In Which I Complain About the Lack of Vegan Options At Restaurants

Kimberly's picture

You know you've got #firstworldproblems when you have the luxury of complaining about the choices available at restaurants. I get it. I didn't wake up in Syria today. My life is wonderful and I take none of my privileges for granted.

That said, please allow me to kvetch about the lack of vegan choices in restaurants. I am fond of pointing out there is not a single vegan restaurant in the extremely-affluent Chicago suburb where I live. There is also no vegan restaurant in the next town, and none in the town after that. The one vegan restaurant within twenty miles is nationwide chain Native Foods, and it is absolutely worth the drive.

Out of desperation, I went to a restaurant that was close, a hybrid Chinese/Thai place. The setting: a sleepy Saturday afternoon. The restaurant was as cute as a button, well-decorated, and in an excellent, busy corridor where it could be seen from the street. The food wasn't bad. That said, I may never eat there again.

The first words to fall from my lips when I went in were, "Do you have anything suitable for strict vegetarians?"

The manager of the restaurant, an older woman, said yes and pointed out items from the "Vegetables" section and also mentioned that other things from meatier quadrants of the menu could be made vegetarian. I needed to take out and run, so I ordered one of the most common Chinese vegetarian classics of all time, the Vegetable Delight (sometimes called Buddha's Delight).

I got my order as take out, paid, and left.

Once I was halfway through eating, I noticed that the vegetables were awfully salty and the bottom of my plate had an odd grease on it. The grease was familiar and a bit too heavy and sticky to be normal vegan cooking residue. Why? It was probably fish sauce. Fish sauce is a condiment/seasoning that is considered an "essential" ingredient in Thai cuisine. If you've ever owned a bottle, it smells like a mixture of savory crotch and rotting human corpse. I have no idea why anyone sane would add it to food. It doesn't really add anything save a slightly bad smell and saltiness, nothing that a dash of sea salt couldn't take care of. Had I not been famished, I might have noticed it straightaway.

I am not sure if the cook added fish sauce to my stir fry to troll me as a vegetarian or if he was just plain ignorant. The place was nearly empty and I gave them plenty of time and zero pressure to make a vegetable stir fry, which isn't exactly haute cuisine. I feel they had no excuse one way or the other, especially considering the massive competition they have in the area.

The town where I live is teeming with restaurants. In a three mile square area, there are no less than five sushi restaurants, nearly a dozen Chinese restaurants, countless burger & fry joints, and about two dozen pizza places. Competition is fierce. You have to offer something unique if you want to survive. Trust me, I know, as I have run a thriving music lesson studio in the same five-mile area as six other music lesson studios for six years during the worst part of the recession.

I often wonder why in such a restaurant-heavy area, the very same area with a vegetarian festival that draws 35K people a year, not a single one would offer:

(Highlighted items indicate links to recipes from my Daily Vegan Lunch project)

-Vegan cheese, such as Daiya
-Miso soup without a trace of bonito (fish flake) broth
-Tempeh
-A vegan hot dog
-Gluten-free desserts
-Vegan desserts
-Plant-based chick'n nuggets, strips, or burgers, such as Gardein or Beyond Meat
-Waffles and pancakes without eggs or milk in them
-Tofu scramble (¼ the calories, ⅛ the fat, and none of the cholesterol of chicken's periods)
-Fried rice with no eggs or chicken fat
-A vegan pizza that does not need to be special-ordered

In true armchair politician style, I am not out there sitting down with my local restaurant owners, giving them informational brochures on how to obtain vegan cheeses. As it is, I cook most of my meals at home because I am demi-poor and can rarely afford to eat a meal I didn't make. And let's face it, I'm lazy and sometimes I need my free time to be just that, free.

Besides, what is it that restauranteurs have failed to understand about the runaway success of Chipotle and the recent shuttering of 700 McDonalds?

Restauranteurs, I am talking to you. Healthier, greener, more environmentally-friendly, VEGAN options are clearly what your potential customers want. Roll with it.