In this four-part series, Naa Ako-Adjei documents a month of eating vegan, including recipes, restaurant write-ups, and product reviews. Click here for previous installments of Going Vegan for A Month, Week One and Week Two, and the conclusion, Week Four.
There are few things in life that give me more pleasure than dining out. I’m not sure if that means I need to get a more interesting life or not, but I do shamelessly love eating out. My unhealthy love of restaurants is so intense, that if I were given an endless supply of money, I wouldn’t spend it on fancy cars or expensive homes, instead, I would use the money to eat my way around the world (or at least the Beltway, where I live). Naturally, I would also frequent the offices of plastic surgeons to rid myself of the love handles I would surely acquire along the way, but that’s for another story.
I love eating out because it gives me the chance to eat amazing food produced by creative minds and there are no dishes to clean up afterward. But as soon as I became a vegan, eating out became a bigger chore than trying to avoid news about the perpetually tan inhabitants of The Jersey Shore.
Even though more than half of the 1,500 chefs polled by the National Restaurant Association for their "What's Hot in 2011" list thought vegan entrées were a hot trend and vegan-centric places are slowly spreading beyond Los Angeles and New York City, it’s still hard to be a vegan diner. While most restaurants have at least one vegetarian meal on their menu, few have vegan options.
During my first week as a vegan, I made the mistake of going to lunch with my sister without calling ahead to see if the restaurant had any vegan options. I just assumed that because it was an Indian restaurant, it would have a couple of options that were vegan friendly, but as soon as I walked into the restaurant and saw that none of the dishes on the buffet table were labeled, I knew that I was screwed.
When I politely asked one of the servers if he could go ask the kitchen if any of the food was vegan, he looked at me like I had just asked him to hand over his wallet. After he came back from the kitchen, he pointed to the rice and one stew and left without saying a word. The last time I felt that much hostility was when I tried to use my high school French to communicate with a Québécois.
Calling ahead of time to see if the restaurant had vegan options wasn‘t much better. My inquiry was usually met with badly masked hostility or flustered confusion. After my first week as a vegan, I stopped calling restaurants and started consulting websites like VegDC or VegDining for a listing of vegan-friendly restaurants in my area.
Even after I found vegan friendly restaurants, my next few outings were just as unsuccessful. The vegan options tended to either be beans/lentils with grilled vegetables or a veggie sandwich. At one place I had a falafel sandwich so dry and heavy that it would have been perfect for insulating homes. I also had lentils that were so bland, they tasted like it had been created to suit a toddler’s palate. Vegan options during breakfast usually consisted of either toast, a bowl of fruit, or the thoroughly uninspired tofu scramble.
Even though I discovered that finding a good meal as a vegan is harder than finding depth in the lyrics of a Taylor Swift song, there were a few bright spots along the way. I was delighted when I discovered that all the vegetarian options at Mandalay, a wonderful Burmese restaurant, were all vegan. I also ate some pretty good vegan soul food at Soul Vegetarian Café & Exodus Carryout and I had several delicious cupcakes and cookies at Sticky Fingers, Washington D.C.’s first all-vegan bakery.
Dining out as a vegan would be an easy and wonderful experience if all restaurants served vegan food as good as these three places, but as long as restaurants think tofu scramble and grilled portobello mushrooms are the height of vegan cooking, vegans should stay home and cook for themselves.
Read the series conclusion as Naa looks back at her experience of eating vegan for a month.