Beyond eggplant

Rethinking Sacramento’s vegetarian possibilities

Local chefs are increasingly more vegetarian-friendly. And they’re increasingly preparing vegetarian and vegan spins on traditionally non-veggie-friendly fare, such as cupcakes and “turkey” sandwiches.

Local chefs are increasingly more vegetarian-friendly. And they’re increasingly preparing vegetarian and vegan spins on traditionally non-veggie-friendly fare, such as cupcakes and “turkey” sandwiches.

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Not all vegetables are created equal.

This is the hard lesson I learned upon switching to a vegetarian diet nearly 15 years ago when, sitting in a Midtown restaurant, I stared down at the sad array of pasta and vegetables that held the distinction as the eatery’s lone vegetarian-menu option.

Pasta, yellow squash and olive oil? The combination, which qualified as a vegetarian dish only on a technicality, was uninspired, tasteless and the mark of a lazy and unimaginative chef.

Unimaginative vegetarian fare has long been Sacramento’s dining downfall. Aside from the usual veggie-burger options and a handful of vegetarian Asian and Indian restaurants, area herbivores have been mostly limited to choosing from a restaurant’s scant offerings.

While similarly sized cities such as Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, have long managed to get it right, supporting restaurants that dish up tasty and filling animal-free dishes such as lentil loaf and faux Philly cheese steak sandwiches, the state of Sacramento’s vegetarian options has been pretty meager.

Until now.

In March, Sugar Plum Vegan opened in Midtown with an all-vegan menu that includes pizzas, nachos and sandwiches; meanwhile, The Art of Food, a vegan “living food” restaurant that opened last year on Del Paso Boulevard, continues to attract a growing number of people interested in healthier, socially conscious eating.

If we are what you eat, Sacramento is, perhaps, finally moving a few forkfuls closer to bliss.

My personal vegetarian journey started in 1994, after reading John Robbins’ seminal 1987 book Diet for a New America, which examined the cruelty of factory farms. Cutting meat out of my diet was a slow process that took several years—first red meat, then chicken and lastly fish. Finally, in 1997, armed with a desire to eat not just healthier but also with a sense of responsibility, I bought several vegetarian cookbooks and stocked up on essentials such as tofu, soy milk and beans. Over the years, I taught myself how to make everything from black-bean burgers and Parmesan-crusted tofu steak sandwiches to tempeh “turkey” roasts.

That was the easy part. But as I soon discovered, very few local restaurants were interested in creating vegetarian dishes. I wasn’t asking for faux meats—not everybody likes them, I get that—just something other than the usual pasta, roasted eggplant sandwich, veggie burger.

In the years since, however, we’ve witnessed a veritable food revolution. Not only do people now take a greater interest in the nutrition, preparation and appearance of what goes on their plates, they’re also more invested in how it got there.

With books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eating Animals, authors like Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer have asked consumers to think about not just their taste buds and health but also the ethics of organic farming, farm, factory and slaughterhouse practices, and the overall carbon footprint of what we put into our bodies.

And, like the rest of the country, Sacramento is hungry for a diet overhaul.

Or so says Sugar Plum Vegan owner Melissa Wilhelm who, along with her husband, Khyem Amri, opened the eatery last month on the bottom floor of a Victorian house. Since then, relying solely on word-of-mouth advertising and social networking, the couple has watched a steady stream of diners come in to check out the cafe’s hearty sandwiches, soups, salads and baked goods.

“There’s definitely a market [for vegetarian food] in Sacramento,” says Wilhelm.

A longtime vegan and Philadelphia native, Wilhelm moved out here with her husband and son Jasper three years ago, and says she was initially disappointed with local offerings.

“We tried all the places that offer vegan food, but we mostly just cooked at home a lot.”

Then Wilhelm, who attended culinary school in Philadelphia and had long experimented with vegan baking, started whipping up batches of her specialty cupcakes, pastries and scones at Massa Peal, a local catering company that offers kitchen rentals for local culinary entrepreneurs. Wilhelm sold the goods to local bakeries and restaurants and the response, she says, is just one reason why she decided to open Sugar Plum.

“People are really ready for something like this,” she explains. “They want comfort [vegan] food, whether they’re eating this way for animals-rights reasons or for their health. They’re learning what the word vegetarian means—that it’s not just some weird, hippie thing.”

Chef Richard Hemsley explains the thinking behind The Art of Food, his raw-food joint on Del Paso Boulevard.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Richard Hemsley, owner of The Art of Food in North Sacramento, knows that some will think his tiny, vegan restaurant is weird.

“Sometimes people walk in and ask for a cup of coffee and are surprised when we tell them we don’t sell coffee,” he says.

Still, he adds, many stick around to check out his “living food” options that include burritos, pizza, wraps, Mexican hot chocolate and ice cream—all organic and all subjected to minimal processing, such as no boiling, no steaming, no high temperatures. With an emphasis on vegetables straight from Hemsley’s garden and textures that tend toward the nutty and chewy, it’s easy think that many—omnivores and vegetarians alike—might dismiss his menu as overly granola.

So far, Hemsley says, that hasn’t been the case.

“Some people who come in off the streets are confused, but others are ecstatic that we’re here,” he says, adding that the cafe’s most popular item is a cheesecake that uses cashews instead of dairy products.

“We’ve only gotten busier since we opened.”

Like Wilhelm, Hemsley credits changes in the collective food philosophy (“Ethics have made all this possible”) for at least part of his restaurant’s success and the future success of similar Sacramento restaurants.

“I absolutely expect to see more [vegetarian and raw] restaurants coming,” he says. “I’m just one of the first; there will be more.”

Carol Massa, owner of the Massa Peal kitchen where Hemsley also got his start, believes so, too.

“More people are inquiring about vegan and healthy food,” she says. “They’re very conscious of the pesticides being used, and they’re looking for organic, vegan and raw choices.

“The more people become aware of it, the more they want it, and they’re seeking out the places that offer them.”

As someone who’s eaten more overpriced, reheated Gardenburgers than I care to count, count me in.