Greetings VeGALs and plant fans! If you are a mainstream vegan like me, then chances are you deal with the issue of animal byproducts being randomly placed in your plant foods on an ongoing basis when dining out. Chefs/cooks/food preps simply cannot help themselves when it comes to adulterating the foods from nature that we love so much. In their eyes, they feel they are enhancing the flavor whereas we can all agree it only detracts from the true essence that plant-based cuisine has to offer. On many vegetarian/vegetable menu items, no where does it even indicate that there will be animal-based foods added to the dish, which is surprising nowadays with so many food allergy concerns. For instance, it is often the case where I order a garden salad that is listed as having only lettuce, cukes, carrots, tomatoes (and other "safe" ingredients) and when it arrives, it is laden with shaved/sprinkled parmesan cheese. I have learned to ask for salads now with no cheese, egg or bacon even if it is NOT listed on the menu. Sadly enough, there are still some naive food servers/preps out there that still have no idea what the term "vegan" actually refers to so often times I choose the old "food allergy" excuse to drive home a point, especially when at an unfamiliar place. Don't get me wrong...I wear my vegan identity with pride but when it comes to ordering my meal, I go to great lengths to get the order right and even then, I have to send it back due to error half the time!!!
A while back, I had written an article for VegginOutAndAbout.com, where I'm a staff writer/contributor that discusses hidden animal products in our foods, if you would like to refer to that, like chicken broth, fish stock, beef stock, milk, whey, egg yolks, egg wash, oyster sauce, anchovies, parmesan cheese, butter, casein, gelatin, etc. Many restaurants, especially chains, have an allergy menu available either on location or online which can be very helpful in providing insight into non-vegan foods we assume to be safe. It isn't always easy, and sometimes next to impossible to find a vegan/vegan-friendly joint and the majority of our family/friends are typically omnivours so we must settle on mainstream, trying to make the best of it without drawing too much attention to ourselves.
Just this past weekend, my running partner and I were in Cocoa Beach, FL to run the Space Coast Marathon (as pacers) for our third year in a row. A few days before the race, we looked over the dinner menu online for Fat Kahunas, a small bar/restaurant we've had our eye on for a few years. The menu seemed very welcoming and the location, ideal to watch a nearby Friday night street party, so we were excited to check it out. As soon as we were seated, we were served fresh homade hummus with olives and warm tortilla chips. I would've been perfectly content eating that all night, washed down by a draft beer, of course. But I chose to order the grilled vegetable tacos, minus the red and green peppers (I always lie and say I'm allergic since I just plain don't like 'em), add avocado instead as my entree. As an experiment of sorts, I refrained from mentioning the word "vegan" while I made sure that there was NO cheese or sour cream also due to "allergies" and the waitress said NO problem. The menu said it comes with a teriyaki glaze which sounded safe enough for me. So....as she sets my beautiful plate down before me, veggie soft tacos accompanied by coconut rice, black beans and fresh salsa, I noticed a red/orange sauce strewn across the entire dish, along with the teriyaki glaze. I was immediately suspicious of a mayonnaise presence as the server explained that the chef uses his own "secret sauce" for an added touch. I only wish I would've snapped a photo of it! My fear was confirmed...the sauce was mayo-based, probably mixed with sriracha...something I do with my vegan "Just Mayo" all the time. Our server apologized and offered to prepare another plate that was "vegan." Yes, she actually used the word after all that lol. In the end, the food was scrumptious, especially the coconut rice, and the restaurant was very accommodating. I schooled the server about Just Mayo being egg-free and "safe" for all patrons without compromising taste. She said she would relay that to the chef!
As our post race meal, we headed back south to Delray Beach, FL, along famous Atlantic Avenue, to a preferred hang out of ours, Budda Sky Bar, a departure from our usual post race beer/french fries reward. We were famished and in desperate need of fried food so we ordered vegetable spring rolls in addition to their divine mushroom dumplings and stir fried string beans. However, much to our chagrin, when spring rolls arrived, they were nothing more than veggie egg rolls, which of course are made out of egg wonton wraps. I proceeded to taste the inside and was unsure of the filling. I have encountered the "inadvertent meat eat" with dumplings in the past so I grew weary of the contents, which looked an awful lot like ground chicken or pork. It's hard to distinguish ground meat! The chef actually came out and insisted there were only vegetables, no meat inside but when we remarked how they were egg rolls, not spring rolls, there was no changing his mind about that. He brought us a fresh batch of the same to be sure and said it's definitely tofu inside and that he said he tries to season it so well so that it tastes like chicken, which makes it taste better...yes, those were his words. Needless to say, I stayed away from the egg rolls altogether and embraced all the wonderful veggie options this Japanese restaurant has to offer. Essentially, the chef's opinion is much like so many others...everything tastes better with animal products in them. We know better!!!
Try as we might, we will always face challenges when it comes to plant-based, cruelty-free meals but as more and more foodies turn to plants, more and more folks in the food industry will catch on. It's a trend that's here to stay. We must remain positive as well as patient in our endeavors and not get discouraged every time we have to send a meal back. Each time that we do, it actually sends a message to both chefs and servers to think outside the box, be creative, go beyond the animal byproducts, Even if a server seems to be aware of the term "vegan," they may not have a clear understanding of what that actually means. We have to simply be specific when ordering and ask questions for clarification. And just maybe, we'll make a few of them go plant-based all the way!