Editors' Note: Vegetarians in Paradise reader Neal Pinckney lives in Hawaii, but frequents the lower 48 on occasion. When he does, he takes advantage of the vegan offerings of restaurants. In the article that follows, Pinckney shares his dining experiences in New York City during a recent visit.
New York, a Diner's Paradise,
Especially for Vegans/Vegetarians
By Neal Pinckney
New York City is a diner's paradise. According to Health Department data, there are over 24,000 inspected eating places in Manhattan. And from the listings in various vegetarian websites, one can find over 120 vegetarian and vegan places, with many hundreds more that offer some vegetarian/vegan offerings on their menus.
Over three weeks in July, I was able to eat in 20 of them, some old favorites and a few new ones. I usually went with at least two (and as many as five) friends. We shared all dishes, allowing a wide sampling. Only the top dozen are listed here due to space limitations
I was staying at Broadway and Houston, just between Noho and Soho, the East and West Village, Little Italy and Chinatown. With two exceptions, Candle79 and Zen Palate, all were within easy walking distance.
Starting with those I rate the highest:
Candle 79 , the vegan and organic big sister to the Candle Café, is the more elegant and adventurous of the two. The food here is creative and delicious, the portions are generous, the service excellent, and the atmosphere upscale. The menu changes with the seasons, but their daily specials are worth trying. Entrees ($21-$25). Desserts ($12-$14) are not to be missed. There are many gluten free options. I highly recommend the Saffron-Lobster Mushroom Ravioli appetizer and the Live Tomato-Zucchini Lasagna. If you can only eat in one place while in New York, this is it!
Candle's little sister, Candle Café has two locations, the upper west side and the upper east side. Since it's not quite as upscale, it's very popular and more informal. Each has its own menu and interesting daily specials. Both have a good selection of seitan and vegetable dishes ($16-$20) as well as vegan burgers and sandwiches ($14-$15).
Wild Ginger is a pan-Asian vegan delight. Traditional Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean and Vietnamese dishes are all vegan. Appetizers ($3.50-$5.50) are exceptionally tasty. Entrees ($10-14) feature mostly seitan and soy protein dishes in one or more of their over two dozen homemade sauces. I recommend the Mango Soy Protein and the Singapore-Style Mei-Fun. All come with a variety of vegetables, perfectly cooked and delicious. Desserts ($4-$6) are simple. This restaurant is one of my favorites, especially for their special lunch menu with many of the dinner entrees for only $8.50 with a spring roll, miso soup, a slice of baked pumpkin and rice.
Small and noisy, Red Bamboo features a wide variety of vegan dishes. Servings are large, so an appetizer ($3.50-$8) may not be needed, though most are excellent. Main courses ($10-$13) are eclectic, with my favorite barbeque ribs (it's hard to believe the ribs are seitan) with mashed potatoes and veggies, to Jamaican favorites to American Diner choices (beef stew, BBQ chicken) to traditional Chinese dishes. Service is fast, but you may have to wait a short while for a table. Over many years, my friends and I have never had a disappointing meal here.
Only two doors away is Vegetarian's Paradise2. Originally a Chinese restaurant, it features a worldwide variety of more than 50 dishes. Appetizers ($3-$6) are generous and tasty. Entrees ($7-$11) are based on noodles, tofu, mock beef, chicken or seafood, among others. Everything (except the Paella Valenciana, which had no saffron and just didn't work--perhaps too much to expect in an Asian eatery) is delicious. A special treat is the Shish Kabob Grilled Vegetarian Beef and Chicken Skewered with Pineapples, Lychees, Bell Peppers and Onion. This restaurant is a highly recommended, favorite place.
Zen Palate is one I always go back to. There are now two locations, the Upper West Side and the theater district. Both feature essentially the same menu. Sadly, their Union Square location has closed. Appetizers ($12-$21) are creative and very tasty. Entrees ($17-$22) feature fresh seasonal vegetables, seitan and tofu, with original sauces and interesting flavor combinations. The MooShoo Fantasia and Sizzling Medallions are highly recommended.
For an all veggie treat, try the Zen Palate. The theater district restaurant is the place to eat if you're taking in a Broadway show. In this location there are two entrances, one to a coffee-shop-like dining area and the other for the upscale fancy restaurant, but the kitchen is shared. In the coffee-shop section some menu items are different and the prices are considerably lower. I prefer the restaurant part, with all the trimmings of a fine restaurant, but in a hurry or for a snack, the simpler part is well worth a try. (Their website requires flash, so an iPhone won't open it. It's a fun site with soothing koto music.)
Expensive and unique, Dirt Candy expects you to make reservations at least two weeks ahead (but call--they usually have something if you come early). Small and a bit pretentious, the restaurant has slow service, but the food was full of delicate nuances, and the flavors were exquisite. For big bucks, the portions are infinitesimally small. My appetizer ($12-$13), Portobello Mousse, Truffled Toast & Pear-Fennel Compote was just one tiny bite in size, almost impossible to share with anyone, but superb. The main courses ($18-$20), I had Chard Gnocchi with Grilled Chard, Garlic Granola & Drunken Fig Jam, were a bit bigger and just as creative and delicious. Desserts ($10-$12) were tiny and not exceptional. Figure $60 to $70 including tax and tip for three courses and a glass of wine. While I doubt if I'll go back again, it was a culinary adventure and a very unusual experience that I'm very glad I tried.
As unusual inside as its name, Pukk is a Thai fusion restaurant with monochrome mosaic tile walls, tables and chairs. Appetizers ($4-$6) range from the standard to imaginative and interesting. Main courses ($8-$10) range from curries (very good) to traditional Thai chicken and duck (analog) entrees to a variety of tofu dishes. The Green Delight, all veggies in a delicate garlic suce, was delicious. Desserts ($4) are appealing, either fruit based or chocolate-caramel. Service is a little slow, but the food is tasty and the prices very reasonable.
Buddha Bodai has long been one of my favorites for vegan Chinese. With an extensive dim-sum collection and a generous lunch menu with soup and rice until 4:00 p.m. for $6.95, it is usually full. The "Lamb Stew," made from bean curd, is highly recommended. Their website has photos of all their dishes. With over 50 main courses, dozens of dim sum and additional specials, you'll find almost everything a Chinese restaurant can offer. Service is fast (if sometimes abrupt) and prices are very reasonable.
Organic Grill is small, but the servings are huge, enough for two. Their Black-Bean-and-Corn Quesadilla ($16) with a Fresh Cherry-Tomato Salsa was the best I've ever had. All organic, but not all vegetarian, most dishes are available vegan. Try their Tofu Marsala (with a hint of curry) or their Vegan Pierogies (both $16). Desserts are homemade and the ice tea ($3.50) is amazing: a liter jar of tea and a tall glass full of ice. Mine was white pomegranate and sliced apple, among the many flavors they offer.
The Souen location in Soho was a huge disappointment. Appetizers ($5-$8) were bland and disappointing. Soups ($3.50-$9.50) were ordinary and most entrees (8.75-$13.50) undistinguished. I did thoroughly enjoy their Macro Plate ($8.75) of steamed veggies, two kinds of beans, hijiki, and brown rice with a homemade dressing. When I asked for extra dressing, I was charged a dollar more. In the past the East Village location was quite good, so the others may have remained worth visiting. All three locations are organic and macrobiotic.
Spring Street Natural is large, noisy and very popular. Originally mostly vegetarian, it now serves more meat and fish, but features at least four vegan entrees on its seasonal menu, which also has daily specials. Vegetarian appetizers ($7-$12) are generous and the veggie entrees ($14-$19) are filling. Hot tea is free on request. Sadly, it has become less of a favorite each year I return. I may not go back again.
****To the dozen above, here are two places that are budget watchers, cheap and filling, but good.
Perhaps the biggest bargain is Lunch Box Buffet, a cafeteria-style Chinese place at 195 Centre St. For $4.75 you get a large tray that will be loaded with four generous portions of any of the 40 or so dishes to choose from, plus rice or vegan sauteed noodles. Usually about 15 of the choices are vegetables, either steamed or in a sauce, and there's tofu (baked, grilled or in a sauce and bean curd entrees. The owner says these are vegan. You also get a large container of a clear soup with a few veggies. Seasonal fruits can also be selected as one of your choices. A large sign proclaims $4.75 to mark the place. The price seems to go up 25 cents a year.
A half block away on Hester Street, you'll find the Mei Wah Vegetarian Market with many vegan treats. In addition to many varieties of dried bean curd, frozen mock meats and fish, they have delicious frozen char siu, vegetable or curry buns, 6 for $2.80. These are wonderful to take on the plane or keep in the hotel for a snack.
The last recommendation is a pizza parlor with six outlets in the city (and even one in downtown LA). Two Boots Pizza has two vegan choices, one with soy cheese and the other without cheese and with a thick whole wheat crust and a thick layer of veggies. Eat there or take away, both are $3.95 for a very large slice. Two slices and a beverage is a meal.
And last, but not least, I'm not much of a drinker, but my friends like a beer with dinner. When they could, they ordered Samuel Smith's Organic Lager. I tried it and although imported from England and a bit expensive, it was so good that I may crawl off the wagon to have some on occasion.