Every cuisine has its most famous dishes, every diner her go-to dish. But even your beloved pad Thai/cheese enchiladas/Alaska roll can get a little tired. Break out of that ordering rut with the help of smartypants experts who know all the menu’s secret tricks and gems.
Photo credit: Eising Studio/StockFood
Chef Aaron Woo may not be a vegetarian, but you’d never know it by stepping into one of his restaurants. The 44-year-old, who has helmed several non-vegetarian kitchens in San Francisco and Colorado, now owns two meat-free eateries in the farm-to-table obsessed city of Portland, Oregon: Natural Selection, a fine-dining, seasonally focused restaurant with an ever-changing prix-fixe menu, and his more casual Vita Café, where meat lovers can dig into veggie versions of cheesesteaks and chili burgers. We asked Woo to share his top tips for ensuring that even the most committed carnivore gets a good meal at a vegetarian restaurant.
1. Dump your pre-conceived notions. Times have changed. Woo gets why so many diners are wary of sitting down to a meal at a place that doesn’t offer a single meat dish. “A lot of people have a stigma,” he says, “and I understand why, from the days of kind of hippie, vegetarian-vegan cuisine.” But the quality and creativity of vegetarian offerings has skyrocketed in recent years as talented chefs are tackling meat-free fare to keep up with an increasing number of Americans’ diets. “I think it was boring and bland because people didn’t have to focus on it before. But cooks and chefs now are starting to step up their game,” insists Woo. “The level of cooking when you go out to eat now is so much higher than it ever was,” and vegetarian cuisine is no exception. “The bar is set higher. You’re more able to find a really good vegetarian meal these days than you ever have been.”
2. Stick with comfort food the first time around, especially if you’re a meat-and-potatoes person. “If you’re going for a casual meal, the comforty things for a non-vegetarian are going to be much more satisfying than if you went with lighter fare,” advises Woo, who adds that the vegetarian versions of classic, hearty sandwiches have a lot of the same elements as their original counterparts. “For example, a tempeh Reuben. The sauerkraut is the same, your Russian dressing is the same. You’re eating and you think, ‘Hey that’s pretty darn close to what in my head I think a Reuben should taste like. I can do this again.’”
3. Ask what’s housemade. Most chefs can’t make every alternative protein on their menus from scratch, but they should be taking a stab at some. So before you order that veggie burger, make sure it’s not the same patty you can get at the grocery store. “I’ll ask, ‘Do you make your own?’ There’s nothing wrong with bought stuff but when it’s made there’s a little more put into it,” says Woo. “It’s not a guarantee that it’s good, but generally I will take that chance because I think it’s worth it. If they’re going to put the time into creating something from scratch, they’re going to put the time into creating the dish itself a little more carefully.”
4. Ask your server for help…but give her some help too. You can find out what your server thinks best thing on the menu is, but also make sure to tell her what sounds good to you. “I oftentimes ask the server ‘Is there something that I shouldn’t miss?’ and then I’ll tell them what I’m thinking about, so it gives people a clue about how you would order, what your flavor profile might be, and it gives them a direction to go with. The biggest thing is communication, especially if you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone.”
5. Try the soup. Just saying the word “soup” can elicit a yawn, but a good soup can be one of the most complex and flavorful dishes on a menu, and that’s especially true at a vegetarian spot. “I almost always do a purée soup because most people don’t have the appliances or the tools or the food science knowledge to make a good puréed soup,” says Woo. “I try to give people in my restaurant something that they can’t do at home.”
6. Go with a place that offers vegan dishes…even if you have no plans to order one. Chefs can do wonders with vegan cuisine these days, and Woo says that, like a lot of his colleagues, he works hard to emulate the texture of dairy in vegan dishes. “The vegans are happy and say ‘Oh my gosh, that’s like cream but it’s not, that’s awesome.’ And the people who are meat eaters try it and go, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s vegan?’” The same rule can apply to a non-vegetarian eatery too. Woo adds that chefs who make a point of creating interesting vegan dishes are saying a lot about themselves and their restaurants: “If I put in butter and cream and cheese, I can make anything that’s vegetarian taste good. But if I make those [dishes] vegan, now I really have to make sure my game is on. I think it’s a direct sign of the quality level or at least the technical skill set of an operation.”