Vegan restaurant 101: From Buffalo 'chicken' sandwiches to veggie bowls, here's what to order as a beginner
A vegan diet consists mainly of plant-based foods, steering clear of animal products like meat, fish, dairy and honey. For some, it can be difficult to find meals that fit this criteria, especially when eating out. But as more and more people adopt a vegan lifestyle, restauranteurs have hopped on board, adding more vegan-friendly options to their menus and even creating entire restaurants dedicated to the plant-based lifestyle.
Even if you don't strictly follow a vegan diet, you may be interested in venturing out and trying something new. Vegan menus may feel intimidating as the cuisine opens up a whole new world of substitutions and plant-based additions you've likely never tried. You also may have preconceived notions that vegan food is boring and bland, but, for the most part, that isn't the case when vegan dishes are prepared correctly.
To get the lowdown on all things vegan, Yahoo Life spoke with vegan chefs and business owners about the cuisine, what to order and how to make the most out of your first visit to a vegan restaurant.
Vegan restaurant menus 101
Kajsa Alger, vice president of food and beverage for California-based vegan chain Veggie Grill, uses three terms to describe vegan cuisine: "sustainable, the future and what most food is made of (plants)." According to Alger, most modern vegan restaurants have adapted their menu to cater to two different types of vegan consumers: "those just discovering vegan food and wanting foods that taste like their meat equivalents" and "those of a younger generation who grew up eating or are familiar with vegan food and are looking to go back to nutritious and unprocessed options."
A solely vegan restaurant will have a standard menu similar to one you'd see at any food joint — with salads, entrees, desserts and sides. While the options will be the same, it's the way they are prepared and the ingredients used to make them that are different.
"I always recommend starting with familiar dishes," says Alger. "I always suggest starting with a burger or a crispy chick'n sandwich, as those will taste as people expect. If you're a salad or bowl eater, then you won't find much difference between a vegan restaurant [and a non-vegan restaurant]."
Many popular dishes at vegan restaurants are made with plant-based substitutes like mushrooms, cauliflower, jackfruit, seitan, tofu and beans. You may see cauliflower macaroni and cheese on the menu or a burger made with a mushroom patty instead of ground beef.
In the mood for a salad? These dishes usually contain plant-based mix-ins instead of your standard meats, cheeses and creamy dressings: Think: nuts, fruits, vegetables and vinaigrettes.
Vegan restaurants like Pure Grit BBQ in New York City, which specializes in comfort barbecue foods, make their own vegan substitutes in-house. Emily Hersh, culinary director and chef at Pure Grit, says "our Impossible [brisket] is our own version of BBQ meat."
"We take Impossible ground beef, lentils, onions and our house-made rub and sauce and form it into a loaf," she tells Yahoo Life. "We then smoke it in our cookshack for one hour. It is then burnt and rehydrated. We can slice this creation just like a brisket."
When it comes to ordering dessert at a vegan restaurant, there are usually options for cookies, carrot cake and parfaits. These desserts will be dairy-free and free from animal products.
Don't be afraid to try new things
If it's your first time at a vegan restaurant, try to go into it with an open mind. "One of my chef instructors at culinary school always preached to us to always try something at least once," says Hersh. "Life is so full of amazing things that you could miss if you let intimidation get in the way."
You'll want to remember you've eaten vegan before. "I always tell people going to a vegan restaurant for the first time to remember they already eat vegan," says Alger. "Spaghetti and red sauce, chips and salsa, peanut butter and jelly — all of these things are vegan, we just, as a society, don't tend to call them out."
The history of vegan cuisine
The term "veganism" was coined in 1944, however, the concept can be traced back to ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean societies. Vegetarianism was first mentioned by the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos around 500 BC. Additionally, followers of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism also advocated vegetarianism, believing humans should not inflict pain on other animals.
Alger says, during the ’70s, mainstream vegan and vegetarianism started as part of a health craze in a time when vitamins became fashionable. Today, the Alliance of Science reports that "about 10% of Americans over the age of 18 consider themselves vegan or vegetarian."
5 best items to order as a beginner
Still not sure what to order off the menu? Hersh and Alger recommend going with the following items that should be found on any menu, for the best first time-experience.
Smoked veggie bowl: a base of basmati rice and quinoa topped with smoked mushrooms, roasted sweet potatoes, beets, broccoli, crispy chickpeas, pickled red onions, pumpkin seeds and green goddess dressing. Hersh recommends this bowl for those looking a more hearty and nutrient-dense dish packed with flavor.
Buffalo "chicken" sandwich: fried Daring (a plant-based brand) chicken tossed in Buffalo sauce and layered with pickles, vegan mayonnaise and a gluten-free bun. Hersh recommends this dish for those looking to add some heat to their meal.
Santa Fe "chick'n" sandwich: a sandwich made with crispy chick'n (a plant-based chicken substitute), mashed avocado, Southwest mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickled onion on a toasted wheat bun. Alger recommends this dish for those looking to ease their way into vegan cuisine with a familiar dish.
Double BBQ mac burger: this "burger" contains two Beyond (plant-based) burger patties, lettuce, creamy ranch and barbecue sauce, and is topped with macaroni and cheese and served on a brioche bun. Alger recommends this dish for those craving both burgers and mac and cheese for the ultimate comfort food.
Chipotle ranchero bowl: a bowl with chipotle-marinated power greens topped with grilled mushroom, beans, brown rice, pico de gallo and avocado. Alger recommends this bowl because it's a great way to get the packed flavor from a traditional chicken bowl ... without the meat.
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