Navigating Restaurants as a New Vegetarian

The first time I went to a favorite local restaurant as a vegetarian I wanted to cry. There were all my favorites — carnitas! chorizo! — but now I wanted different choices. And the vegetarian options were kind of thin. Like I wanted to be — thin. But I wasn’t thin enough to be satisfied by a tostada. 

Sad to say, our family doesn’t go to that restaurant often anymore. But we’ve found other restaurants that fill me up with offerings that are amazing in different ways. And as long as I was wolfing down the carne asada, I was overlooking choices like roasted asparagus tacos, offered at a local taco stand in a farmers market, that I never would have tried a year ago.

Here are some tips I’ve learned:

If you don’t see it, ask.

Sometimes a restaurant has fantastic meat-free options, but they’re lost in all of the pork, turkey and chicken sliders with bacon toppings. But the waitress can let you know if there’s a black bean or ancient grain or Impossible choice so you can join in on the gorging and bellyaches, which once in a while has its place. Plus, the more we ask for plant-based choices, the more likely restaurants will want to add them in.

Treat each old hangout as if it’s new.

The Mexican restaurant we loved best, that was comfort food to us, simply doesn’t have enough options for our new lifestyle. One problem is they sub meat with globs of cheese, and although once in a while that’s OK, it doesn’t taste as good as food that’s purposefully vegetarian. And if we were vegan, we’d be screwed.

And my favorite sushi place, too, is now disappointing. And so on and so forth.

But a different Asian fusion restaurant that as a meat eater didn’t seem all that great shines like a beacon in a dark and hungry night. Its hot and sour soup only comes with tofu instead of meat, its veggie-offerings of sushi are plentiful, and it even has veggie gyozas!

Reengineer their menu for them, right there, on the spot

There’s a small restaurant less than a block from our house that offers overstuffed everything, and meat’s a main ingredient in all but one entrée. That’s a bummer, since on nights no one wants to cook or go gallivanting around, it’s nice to walk up there and grab something. But we know the staff and it’s a good place to experiment.

Hence, I discovered that if you get them to leave off the half-pound of lunch meat (my God, did I really used to eat that?) and instead add on more roasted red and green peppers, plus a few more onions, tada! This new roasted red pepper sandwich is savory and juicy and pretty and oooooh, where have you been, roasted red peppers?

Another restaurant is renowned for its chicken alfredo, and that’s not gonna work. But looking at its seasonal side dishes, I discovered roasted asparagus and suggested they throw that in instead of chicken. It had a bit of crunch, a bit of chew, absorbed the sauce nicely and my evening was saved.

Get to know Yelp and Happy Cow

Lastly, embrace the opportunity to learn new restaurants and hangouts. With apps like Yelp and Happy Cow, this has never been easier. We’ve discovered vegan restaurants all over the East Coast that we’d never ever have looked for or tried previously. And it’s fun, we’re having a blast trying out new places with new flavors and recipes.

Although using substitutes is fine when I want comfort food, nothing can compare to a meal designed to be vegetarian or vegan. When we find an eatery that offers this, it’s like we made it to the end of the rainbow and there’s the pot of gold sliced roasted beets. Mmmmm …

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