The second half of my cross-country trek started in the plains of the midwest.  Speckled with small towns, this is farm country, where I would have imagined the options to be slim.  I was pleasantly surprised.

Lincoln, NE

Lincoln has a couple veg friendly restaurants, but I wasn’t able to find any that were open.  Fortunately, the Open Harvest Coop had a wide selection of prepared foods and local baked goods.

A plate at the coop: emerald kale salad, gingered tempeh pasta and the alpha-omega salad.

Des Moines, IA

I swung by Ritual Cafe in Des Moines for breakfast, an all-vegetarian coffee shop and performance/art space.  There I found a delicious grilled tempeh sandwich.

Grilled Tempeh Sandwich: Lightly grilled and seasoned tempeh served with red onions, roasted red peppers and yellow mustard on sourdough with dun-dried tomato spread.

Iowa City, IA

Iowa City was a bit of a surprise.  It’s a small college town surrounded by hours of farms, but inside this small town are a surprising number of veg-friendly establishments, including an all vegan restaurant, Red Avocado.  Unfortunately, Red Avocado is only open for dinner on weekdays, so I had to skip it this time (and when will I ever be in Iowa City again?), but the menu reads like a gourmet restaurant for a fraction of what it would cost in NYC.  Instead I went to Fair Grounds, another all-veg coffee house.  Fair Grounds has a number of vegan options, as well as a completely vegan cupcake counter.  They also have their own line of vegan cheeses with a surprising number of options includine brie, chipotle “chedda’”, olive jack, smoky “mockstarella” and nacho.

Grilled Vegan Panini Cheeseburger: Grilled vegan burger with vegan cow mockstarella, grilled red onions, tomato, organic baby spinach, and a creamy relish.

Vegan baked goods at Fair Grounds Coffeehouse.

Chicago, IL

It wasn’t easy to decide where to go in Chicago for breakfast, but the decision was simplified by the three day closure of The Chicago Diner.  I opted for french toast at Victory’s Banner, an all-vegetarian restaurant with a separate, completely vegan menu.

Vegan french toast.

Cleveland, OH

By the time I hit Cleveland, I was running a little late, so I had to get a meal to go.  I went to The Flaming Ice Cube, an all-vegan sandwich shop with smoothies and baked goods.  The highlight was the sweet potato peanut butter bisque, which was rich and creamy and tasted like autumn.

Homemade vegan burger with pasta salad and sweet potato peanut butter bisque.

Pittsburgh, PA

My last stop before hitting New York was The Double Wide Grill in Pittsburgh.  While not even a vegetarian restaurant, Double Wide does offer a number of veg options, including a pulled seitan sandwich, lentil burgers and seitan wings.  I opted for the “wings” which ended up actually being in the shape of cubes.  They were delicious none-the-less (anything is when smothered in BBQ sauce).

BBQ Seitan Wings

By the time I hit New York, I had eaten at ten different restaurants, seven of which were at least all-vegetarian.  I was genuinely surprised by how many times I had to choose which place to go.  It was also interesting to see, especially across the midwest, what a college can do for a town.  The more colleges, the more vegetarian restaurants (go figure).  Next time, I’d like to take a month and really try every restaurant along the way.  And fortunately, there will be even more by then.

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Recently, I decided to pack up my bags and head back to the East Coast.  Los Angeles has treated me well, but I felt like my stay had come to a logical conclusion.  Plus, I had the chance to get back to New York in time to see the turning of the leaves and to catch the first frost.  And with this cross-country venture came a great opportunity: a vegan road trip!

I’ve driven across the country a couple times, but had never taken a northern route.  I resolved to stop at as many vegan and vegetarian establishments as possible.  Part 1 of this trip covers the drive across the western frontier.

Salt Lake City, UT

Salt Lake City has lots of vegan options.  From fine dining to casual outings to burgers and fries at a diner.  For the first night of my trip I stopped at Oasis Cafe, a cafe with a handful of vegan and vegetarian offerings, as well as the option of converting many non-veg dishes to vegan.  As is often the case, the dessert was the most memorable part — a very rich chocolate cake with raspberry sauce.

"Decadent Vegan Chocolate Cake" with fresh raspberry sauce.

"Decadent Vegan Chocolate Cake" with fresh raspberry sauce.

Laramie, WY

One of the surprises I found along the trip was Sweet Melissa Cafe, a completely vegetarian restaurant in Wyoming.  The restaurant was surprisingly full, with most tables already taken.  Melissa’s menu was has many vegan options, but the seitan sliders on mini pretzel buns (naturally) peaked my interest.  And since I find it general policy this time of year to order anything with root vegetables, I had the sweet potato and black bean burrito.

Seitan Sliders: Onion herb seasoned seitan on 4 mini pretzel buns topped with cashew cheese and served with horseradish mustard sauce.

Smothered Sweet Potato and Black Bean Burrito: Sweet potatoes and black beans in a giant whole wheat tortilla grilled and smothered with green chili.

Boulder, CO

Boulder has a lot to offer for vegans.  It was hard choosing where to go, but in the end I stopped at VG Burgers for dinner, an all-vegan, zero-waste, eco-powered fast food joint.  BBQ sauce helped liven up the tempeh burger and the coconut based soft serve was excellent.

Tempeh Burger

Vanilla and chocolate swirl coconut soft serve.

Denver, CO

Denver also has many vegan options.  I drove by Watercourse Foods for breakfast, an all-vegetarian restaurant with a mostly vegan menu.  There I picked up a delicious biscuits and gravy breakfast along with a classic milkshake.  I hope to return again to try some of their homemade vegan cheeses, including a maple walnut cheddar.

Biscuits and gravy with tofu scramble and sweet potato home fries.

Peaches and cream milk shake.

So far on the trip I hadn’t had any trouble finding good food at regular intervals.  I was even surprised by how many places I could choose from, especially in Colorado.  In part 2 I head to the Midwest to see what the plains have to offer…

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Certain foods are undeniably, quintessentially New York.  Of course you have the bagels and the pizza and the greasy Chinese takeout—three of the basic city food groups—but standing side by side with these popular Gotham grubs is the oft forgotten knish.  A staple of the Lower East Side since the late 1800’s, the knish is sold in delis, from street carts and at dedicated storefronts throughout the city.  But the undisputed king of the knish is the century-old Yonah Schimmel’s.

Yonah Schimmel's on the Lower East Side. The sign has been misspelled since the day it was painted—in 1910.

A knish is basically a ball of mashed potatoes surrounded by a thin layer of dough.  It can be baked or fried with different vegetables mixed into the filling.  Knishes gained popularity with immigrants in New York as a cheap yet filling way to make two fairly basic, inexpensive foods into something more exciting.  And nothing has changed since.  To this day, Yonah Schimmel’s uses the same recipe that the Romanian Rabbi Schimmel served from his street cart in 1890.  Oh, and it’s vegan.

Rows of fresh knishes.

Handmade and always baked (in the original brick ovens), these knishes define comfort food.  They are the perfect way to start a day, a warm snack to heat your hands in the winter, or a satisfying treat to sneak into the movies (Sunshine theater is just two doors down).  They also come in an amazing assortment of vegan flavors, including traditional potato, kasha, spinach, mushroom, vegetable, cabbage, sweet potato and broccoli.  And at $3.50 a pop, you’re not breaking the bank to get a meal.

A handful of spinach knish.

The spinach knish is my personal favorite.  It has just a little more variety than the original to fill out the flavor.  It’s large and hearty and everything that a knish should be.  The dough is thin and does not overwhelm the potatoes (with that much potato, that would be difficult).  And, though a knish is by definition a heavy meal, the fact that it’s baked helps lighten up the load.

The sweet potato knish.

On the sweeter side of the knish spectrum dwells the sweet potato knish.  Filled with an orange mash and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, this knish is more like a dessert.  Most people wouldn’t think to describe a knish as decadent, but this one redefines the knish.  When I order the sweet potato knish, I honestly have trouble finishing it; but it’s so good that I always do.

One world. One knish.

Yonah Schimmel’s is more than an eatery, it’s an LES institution and you can see it in the customers streaming in and out.  One man reminisced about eating these same knishes as a boy 55 years ago.  A couple came in to buy a dozen to freeze and send to their son in California who had claimed that these knishes were what he missed most about New York.  The tin ceiling and the dumbwaiter are the same as when the store opened, as is the atmosphere.  There aren’t a lot of places like this left in the city, and Yonah Schimmel’s has lasted this long for a good reason.  If only for the experience alone, you should visit this knishery and grab a knish to go.  Once you’ve had one, you’ll understand what has kept people coming back for the last 100 years.

Doctor's orders.

Yonah Schimmel’s
(212) 477-2858
137 E Houston St
New York, NY 10002
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First, let’s just cover the basics. Yes, Chipotle cooks the vegan garden blend on the same grill as the meat. No, that isn’t going to change. But yes, it is vegan. And yes, it is awesome.

There’s been a great deal of controversy recently over the new vegan garden blend at Chipotle, which is currently only served at two locations nationwide (Dupont Circle in DC and Chelsea in NYC). So today I went to the NYC location to see for myself what the controversy is about and sat down with the general manager to get the definitive word on shared grills, frustrated vegans and what to expect from Chipotle’s vegan offerings.

You wouldn't even know it's vegan.

The garden blend is a shredded, soy-based Gardein mock meat. If you’ve had other Gardein products, you know that this stuff not only looks like meat, but also has the texture of meat. It’s cooked in a chipotle adobo and then flavored mostly with mushrooms and carrots. But the controversy lies not in the ingredients, it’s in the preparation.

Rumor #1: The vegan blend is not even vegan because it is prepared on the same grill as meat.

Rumor #2: Chipotle started cooking the garden blend on a separate grill after receiving complaints.

The fact is, according to the general manager, they do use the same grill and there’s no getting around it. Every Chipotle has a grill where they cook the meat and there are no plans to renovate the kitchens to install separate vegan grills. However, there are some important factors in the equation for the vegans that aren’t happy about this. The garden blend is not cooked at the same time as meat, so there’s no chance that a pork piece may slip into your burrito. And they clean the grill before switching to the garden blend. He also acknowledged that there have been a number of calls regarding the grill situation and he regrets the misinformation that has been circulated. So, he added, if this still makes you uncomfortable, he would be happy to cook up a separate batch in a pan for you.

Most important, though—and this is my addition to the kerfuffle—is that it’s vegan. And no animals were harmed in the production of the garden blend. And whether it was cooked on the same grill as meat or not, no animals were harmed in the production of the garden blend. The only thing that will be affected if you eat the garden blend or not, are the chances of this vegan choice being extended into other Chipotles or even carried nationwide (and, for the record, that is a current discussion). The garden blend is an experimental product and is presented as an option on a trial basis. Think of it this way: the more you eat, the more likely it will be that you could stop at a Chipotle in Missouri and get a garden blend burrito bowl or Oklahoma for garden blend tacos (or else it’s just another salad sandwich from Subway—and we’ve all been there). As far as I’m concerned, this could be the biggest revolution in vegan fast food to date. How many other national chains carry something similar that isn’t just another veggie burger?

As for some of the more interesting tidbits that the manager was willing to share, Chipotle is continually experimenting with the vegan offering and you can expect changes and improvements over time. And in the next couple weeks, this NYC location will be rolling out brown rice to complement the usual white rice. Sound too good to be true?

For the past 10 years I have ordered the exact same thing at Chipotle: vegetarian fajita burrito with rice, black beans, peppers and onions, corn salsa, extra guacamole and lettuce. Each ingredient complements the other to perfection; the invariably creamy guacamole with the crunch of the sautéed peppers, the warm beans and the cool lettuce, the hint of cilantro and lime in the rice with the sweet spiciness of the corn. So I’ve never had a reason to even consider switching up my routine. Until today. Today I happily decided to mix up my burrito routine and try something new. Behold, the new vegan garden blend burrito from Chipotle:

The vegan garden blend burrito: cilantro lime rice, garden blend, black beans, corn salsa, guacamole and lettuce.

This is literally what I’ve been waiting for since I first went to Chipotle. The garden blend is savory, chewy and succulent. Alone, it carries the flavor of the mushrooms, the peppers in the chipotle adobo and a hint of oregano. Throw it in a tortilla, and the flavors bring the Chipotle burrito to a new level. Look at this stuff, it’s what dreams are made of.

The vegan garden blend.

I wouldn’t even consider going back to my old burrito after trying this one. This is a recommendation to all vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, omnivores and carnviores: If you’re in New York or DC, go to Chipotle and try the garden blend; for everyone else, head to your local Chipotle and request it. Demand it. You won’t regret it. And let me know what you think.

Chipotle – Chelsea West
(212) 620-4015
149 8th Ave.
New York, NY 10011
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Chipotle – Dupont Circle
(202) 387-8261
1629 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20009
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This morning was the grand opening of Babycakes LA.  For those of you that have not been fortunate enough to visit their original New York location, Babycakes is an all vegan bakery that specializes in gluten-free products.  Most importantly, though, it’s delicious.  There has been a lot of excitement about this since they started developing plans to open an LA storefront in 2008.  Well, after a couple years of anticipation, an impressive crowd was ready to pack the bakery and try some of their treats as they opened their doors for the first time at 10am this morning.

Babycakes LA.

A crowd formed outside the bakery.

Eager to send us into sugar shock, mini donuts were passed out at the door.

Eager to send us into sugar shock, mini donuts were passed out at the door.

As the door opened, a warm, sweet air wafted from inside to greet us (along the blaring pop of Miley Cyrus).  Erin McKenna, the queen and mastermind of the operation, came out with an oven-fresh batch of powdered mini donuts.  The store is larger than the NY bakery with much more counter space to display all of the options and a view of the kitchen in the back to see some of the magic that is performed on a daily basis.

A row of vegan donuts, biscuits, brownies, muffins and buns.

A row of sugar-coated dreams.

The trays were full and perfectly lined with donuts, biscuits, buns, brownies, cakes, breads, muffins, cookies and cupcakes.

All vegan in this bakery.

All vegan in this bakery.

And, of course, the cupcakes.

And, of course, the cupcakes.

The real rise of the Babycakes name came from their cupcakes.  Awarded as Best Cupcakes in New York Magazine in 2006, these have been the standard to which others are compared for some time.  But we all know the cupcakes are good and I wanted to focus on a couple different things.  Enter the donut:

The vegan donut.

The vegan donut.

The thing about the donut is that it’s not actually a donut, not in any traditional sense at least.  Sure, it’s round and has a hole in it, but so does a bagel.  But while the name may be misleading, the flavor certainly is not.  These round-hole-cakes are nothing but delicious.  The texture is that of a slightly dense, moist cake.  This one was coated in cinnamon and sugar and lasted for only a matter of seconds.  And though it’s a sweet confection, it would be easy to down a box of these alone, so be careful!

The jam-filled biscuit.

The jam-filled biscuit.

Honestly, the jam-filled biscuits are my favorite thing that Babycakes makes and are what I skipped breakfast for this morning.  These biscuits are buttery and crumbly and filled with frosting and berry jam.  I’m sure these are an oft overlooked item in a bakery that has so much to offer, but it’s definitely worth a try.

While I don’t usually go out just for sweets, I’m glad to know that Babycakes is here for those special occasions.  I’m sure I’ll make a regular stop whenever I’m downtown.

Babycakes LA
(213) 623.5555
130 E. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014
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We’ve all heard great things about the food at Samosa House in Culver City, so I’m just here to back up those claims.  It’s greatly comforting to know that, not far away, there is a place with delicious and safe Indian food that I can rely on.  And it doesn’t break the $8 Indian food mark that I like to stay under (the best always does!  EDIT: except for the pricey but totally worth it Vatan in NYC).

$7.99 special: 3 sides and rice

$7.99 special: 3 sides and rice (they threw in an extra!)

Clockwise from the top right: soy tikka masala, chana bhindi, chana masala, jackfruit curry, brown rice.  OK, I had never seen a couple of these choices before, which also happened to be the most noteworthy of the bunch.  The jackfruit was succulent and well spiced, covered in chopped cilantro.  I would love to see more restaurants incorporate jackfruit into their menus.  And the tikka masala, with chewy soy pieces swimming in a creamy red coconut milk sauce, was also a delight.  I’ve always seen meaty versions but I had never seen a vegan option to try.  Each of these offerings alone would be worth the trip.

The Dabeli: a spicy Indian veggie burger made of potatoes, peanuts, coconut and mint.

The Dabeli: a spicy Indian veggie burger made of potatoes, peanuts, coconut and mint.

The dabeli was quite a surprise.  For only a few bucks, you get a vegan burger that explodes with flavor, individuality (peanuts??  mint??  yeah.), and a spicy kick that will leave your nose a little runny.  I don’t know what to say about this thing that the picture and description don’t; you need to try it.

Samosa house is all vegetarian, but not all vegan.  When you order food, be sure to tell them right away that you are vegan or else the first thing they scoop into your try may be a dollop of yogurt.  And on top of the delicious food, Samosa House is also a fully stocked Indian grocery.  Next time you’re in Culver City, be sure to swing by for a low budget meal that won’t disappoint.

Samosa House
1510 W. Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90066
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Tonight I was lucky enough to enjoy the special New Year’s chef’s tasting menu at Madeleine Bistro. I’m a sucker for fancy prix fixe menus and I have a record of going all out on New Year’s, so this was a welcome meal to usher in 2010. There were 7 courses of unique offerings, all vegan, all delicious (one of them had two plates, so it’s like a bonus course!).  I was also fortunate enough to run into the delightful blogger of Hugger Food and join tables (check her blog for the view from the other side of the table).  It’s a small vegan world out there (in fact, I wouldn’t know one LA blogger from the next, but half the people had cameras next to their plates)!  But let’s cut right to the chase.

The New Year's Chef's Tasting Menu at Madeleine Bistro.

Dim sum - steamed bun, tempeh "lollipop," crispy wonton.

First up was the dim sum plate. The bun was filled with savory seitan and reminded me of getting dim sum in Chinatown in New York, but even tastier and the tempeh balls were soft and filled with delicious flavors that I couldn’t quite name.

“Clam” chowder in a bread bowl.

You know, I don’t see vegan chowder close to as much as I would like. Add some biscuits to soak it up and you have a meal fit for a king. Actually, this course unto itself could have been a small meal; it was hearty and very satisfying.

Chestnut and apple salad, pickled pearl onions, fennel puree, mulled cider vinaigrette.

Any dish that combines baked apples and chestnuts is ok in my book, but what I really liked here were the pickled pearl onions. They didn’t have a strong onion flavor, just slightly sweet with a satisfying snap to them. But good luck stabbing them with your fork, they’re slippery little guys.

Quinoa-crusted Moroccan seitan, artichoke and chickpea tagine, meyer lemon confit, harissa emulsion.

The seitan was the softest seitan I’ve ever had. Don’t get me wrong, it was really good, but it was different. I almost thought that it was a preparation of tofu. It went very well with the slightly crispy crust of quinoa to even out the texture and the harissa emulsion to add a slightly spicy kick.

Portobella “chasseur,” house-cut arugula tagliatelle, wild mushroom ragout.

I don’t know what chasseur is, but I like it. Madeleine Bistro always make good mushrooms (think brunch benedict…). Add to that some more of the pearl onions, roasted brussels sprouts and the arugula pasta and you have yet another course that could make a small meal.

Crackers and herb-crusted cashew cheese.

Kettle corn and popcorn ice creme.

The cheese and cracker plate was part of the same course as the kettle corn plate. The cashew cheese tasted like chives and made an excellent spread. I’m not sure if I caught the popcorn flavor of the ice cream, but the plate successfully balanced the savory cheese and crackers plate with kettle corn sweetness.

“3 x 3” - an assortment of chocolate, peanut butter and caramel treats.

By the time the “3 x 3″ arrives, it feels like a pretty daunting task. To the left is a peanut butter mousse on top of a soft chocolate wafer, topped with more chocolate. In the middle are three candies; a peanut butter cup, a “butterfinger,” and straight caramel. All the way in the back is a peanut butter candy topped with caramel and, yes, more chocolate. I had to take my time with this plate. My favorite was the candy in the back, which was also the richest of all the options.

Madeleine Bistro is high on everyone’s list of best restaurants in LA, so I highly recommend swinging by for a great meal. It isn’t easy to find really good gourmet vegan food and this place nails it every time.

Madeleine Bistro
(818) 758-6971
18621 Ventura Blvd
Tarzana, CA 91356
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As usual, Cafe Flore doesn’t disappoint. The is the Burrito Flore and it’s delicious. While my favorite burrito there is the amazing breakfast burrito (a personal weakness of mine), this one is worth every penny. I particularly like that they grill the tortilla after wrapping it.

The Burrito Flore at Flore Cafe.

Brown basmati rice, black beans, tempeh bacon, cilantro cream, cashew cheese, avocado, lettuce and tomato wrapped and grilled in a whole wheat tortilla. Served with a side of pico de gallo and green salad.

A close-up view of the inside--filled with avocado and tempeh.

Flore Cafe
(323) 953-0611
3818 W. Sunset Blvd.
Silverlake, CA 90026
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