It's tough to be vegan. You can’t eat any product that comes from an animal—not even honey, if you really want to be militant about it. And sometimes vegan ingredients and dishes seem purposefully inaccessible
Maybe you don’t know how to pronounce quinoa (KEEN-wah), a nutty-tasting, whole-protein, gluten-free seed; or acai (AH-sigh-EE), berries from the acai palm tree. Other times, being vegan seems like one of those far out things that kooky celebrities do. Madonna, Ariana Grande, Natalie Portman and Woody Harrelson are all vegans.
But there are good reasons to try it, for the health of the planet and our individual well-being. Did you know that, according to a Bloomberg report, 41 percent of all U.S. land in the contiguous 48 states revolves around livestock, mostly cows? Consuming animal products is a major contributor to climate change. For others, the decision to go vegan is religious or spiritual.
If you need a more selfish reason to drop meat, eggs and dairy from your diet, the American Journal of Medical Nutrition reports that vegans are more likely to be thinner, have lower serum cholesterol and lower blood pressure. Many athletes are adopting vegan diets. Stars like Serena Williams, the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving and the Patriots’ Tom Brady (though he eats lean meat in the winter months) are all trying veganism.
Restaurants are trying to fill the bellies of those who want a meal without meat. Unfortunately, most offer the one requisite vegan option, which often costs as much or more as its fleshy counterpart. It will also invariably insult your taste buds, since a lot of these dishes try to mimic meat. Substitutes are never as good as the real thing.
But there are places where eating vegan is a treat. Most of the restaurants named here serve food that is innately vegan. In other words, they don’t try to replace meat. And many give you more than one tasty option. Here are some of our favorite vegan dishes.
Tofu and Mixed Vegetables in Veggie Broth and Spring Rolls
If a hint of the sniffles arises, Pho Cali’s veggie broth is ideal for staving off whatever ails you. Their broth recipe originated at Vietnamese Buddhist monasteries, where adherents left a surplus of fruit and vegetable offerings on the temple steps that were turned into a tasty soup. Pho Cali’s broth is made from stewing pineapple, jicama, cabbage, apple, onion and lots of different spices until it becomes a complex, satisfying base for fresh tofu and vegetables. The spring rolls are a healthy excuse to eat the sweet peanut sauce that you dip them in. 1578 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 955-2683, phocalisarasota.com
Foul Mudamas Platter
Fava beans might forever be associated with a glass of Chianti and Hannibal Lecter, but try not to think of the cannibal criminal while you enjoy this Mediterranean delight. The beans are cooked and slightly mashed with oil, onions, garlic, fresh parsley, cumin and lemon juice to give the dish a tangy flavor. The platter comes with two sides; try the hummus and tabouleh. Just mix them up however you please. There is no bad combination. 1121 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 954-1423
The cow is a revered animal in Hindu, Sikh and Jain religions, so that makes Indian cuisine a little less meaty and a smart place to find lots of veggie options. The vegetarian section of the menu at Maharaja takes up an entire page, but truly, there is only one choice—the bhaigan bharta, mashed eggplant seasoned with spices and cooked in a tandoori oven. It comes with rice, but goes well with chapatis or rotis, too. 6290 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota, (941) 706-0793
Dolmades, Fasolosalata and Gemista
Order a troika of items here, because Blu Kouzina’s dishes should be eaten family style. Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) are hand-wrapped and perfectly textured with a hint of mint. The fasolosalata is a cold three-bean salad with dill and red onions (one of the beans is a gigantes or giant bean, meaty and satisfying). The gemista is three vegetables (tomato, eggplant and red pepper) stuffed with rice and oven-baked, served with spiced baked potato wedges. Drench absolutely everything with Blu Kouzina’s cold pressed extra virgin olive oil from the family’s 100-year-old Greek olive groves. 25 N. Boulevard of Presidents, Sarasota, (941) 388-2619, blukouzina.com
Mushroom Ravioli and Raw Chocolate Tart
Mushrooms have often been unfairly banished to pizzas, and even there these delectable fungi are floppy additions. Lila rights the ship and shows you how versatile the little mycelium can be. Voted one of the 50 best vegetarian restaurants in the country by OpenTable, Lila hand-makes its raviolis, stuffs them with mushrooms and, on the side, provides a stalk of pan-fried oyster mushroom with perfect texture and flavor. Vegan desserts might be superior to their animal opposites here, and Lila’s raw chocolate tart makes the case. The crust is made from crumbled cashew and sweetened with nature’s candy, maple syrup. The chocolate is so thick and rich that you might even want to share it. 1576 Main St, Sarasota, (941) 296-1042, lilasrq.com
Vegan Chorizo Taco and Cauliflower Arepa
You get three options twice here. First, the container: taco, burrito or arepa (a Venezuelan/Colombian bread patty made of cornmeal). Next, the filling: vegan chorizo, Masa-dusted cauliflower, or roasted sweet potatoes with green lentils and red quinoa. Get the tacos with vegan chorizo and the arepas with cauliflower. The vegan chorizo is topnotch, made from tofu and seasoned with garlic, ancho chili powder, smoked paprika, cumin, Mexican oregano, coriander, black pepper, achiote powder, cloves, cinnamon and apple cider vinegar. From there, you can get creative with the taqueria’s dozens of different toppings. 6606 Superior Ave., Sarasota, (941) 210-3992, screaming-goat.com
The Martin Sandwich and the Elix This
For vegan food on the go, Ionie Raw Food Cafe has a fridge stocked with different tasty options. Served on a gluten-free bun made from dehydrated onion, The Martin Sandwich offers macadamia nut cheese, avocado, tomato, vegan nacho cheese, cilantro and walnut “taco” meat. Pair this with the Elix This, a juice blend of lemon, ginger, cayenne and coconut nectar—but be forewarned, it packs a punch. 1241 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, (941) 320-0504, ionie.com
Raw Lasagne and a Hulk Shake
Using paper-thin strips of zucchini in place of pasta and miso marinated cashew cheese in place of dairy, Simon’s Coffee House’s raw lasagne is an ideal alternative. It’s got tomato sauce, marinated mushrooms and spinach as well, but the surprise is the savory shaved coconut sprinkled on top. If you’re worried about not having enough protein in your new vegan diet, the Hulk Shake should squash any concerns. A blend of peaches, mango, pineapple and banana, it gets its protein from pea and greens powder. 5900 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 926-7151, simonstogo.com
Borscht, Sweet Potato Ceviche and Lavender Creme Brûlée
The bright red borscht at Beauty of Sprouts is a native dish for owner-operator-chef Rano Halikova. He uses all the typical ingredients—beets, carrots, dill, potatoes, shallots, green cabbage and tomato—but what makes this soup special is nut cream in place of sour cream. The sweet potato ceviche are strands of lemon-marinated red sweet potato with portobellos, shallots, garlic and cilantro with a side of gluten-free crackers. 1474 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, (941) 350-8449, beauty-of-sprouts-restaurant.business.site