Best Chefs Fail to Satisfy Vegetarians


Excuse me server, was that cherry tomato you dropped onto a handful of “pre-washed” dry mixed greens intentional?

Vegetarian Prowl For Fine Dining


Twice daily, my cat gobbles down meat-flavored kibbles. With abrasive tongues, their palates are not as punctilious as other mammals. Since felines have an inability to taste sweetness, their cravings are more primal. These carnivorous pets are generally considered to be finicky, but if we feed them the same thing at timed intervals, they become creatures of habit. There is a vast difference between cats and vegetarians.

True vegetarians do not eat meat. Yes, we avoid meat broth. And yes, chicken counts as meat. Vegetarians, though, consume more than vegetables. We require nutritionally balanced meals. This means dishes should include protein, grains, fruits, vegetables and calcium, according to

Often, entrées are too high in refined carbohy­drates. For example, a nearby soul food veggie plate includes macaroni and cheese, red beans and white rice, green beans, yams and cornbread. Meow! Even a cat could taste all that sugar converted from these simple carbo­hydrates.

We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Not Tofu

Have you ever watched a kitten honing its stalking skills. With a lowered head, it twitches its hips before leaping to pounce… on a leaf blowing in the wind. Proud of its catch, it prances back to drop the gift at the feet of its caregiver. The effort does not appear to be commen­surate with the reward. In this respect, sometimes, it seems like kittens are preparing to serve vegetarian food in restaurants.

Cat prowl

Whether they have worked their way up from short-order cooks or attended fancy culinary schools, chefs who aren’t themselves vegetarians can inadvertently offend the palates of animal-preserving patrons. How? Restaurants may store microwavable frozen veggie patties for the occasional vegan who “likes that kind of stuff.” Uh, uh. Vegetables sealed in boiling bags can easily be plopped into hot water. No, thank you.

Excuse me server, was that cherry tomato you dropped onto a handful of “pre-washed” dry mixed greens intentional? And what a mag­nani­mous gesture, offering to serve any entrée on the menu without meat (for the same price). Will that really transform it into a vegetarian dish? What these solutions have in common is that they lack effort and erroneously assume the vegetarian palate is as uncultured as a kitten. They might as well bring a dried leaf to the table.

Tofu frying

Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians enjoy flavor. Have you ever taken a bite of unseasoned tofu? You instantly realize that it has half as much flavor as egg whites. Unadorned, it is about as savory as unsalted grits. Bland taste is the reason why meat eaters look at us like we have just clawed their sofa as they question, “You like tofu?”

Some salad bars and chefs include chunks of raw, unseasoned tofu as vegetarian options. Please tell me that somewhere on this earth, such culinary crimes are met with stiff punishment—minimally, scratch marks on their front door. Tofu, like hominy, needs to be shown some love before dishing it onto a plate. When marinated for as little as 20 minutes, tofu becomes a conduit for flavor.

Firm tofu nuggets can be fried and salted, marinated and grilled or battered with cornstarch and fried. Note: In this form, they may resemble crunchy kibbles but they morph into sponges for marinara or dipping sauces. There are an infinite number of ways to prepare tofu. But tofu is not the only plant-based protein available. Enjoy tempeh, seitan, lentils, hemp seeds and quinoa, among others.

Sage vegan bowl
Vegan bowl by Chef Greg Arnold, formerly of Sage Vegan Bistro.

It Makes Purr-fect Scents

Memory Lane. Let the childhood memories fill your nasal passages with the aroma of fresh-baked recipes when you visited your grandmother’s house. Likely, there were no processed foods—just time-honored ingredients. Grandma may not have been a vegan but vegetarians long for that enchanting feeling when visiting restaurants. The dining experience begins with the eyes. Our sense of smell enhances the perception of taste.

11 Tips to Keep Vegetarian Dishes From Falling Short of Expectations
  1. Offer distinct dishes for vegetarians, vegans and raw vegans.*
  2. Don’t rely on meat-flavored protein. Longtime vegetarians don’t crave it.
  3. Table condiments don't make up for bland food. Remember who’s the chef.
  4. Taste the food. Would you enjoy eating it? “Layer the flavors” is culinary 101.
  5. Go beyond salt. Season with aromatic fresh herbs like fennel, basil, and thyme.
  6. When produce is the star of the dish, obtain it from local growers if possible.
  7. Vegetables can be sautéed, roasted, fried, grilled, steamed, blanched or raw.
  8. Blanched veggies like carrots and broccoli are vibrant and great on salads.
  9. Favor tree-ripened organic tomatoes over the tasteless supermarket variety.
  10. Increase portion size, compensating for the absence of more filling meat.
  11. Make the food look appetizing with vibrant colors and creative plating.

Marking Our Vegan-Friendly Territory

Road Trip. A growing number of restaurants in metropolitan areas are elevating the flavor profile of vegetarian dishes. Strap on your Veggie Life lapel pin. We are going on a Los Angeles County vegetarian road trip. Consider the Blue Plate at Green Temple in Redondo Beach. It’s a meatloaf-style homemade veggie patty and mashed potatoes smothered with mushroom gravy with broccoli, like your mamma used to make.

After a few nibbles, go a few miles north on Sepulveda Boulevard to Manhattan Beach Boulevard and hang a left to Lemonade for a Marketplace platter of four seasonal salads. Each is blended with its own unique dressing.

Best Chefs Fail to Satisfy Vegetarians

Since we are in Manhattan Beach, we might as well take a short ride up Sepulveda to Rosecrans Avenue. We have hit the mother lode. For casual dining, Mendocino Farms has great seasonal sandwiches and Veggie Grill is around the corner.

An unlikely restaurant called Houston’s steakhouse. No, we are not here at the Manhattan Beach location for the humongous Campfire Ribeye. We are here for one of the best handmade veggie burgers in the city. And, since we are here, we might as well finish it off with their apple cobbler. But, alas, this location did not survive the pandemic. A new Tender Greens has opened up across the street on Rosecrans Boulevard. You can find something healthy, even if portions are small.

While that is digesting, we drive north on Douglas Street to catch the 105 freeway east to the 110 freeway. Our destination is about 20 miles northeast, near downtown Los Angeles. (Second location in Culver City.)

Walk through a curtain on the third floor of a tacky Little Tokyo Shopping Center to be transported into a serene world of vegan, macrobiotic, gluten-free organic Japanese cuisine at Shojin. You must try the Spicy Shiso Tempura.

Drive three miles northwest of Shojin to Echo Park (still Los Angeles county) to an area that is becoming a vegan-friendly restaurant row. On Sunset Boulevard is Sage Plant Based Bistro (not to be confused with Sage Bistro in Alhambra), where you might enjoy Tempeh Sausage Florentine—three biscuits topped with tempeh sausage, heirloom tomato, spinach, avocado and hollandaise sauce with roasted potatoes from Chef Aaron Limeta. If it’s breakfast time, try the spinach avocado and walnut sausage florentine with hollandaise sauce and tofu egg.

Sage Vegan Bistro Taco
El Pastor Tacos at Sage Vegan Bistro

It is soooo difficult to bypass the gut-busting, Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza with crushed tomatoes, basil and garlic at Masa a block away. They call it the Plain Jane but she is packed with flavor. We drive three blocks west.

Satisfying a mixed crowd of omnivores and vegans with an upscale ambiance is Mohawk Bend, also on Sunset Boulevard. The Little Mohawk is an Impossible Burger that you can have with regular or cashew cheese and sweet potato fries. They have a vast selection IPA beers.

Masa Plain Jane
Masa Plain Jane Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.

Sunset Blvd is a long winding street. If it is Sunday, the drive further west to Hollywood will pay off at Gracias Madre, a restaurant that offers 100% organic, plant based Mexican cuisine. Brunch is available until 3PM and it is the only day Chef Chandra Gilbert serves chimichangas that are out of this world! This is perhaps the best bite in the city. Have you enjoyed this road trip? California has many great vegetarian dining options. What about your area?

If your encounters with vegetables have always begun with a can opener, it is difficult to comprehend why anyone would eliminate meat from their diet. I’ll save the animal cruelty pulpit for another time since you have been kind enough to read this far.

But to the oft-asked question from omnivores, “What do you eat?!” I enthusiastically respond, “Great tasting healthy food.” Thank you chefs, for delighting tastebuds and serving vegetables with panache.

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* For simplicity, vegetarians and vegans are not repeatedly distinguished throughout this article. With variations among these two groups, a vegetarian consumes dairy and infertile eggs, and possibly wears leather goods. Vegans do not consume nor use any animal products. The author is a vegetarian who also enjoys well-prepared vegan dishes.

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Updated: Jul 18, 2022

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