New Orleans, LA –
When a group of friends came down to visit not long after I moved to New Orleans, I was eager to show them some of the amazing local food I was just then beginning to discover myself. The trouble was, a few of the visitors were vegetarians.
Hopeful, but woefully uninformed, I called the Uptown soul food institution Dunbar's and asked the lady who answered the phone if there was anything on the menu for my friends who didn't eat meat.
"Oh yeah, baby," she answered. "Come on down. We got catfish, we got shrimp, we got oysters, all that."
That's when I learned some New Orleans people consider seafood to be vegetarian fare.
Lately, though, there are more options for real vegetarians, or for people who simply don't eat meat all that often.
In the French Quarter, down the pedestrian mall of Exchange Alley, the tiny new restaurant called the Green Goddess even has a vegetarian tasting menu, a long list of inventive dishes that promises exciting departures for those who are tired of the same old meatless offerings. The Green Goddess is not a vegetarian restaurant, but its chef and owner, Chris DeBarr, seems in tune to the creative possibilities of dishes that don't necessary rely on a T-bone or chicken breast to anchor the plate. A bisque made with absinthe, fennel and fiddlehead fern, ravioli made from roasted golden beets and stuffed with truffled goat cheese and savory lentil pancakes are just some examples from the vegetarian corner at the Green Goddess.
In the Faubourg Marigny, the late-night joint called 13 Monaghan falls somewhere between a diner and a pub, and it too offers safe haven for vegetarians even though it also serves plenty of meat. Located on Frenchmen Street, it has established a niche as the place to find a black bean veggie burger or a roasted vegetable plate even at 3 a.m.
In fact, 13 is one of the few local restaurants without chopsticks that still serves a good slab of tofu. Baked, dusted with herbs and served on multi-grain bread, the basic tofu sandwich is fine, but the standout is the BBQ tofu po-boy. The mild-tasting bean curd is dense and moist, dosed with a sweet barbecue sauce and served on a length of crusty French bread.
Still, 13 serves its tofu from the same kitchen that prepares pulled pork quesadillas, and the vegetarian tasting menu at the Green Goddess is listed alongside bison meatloaf and cochon de lait entrees.
The new Cafe Bamboo near the foot of Esplanade Avenue can boast a completely vegetarian kitchen, even though the menu still lists chicken, beef and sausage. That's because Cafe Bamboo mixes dishes like pad Thai or west African peanut stew with dishes where textured soy and wheat products stand in for meat. They even go by their meat names on the menu.
One example is called soul chicken, an imitation of fried chicken cutlets made from soy gluten. The same product is also grilled for a rendition of barbecue chicken. Meanwhile, skewered strips of wheat gluten imitate beef kebabs, and even seem to have bits of fat on them, which in fact are just softer and chewier spots.
Such gluten products are sometimes called "mock meat," and they might make for mere curiosity dishes for some diners. But for vegetarians in a town where seafood dishes are often presumed to be meat free, Cafe Bamboo, the Green Goddess and 13 offer opportunities to dine out with both dietary fidelity and refreshing new flavors.