Sunday, February 19, 2012

Jacksonville Vegan Restaurants - so far

This guy has nothing to do with this post :)
We've been here a little over a month and have had a few chances to get out to eat. I have to admit that at first I was really disappointed in the restaurants here and make no mistake, there's a LOT of meat-eating going on here. A lot more than Tucson, if you can believe that. However, like anywhere else, there are great places to eat, whether you've vegan or not. You just have to find them. Until this past week, I was starting to get discouraged, but then I ran into several in a row that are worthy of a second look. I'm going to post them individually on Yelp, but I thought it might make a good blog post as well.

Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers
Southside Blvd location (by Tinseltown)

This place is within walking distance of our apartment near Southside Blvd. and is easy to get to, so we've been there twice in the past month which is a LOT since we're only in JAX five weeks. The first trip there was really unremarkable considering they catered to my vegan side. First of all, it was Friday night, it was crowded and I was really hungry. This isn't their fault, but we put our name on the waiting list and THREE parties that came in after us were seated first. I know they hadn't called ahead as I watched them put their name on the list just below ours. I know we're only 2 people, but jeez, I'm as hungry as the next guy! That put a damper on my whole visit, but I'll try to be subjective with the rest of it.

While there are some vegan-friendly items on the menu, getting other items made vegan is not easy as it should be. The savory pretzels are brushed with butter or have cheese on them. Really, I grew up near Philly, I've made many a soft pretzel myself and I can tell you that real soft pretzels do NOT get brushed in butter. They get an alkaline soak that these babies were dearly missing. They just taste like soft bread sticks with butter and salt. Check out Alton Brown's Homemade Soft Pretzel recipe if you want to make something that actually tastes like pretzels.

OK, enough ranting. The pizza is not bad. The first time there we ordered a specialty mushroom pizza, but the mushrooms are sauteed in butter. OK, maybe not, The second time we went (Super Bowl Sunday), we got a better pizza - a half vegan, half regular white pizza. Guess what? They up charged me to remove THREE kinds of cheese and sub in HALF the amount of Daiya that they normally would put on (as I requested). Really guys? ::sighs:: That's not very vegan-friendly. I hate the vegetarian surcharge. Please don't tell me that a little bit of Daiya costs you more than THREE kinds of cheese.

I really want to like this place, but it's hard to being a vegan. I don't think they really understand or care that much. We'll probably go again, but it won't be as regular as we could make it if I could get a decent plate of food without an up charge.

Indochine: Thai & Southeast Asian Food
21 East Adams Street, Jacksonville, FL

This place is amazing! It's a darling little place downtown with unfinished brick walls and a calming ambiance. The best part is that this place that GETS veganism. Our waitress was helpful and knowledgeable about everything on the menu. She knew what was vegan and what wasn't without having to run to the kitchen 20 million times. She made suggestions about which dishes were vegan, which could be made vegan, and which could not. When we ordered spring rolls, she offered to bring some sauce made without fish sauce and I didn't even have to ask her!

There were 3 of us at dinner. We ordered the Spring rolls (vegetarian) which, as I said above came with 2 sauces - one with fish sauce and one without. Both had just a little kick to compliment the flavors in the roll. For dinner, I had Drunken Noodles (sans egg) with a heat index of 3/6. I could have used 4,  but 3 allowed me to add some of the spicy roasted Thai chili powder that I love so much. DC had pho (what else?) which he ordered at 5/6 since both the waitress and our companion told him 6 was very very hot. He has a terrific heat tolerance and probably could have gone with the 6, but again, we added heat from the chili tray and better safe than too hot to eat. For dessert, we all shared a sticky purple rice with mango. I thought the mango was just the tiniest bit underripe, but really, it was a very good ending to the meal. We will definitely be back here and sooner rather than later :)

Burrito Gallery
21 East Adams Street, Jacksonville, FL

We saw this place as we exited Indochine next door the other night and went for lunch the very next day. What a great little place! Even though it was Friday noontime and the line was back to the door, we still had time to order lunch, eat it and get back to work on time without feeling panicked. Being vegan, I had a couple of choices: a veggie burrito, a Teriyaki-ginger tofu burrito, or Teriyaki-ginger tofu tacos. By the time I got to the ordering spot, I had decided on the tofu burrito. The girl taking my order ASKED if I was vegan and would I like pintos or black beans on my burrito? They're both vegan..wait...what, really? Yes, she said. Cool! I'll have black beans. I'm thinking I could probably just get black or pinto beans and rice on a burrito here as well. When my tray came out, there was a heaping amount of tortilla chips instead of the (I'm assuming) non-vegan coleslaw. Nice touch since I didn't have to ask. I know it's a little thing and some vegans would say "duh!', but in a town where many restaurants put BACON in the pasta e fagioli, I appreciate that they thought it through. The array of hot sauces was nice, too. I enjoyed having some choices instead of the regular Tabasco and that standard hot taco sauce crap one usually finds in Mexican restaurants. We'll be back here as well.

1183 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville Beach, FL

OMG! I think I've died and gone to heaven! Tempeh tacos on the freakin' menu AND you can sub tempeh into almost any of their other tacos without an upcharge. This adorable little place made me feel as though I was back in one of Tucson's little dives. It has the painted El Dias del los Muertos skeletons/ skulls on one wall, Spanish crosses on another and a whole row of veladoras burning brightly. The Latin salsa (not Mexican) music makes it complete if not authentic. Funny how all those Mexican places play more Puerto Rican music than anything else!

 We ordered tacos, the grape salsa salad and a side of cilantor-spinach rice.  I ordered the tempeh taco (of course) and DC, being the carnivore that he is, ordered one carnitas and one brisket. Our waitress was very helpful and seemed knowledgeable about veganism. She did have to check about whether the rice was vegetarian or not, but came back quickly with our answer (it IS vegetarian). I had originally ordered a Dos Equis, but once I saw the margaritas, I changed my mind. It was a great choice! Too salty for DC, but just fine for me.

When my tempeh taco arrived, I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed. It looked so small and lonely on the plate! What it lacked in bulk, it made up for in both taste and hardiness. It was constructed like a fish taco with 3 strips of tempeh, shredded cabbage and avocado with a lime squeeze on the side. It was quite yummy! We thought the rice was a little dry, but the salad was awesome! Sliced red grapes mixed with hot pepper (cayenne?), a few sliced almonds, and a garnish of very thin tortilla strips over Romaine lettuce. As the menu claimed, it didn't need dressing at all!  DC wanted to try the dressing however, so we poured about a half tablespoon on it. It too was tasty, but completely unnecessary. Overall a great visit. We'll be back. It's definitely a place I'd bring visitors.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Faux Pho

Since we finished unpacking late last Sunday evening, this is the first  weekend day we've had to explore Jacksonville. This morning I ventured out early to find the one and only Whole Foods in JAX. It's larger than the ones in Tucson and has features like a gelato and chocolate bar, a juice bar, and a bakery. I also found some crazy new (to me anyway) vegan products from Sophie's Kitchen. I was very curious, so I bought the vegan prawns along with the tahini, miso and tofu that had originally gone there for, although I had no clue what I intended to do with them at the time.

A little later, David and I went in search of an Asian market and found Hung Thinh Supermarket which is way up on the north side of town. While not as huge as LeeLee Oriental Market in Tucson, Hung Thinh had a great selection of Asian foods that we've been missing at the local Publix. Soon, we were picking up vegan "meat balls" and "vegan big meat slices" in addition to cilantro and bean sprouts. From there it was a small jump to making Pho for dinner. We just needed some fresh rice noodles and Thai basil. I've had requests for the recipe, but we really didn't use one, so I'm going to just give some general guidelines here. Traditional pho is made from thin slices of beef and seafood put on top of fresh rice noodles in a large bowl into which boiling hot broth is poured. The broth rapidly cooks the meats and noodles. The dish is usually topped with cilantro, Thai basil, culantro, and mung bean spouts. The main thing to keep in mind with any pho is to make everything thin so it will cook quickly.

First, the broth - we were lucky enough to find some vegetarian pho broth cubes, but if you aren't that lucky, start with some veggie broth and add a star anise (whole) and maybe some garlic to it. You want a good amount of broth. Get it started heating while you're doing all the cutting.

Next, the noodles - fresh rice noodles make the best pho, but if you only have dried ones soak them in water for a few minutes first. If you boil them the way you would regular noodles, you'll end up with mush. If you can't find fresh or dried rice noodles, I think it's OK to use wheat noodles (gasp!), but these WILL need to be cooked to al dente first.  Put the noodles into the pho bowl first.

Then the "meats" - We used a variety of vegan meat alternatives. I'm not opposed to eating these once in a while. They provide a chewy texture that's pretty hard to find in tofu and vegetables. They also increase the variety of foods I eat and allow me to be creative AND eat some comforting foods. Tonight I used some of the vegan prawns, some Gardein beefless tips, and the "Vegan big meat slice" (I do not lie, that's what is on the package. This is the closest I can get to a webpage for it). For the meat slices, I had to rehydrate them in water for 10 minutes. Then I squeezed the water out, sliced them in very thin strips and marinated them in some Sriracha, soy sauce, and Chinese rice vinegar for a few minutes.

We also used some kind of "vegan meat balls" that we found. Honestly, all this ended up being too meaty for me and I left a lot of it in the bowl, so next time I would probably use half the meat alternative or less. I've also made this just using very thinly sliced mushrooms - portobello, shitake, and crimini are really good choices, not to mention much more readily available and less weird.  Be sure to slice them super, super thin. No chunks of mushrooms allowed! Put these uncooked on top of the noodles and spread them out a little.

Add some extra veggies - we used a peeler to make really thin strips of carrot. We also added some very thin strips of green pepper. I think that some shredded spinach or cabbage would be good as well, but we were going for a more traditional look tonight. Add these on top of the "meats" and/or mushrooms.

Garnishes - these are really important, so don't skimp! They make the difference between good pho and great pho. As I said before, we used chopped cilantro, basil leaves, pickled onion, bean sprouts and culantro, but other options include jalapenos, fried garlic, chopped onions and lime wedges. Oh! Almost forgot - we bought some pickled limes today, so we chopped those up and used those as well.These go on a separate plate so that everyone can add to their taste. You may also want to put some hot sauce (Sriracha), soy sauce and/or vegan fish sauce on the table.

OK, now remove the star anise and turn that broth up until it really rolls in the pot. Then carefully ladle it into the bowls and add your garnishes and condiments while you're waiting for everything to heat through. The great thing about vegan phoDig in!

Just for because, I'm adding a little onion pickle recipe I quickly threw together tonight. it probably doesn't even qualify as a pickle since it didn't sit more than half an hour, but it sure was good!

Inez's very simple onion pickle

1 sweet onion, very thinly sliced
1 tsp. sea salt
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar

Salt the sliced onion and then squish it together in your hands until the onions soften. Add the vinegar and let it sit for a while. Idk if this will keep well, so eat it soon! :)