Feed me, Sacramento!

A vegan appeals to restaurant owners, chefs and anyone else who’s listening for more vegan cuisine in the capital city

Illustration By Elwood Smith

I’m a vegan. I’m not a waif. I’m not in a punk band. I don’t throw red paint on people or distribute photos of slaughterhouses. I get my daily recommended allowance of protein. I don’t preach to my burger-eating co-workers during lunch breaks. I’m not anemic, and I’m not a Buddhist.

I’m just a girl who’s read far too much about factory farming’s effect on our health, the environment, world hunger conditions and animal welfare to feel at all comfortable consuming animal products. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I won’t spoil your lunch. Reading John Robbins’ Diet for a New America or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation will catch you up.) The more I learned about where my food came from, the more I knew I couldn’t patronize the factory-farming industry in good conscience or good health.

So, I quit. I started by eliminating meat, back in 1990. It took me eight more years to let go of the Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream container long enough to give up dairy products, but I’ve maintained a vegan lifestyle for six years now. That means there are no eggs, fish, meat or dairy in my diet and no silk, leather or wool in my closet.

When I tell someone I’m vegan, the first question they usually ask is: “What do you eat?” My answer is: “What don’t I eat?” Far from the “alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast” diet lampooned by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, I cook pasta, pizza, burritos, burgers, waffles, lasagna, curries, tamales, stir-fries, cakes, chili, soups—and the list goes on. Sometimes it’s a challenge to make these dishes without animal products, but the recipes are out there. About the only thing I can’t make vegan is haggis. (Luckily, I never crave haggis. Scottish vegans, you have my sympathies.)

People tend to assume that going vegan is the ticket to looking like Kate Moss. In reality, genetics, exercise and a heavy methamphetamine habit are more effective paths to a supermodel’s physique. I have yet to lose any weight from being vegan. This is directly attributable to the fact that potato chips, dark chocolate, oil-popped popcorn and various junk foods with no natural ingredients whatsoever are, technically, vegan. So is sitting on your ass in front of the TV.

Veganism is not a miracle weight-loss plan, but it does make me immune to most obesity-causing fast food, many sources of food poisoning, the mad-cow scare, lactose intolerance, high cholesterol levels, binging on leftover birthday cake in the office break room and several other dietary pitfalls.

Unfortunately, being vegan also keeps me away from many of the area’s fancier restaurants. For some reason, “fine dining” is often equated with ethically questionable delicacies like foie gras, veal and lobster. I also miss out on the city’s most revered greasy spoons.

I accept that my vegan eating habits aren’t going to be accommodated everywhere. I became a vegan in Tennessee, where every salad and side of vegetables I ordered came garnished with bacon. I’ve been a vegan on three-day driving stints through Texas, subsisting entirely on Taco Bell bean burritos with no cheese. All things being relative, I know that Sacramento vegans are lucky to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, health-food stores and a strong likelihood that one’s waiter has at least heard the word “vegan” before.

Then again, I’ve also been a vegan in Santa Cruz, where vegan options on a menu are as common as appetizers. I’ve been a vegan in San Francisco and New York City, where some upscale gourmet restaurants are entirely vegan.

I’ve seen firsthand how many local restaurants could accommodate vegans with only a few alterations to their existing menus.

Restaurateurs are probably wondering why they should bother catering to vegans. It’s true that vegans are a minority. A national Zogby Poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2000 suggested that vegans make up 1 percent of the American population. But the poll also found those vegans concentrated in the coastal regions on both sides of the country, near major metropolitan cities. Given the cross-pollination between Sacramento and the Bay Area, it’s safe to assume Sacramento has more vegans than the majority of U.S. cities its size.

Illustration By Elwood Smith

Juana Rogers, the membership coordinator of the Sacramento Vegetarian Society, reports that the group’s membership has increased steadily in the past few years. She estimates that two-thirds of the society’s 80 members are vegan. When Sacveg.com, the local vegan restaurant guide run by a webmaster known only as Crow, debuted online two years ago, it received only 10 hits in its first month. Though Crow has made no effort to advertise his site, traffic has increased to more than 500 hits per month entirely through word of mouth. The numbers are relatively small, but they are consistently increasing, and they indicate a vegan presence in the Sacramento area.

Now consider that veganism isn’t just for vegans anymore. Vegan dishes accommodate not only vegan and vegetarian customers but also those concerned about heart disease, lactose intolerance, cholesterol levels and avoiding mad-cow prions. Because vegan meals can be created from the foundational ingredients of traditional dishes—vegetables, rice, beans, pasta, etc.—most restaurants could offer a vegan entree without ordering new foods.

It’s also a little-known fact that vegans have more pull than most people in choosing restaurants for group outings. Crow explained this phenomenon: “I’m known as ‘the vegan guy’ at work, so people often ask me for advice when they need to take vegan friends or family out to eat. Additionally,” he said, “when I go out to lunch with my non-vegan co-workers, we always go to the places where I can find a good vegan meal, which means vegan-hostile restaurants lose hundreds of dollars of business every month.”

Add to that the facts that vegans are inherently interested in food and that they organize! The Sacramento Vegetarian Society orchestrates monthly restaurant outings. When asked if there was a demand for vegan food in Sacramento, Rogers said, “Yes, yes, yes! We all eagerly scan reviews of new restaurants and hope to find mention of vegan and vegetarian offerings.”

Crow, who also organizes informal dine-outs with his circle of vegan friends, concurred. “Based on the number of times I’ve had complete strangers tell me about my own site,” he said, “I believe the demand for vegan food is much higher than anybody would think.”

Though there are no completely vegan restaurants in the Sacramento area, a handful of restaurants have embraced the idea of catering to vegetarians and vegans.

There are those that unabashedly sport a no-meat agenda. The most prominent and well-established of

this rare breed is the Sunflower Drive-In, located at 10344 Fair Oaks Boulevard in Fair Oaks Village. This modest roadside stand offers an entirely vegetarian menu, including nut burgers, tacos, salads and smoothies. There’s often a line outside this longtime village staple’s pickup window.

The Sacramento area’s only other completely vegetarian restaurant is the new NV Vegetarian Restaurant, located at 537 B Main Street in Woodland. NV offers dozens of Asian dishes made with soy and gluten-based meat substitutes, such as almond “chicken” and Mongolian “beef.”

Mother India, located at 1030 J Street, forged a unique compromise by making vegan dining a weekly event. Every Thursday night from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., the restaurant hosts an all-you-can-eat vegan buffet.

Restaurants that want to accommodate vegans while avoiding radical kitchen alterations and that “age of Aquarius” vibe, can simply add a few clearly labeled vegan items to their menus. At Celestin’s, located at 1815 K Street, every vegan dish on the menu is marked with a red asterisk. These include vegan gumbo, Creole vegetables and plantains. Kathmandu Kitchen, a Nepalese restaurant with locations at 1728 Broadway in Sacramento and 234 G Street in Davis, offers a vegan thali dinner with a variety of dumplings and stews, rice and naan. And Scott’s Seafood, located inside Loehmann’s Plaza (at 545 Munroe Street) and at 9611 Greenback Lane in Folsom, recently made national news with an endorsement by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for offering char-grilled vegan “prawns.”

Many restaurants already have vegan items or dishes that can be converted easily by leaving out cheese or meat, but they aren’t labeled as such. Vegans are used to grilling waiters about ingredients and making substitutions to accommodate their needs. However, when a restaurant is busy, or the wait staff is unfamiliar with the ingredients in a dish, the ordering process can be frustrating for both parties. I’ve been handed beef burritos and pork pot stickers by inattentive servers. I’ve had a waitress place a five-gallon bucket of salad dressing on my table and tell me to read the ingredients myself because she didn’t know what was or wasn’t vegan. I’ve had a waiter assure me a soup was vegan and then deliver it with prawns floating on top. I’ve sent back dishes covered with cheese (after specifying “no cheese”) more times than I can count.

When a restaurant takes time to plan vegan entrees and label them on the menu, it takes the guesswork out of ordering and lets vegans know they’re welcome. Educating restaurant employees about special diets is equally important. Botching a vegan’s order might result only in frustration, but for someone with a food allergy, the wrong dish can mean a trip to the emergency room.

In this era of Hollywood governors, pro basketball teams and downtown redevelopment, Sacramento is striving to shed its cow-town image and evolve into a culturally thriving metropolitan area. To that end, it’s essential that we update our dining options to reflect our diversity. As Wilford Brimley would say while glowering over a bowl of oatmeal, “It’s the right thing to do and the tasty way to do it.” So, get cooking, Sacramento, and let us vegans know when the (meatless, dairy-free) soup’s on.