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Vegetarian Food in the Midwest

Phaedrus Jan 12, 2012 06:35 AM

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/11/din...

When I first moved to St. Louis from Austin TX, it was a culturally shocking moment. I was able to not only get vegetarian cuisine in Austin, much of it is well executed, tasty and well thought out. I couldn't even find a decent vegetarian dish in St. Louis. Things have changed a lot since then, but the midwest is still lagging in the vegetarian cuisine department. Mind you, I am an omnivore so my day isn't ruined by not having the vegetarian meal, I can always go get some barbecue. :) But I understand the frustration.

  1. MplsM ary Jan 13, 2012 01:12 PM

    In the 70's my eating out diet was largely iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes. Sometimes I was lucky enough to score fries. Today the Midwest dining world is my oyster mushroom.

    As I've aged and become more comfortable asking for what I want, I call ahead when going to a steakhouse. Not once have I been denied a good, sometimes even great vegetarian meal from a meat focused restaurant. The best pasta primavera I've ever had was thanks to phoning ahead and requesting a special order from a steakhouse.

    If A.G. Sulzberger thinks the Chinese food he's been eating is vegetarian despite all the lard and chicken stock avoidance, he basically practices "don't ask, don't tell" vegetarianism. I've done that, too.

    1. Georgia Sommers Jan 13, 2012 10:35 AM

      I am a midwesterner and agree that there are some places where it is not as easy to be a vegetarian as others. I don't see that as an insult to the midwest, merely an observation. Having a meat-centric culinary history (it's farm country!) does not make us backward. I live in the Chicago area and have access to variety but I also have family in St Louis and know what the OP means. Sure, there are choices, but not as many as where I live. It's more common there to have to order sides to make a vegetarian meal than it is here.
      Of course, doing a bit of homework will open up more restaurant options for the OP, but it is not the vegetarian's paradise that some other parts of the country are. What is produced and who lives in an area has much to do with the cuisine.

      1. s
        smarsh Jan 13, 2012 10:11 AM

        Let me get this straight--the author went to a steakhouse, a bbq joint and a fried chicken shack and was surprised that there weren't a ton of vegetarian options? That these types of restaurants are meat heavy can't be an exclusively midwest phenomenon, right?

        As has been mentioned by others in this thread, there are plenty of vegetarian options in the midwest/plains states, as long as you don't try to find it at restaurants with meat in the name.

        5 Replies
        1. re: smarsh
          Phaedrus Jan 13, 2012 10:36 AM

          That is part of the point. I can go to a restaurant in Austin, regardless of their main focus, and get a very good vegetarian meal. Whereas you can't be sure of that in the midwest. This way, you can go wherever your friends go and not have to worry whether you're going to starve.

          1. re: Phaedrus
            d
            debbiel Jan 13, 2012 10:46 AM

            In 20 years I never went without a meal. No, it wasn't always first rate veg cuisine, but even at steak houses I could have a meatless meal.

            Just curious, what kind of veg meals are served at Austin steakhouses?

            1. re: Phaedrus
              s
              smarsh Jan 13, 2012 11:00 AM

              Also curious about the vegetarian options at a BBQ place in Austin if you don't mind sharing...

              1. re: smarsh
                Phaedrus Jan 13, 2012 11:40 AM

                First of all, it was rarely a salad, because that was the easy way out, although it was always available.

                If I remember correctly, they always had a number of vegetables that they either grilled or stir fried into a pretty substantial meal. The ubiquitous onions, peppers, tomatoes, celery etc. They also did some pretty nice things with potatoes and corn if they already had it on the menu. Some did interesting things with their usual rice side dishes that was just a little different from the side dish that jazzed it up. Mostly it was using the vegetables they had on hand and then adding things to the flavor profile that made the dish special. I don't think this was a set dish in their repertoire but they are used to having the request from vegetarians that they don't even blink when asked to improvise.

                I seem to remember one place that did a really divine corn bread dish that knocked my socks off, but I can't remember exactly what it was. Sorry, bad memory.

                One time, and this was not in Austin, we went to a Morton's of Chicago for a work related meal and one of the Brits in our party was a vegetarian. After the waiter did his thing with the silver platter of all the different cuts of meat, she piped up and said she was vegetarian, the waiter didn't even blink, he told her they will do something special for her. She said it was probably the best vegetarian dish she'd ever had.

                1. re: Phaedrus
                  d
                  debbiel Jan 13, 2012 11:45 AM

                  The grilled veg or stir fry is a pretty common option at meat-centric places, at least in my experience, perhaps less common than pasta primavera. Sometimes on the menu, sometimes what the kitchen makes if you ask them to prepare something off the menu. The grilled veggies have typically been far superior to the stir fry dishes, regardless of region. Except for an absolutely incredible veg stir fry at a place on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland.

                  Many years ago I had an absolutely incredible grilled veg plate in a KC steakhouse. Seasoning was wonderful, came with a great corn pudding (hmm...and with your corn bread dish...maybe this is a pattern, too?), and some veg baked beans.

          2. m
            mpjmph Jan 13, 2012 07:10 AM

            If Sulzberger has written about the lack of vegetarian options in small towns, I would completely understand. Most of what he writes would apply to any small town in the US, and very little applies to major metropolitan areas anywhere in the US. Of course you're going to have a hard time finding an exclusively vegetarian restaurant in a town with only a few restaurants to begin with, or finding many meat-free options at restaurants that specialize in cooking animal products. I have a hard time believing he just couldn't find anything in Kansas City, especially since a simple google search turned up four exclusively vegetarian/vegan restaurants at the top of the search results and an urbanspoon list of 50+ restaurants highly recommended by vegetarians.

            1. s
              soupkitten Jan 12, 2012 07:59 PM

              good to see it's still quite fashionable to diss the midwest!

              quite the steaming pile of bs, indeed.

              4 Replies
              1. re: soupkitten
                rockandroller1 Jan 13, 2012 05:22 AM

                +1

                1. re: rockandroller1
                  coney with everything Jan 13, 2012 06:50 AM

                  +2

                2. re: soupkitten
                  d
                  debbiel Jan 13, 2012 07:54 AM

                  +1

                  I went back to omni a year ago, but did just fine as a veg in the midwest for 20 years.

                  1. re: soupkitten
                    rozz01 Jan 13, 2012 10:33 AM

                    + 3

                  2. rozz01 Jan 12, 2012 07:40 PM

                    I like in a college town in eastern Iowa and we have 3 vegetarian restaurant in town, 2 that are completely vegan. Things are getting better.... It mentioned Sparti's in Coralville, but that doesn't look at the whole picture. I will admit there is a fine dining place in town that sent out a snarky e-mail about tofu one April Fool's day.. I just got there less often.

                    1. 2
                      2roadsdiverge Jan 12, 2012 12:24 PM

                      As someone who lives there, I have an issue with the author's assertion that there are only two vegetarian restaurants in Kansas City. Now, I can *maybe* agree that there are only a couple of restaurants that are EXCLUSIVELY vegetarian (I can name two off the top of my head, and I suppose it is possible that they are the only two). But there are many that are vegetarian friendly, up to and including having entirely different cooking equipment for vegan/vegetarian dishes.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: 2roadsdiverge
                        rockandroller1 Jan 12, 2012 01:34 PM

                        Maybe it's different elsewhere, but I am in the Midwest and there TONS of vegetarians here and they have plenty to eat. I'm pretty tired of the notion that the entire midwest is addicted to meat and impossible for vegetarians to exist. I'm in a department of 21 people and almost ALL of them are veggie and one is a vegan and we are almost all in the midwest.

                        1. re: rockandroller1
                          huiray Jan 12, 2012 02:15 PM

                          Where are you? Cleveland? If so I don't doubt there are lots of vegetarian options there. The article, however, was slanted to places in the Great Plains, even though the author (incorrectly) used the general term the "Midwest".

                          1. re: huiray
                            rockandroller1 Jan 13, 2012 05:22 AM

                            Yes, Cleveland. And we are part of the Midwest. And so are Cincinnati and Columbus and there are plenty of Veg options at restaurants there too. You can't make sweeping generalizations like this about a whole region of the country.

                            1. re: rockandroller1
                              k
                              Kelli2006 Jan 13, 2012 02:02 PM

                              I agree. I don't know of any strictly vegetarian resturtants in NE Ohio but many restaurants have vegetarian dishes or dishes that can easily be prepered in a vegetarian manner. Chrissie Hynde's place in Akron was the lone vegan standout but sadly it closed.

                      2. huiray Jan 12, 2012 12:10 PM

                        Chicago also has more vegetarian options, but it isn't typical of much of the Mid-West/Plains. Cities with high concentrations of non-white/non-European ancestry people (a.k.a. "ethnic" folks)(yes, yes, thew) tend to have vegetarian options furnished by their cuisines too.

                        I posted this on the Great Plains board... :-)
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/827772

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