I became a vegetarian a little while after my first visit to Kansas. Outside of Dodge City, out on the highway, is a special turnout with an overlook sign. The sign intrigued me, because a cursory glance didn't reveal any particular natural phenomenon worthy of a special viewing. As I guided the convertible to a stop, I noticed the odor. Then I read the sign. For reasons that still escape me—but that must have made sense to some sort of municipal committee at some point in time—this was a special highway overlook … of a cattle feedlot. It didn't put me off meat quite yet, but it started me down a certain road.
The kicker was a combination of two books—the Dr. Dean Ornish "Eat More, Weigh Less" diet book, which quietly advocates vegetarianism as a way to lose weight and control heart disease. The other, "The Perfectly Contented Meat-Eater's Guide to Vegetarianism," by Mark Warren Reinhardt, ended up being one of those books that changes your life while appearing, for all comers, to be just a bit silly.
In the intervening years, vegetarianism has been pretty much a success. I've not once "slipped," as I'm often asked (meat is neither cigarettes nor chocolate, for those of you wary of the struggle). I've settled my base weight down about 25 pounds below where it was—although I could lose more—and I very rarely walk away from a table with that so-full-I'll-probably-burst-something-internally-vital feeling that I used to get after a steak or a 64-Ounce Express Burger down at CarnoLand. And I eat better than I ever have.
Not that there aren't challenges. For instance, vegetarianism is one of the reasons I don't live in Oxford, Miss. We actually looked at homes there until a quick tour of the restaurant and grocery scene told us that we weren't particularly welcome. (There were other reasons, too. My mind's eye conjures primer-colored pickup trucks with floppy-headed Ole Miss matriculates standing in the bed yelling "Whoo-Hooo!" as part of, apparently, some elaborate and often-misunderstood mating ritual.)
Jackson, on the other hand, holds out some hope for the vegetarian. Most of the chain grocery stores offer a reasonable array of options—including natural and organic selections, as well as faux meats and soy-based products. (I'm an octo-lavo vegetarian, not a vegan, meaning I eat eggs and dairy products, although I try to use soy dairy wherever I can stomach it—which means milk in my coffee and real cheese on my nachos. I define my brand of vegetarianism as "Nothing with a face" as opposed to the vegan's mantra: "Nothing with a mother.")
Of course, there's the Rainbow Whole Foods Co-Op and High Noon (2807 Old Canton, in Rainbow Plaza, 366-1602), an all-vegetarian (and mostly vegan) restaurant offering creative and tasty veggie fare at decent prices. This is food that you can appreciate as truly good and healthy for you, with some great taste, eco-friendly farming and creativity thrown in. I like the rice bowls, the soups and the pastas, although I never get those things—I always get the Ruben sandwich, complete with faux pastrami and soy cheese, as I'm a sucker for sauerkraut. Sehr viel.
But in this particular round-up, High Noon is so obvious that it's almost cheating. The point here is that Jackson restaurants actually offer a good number of vegetarian options—even if the restaurant itself doesn't purport to be a veggie haunt. I enjoy myself in Jackson's eclectic collection of local restaurants, so much so that I spend relatively little time pining for the world's most delicious corn soup—which is served with green tomatillo sauce, fresh tortilla chips warm from the oven and a mammoth stuffed vegetable tamale at Gabriella's (Amsterdam Avenue and 77th Street in New York City).
But I digress.
Readers chose Bruno's Eclectic (1855 Lakeland—back of the Quarter, 362-7779) as second-place Best Vegetarian in our Best-of poll, so it deserves a mention up top here as well. I like to think of Bruno's as the place I can take my Dad and brother when they come to town, so they can get their steaks, their fish specials and their seafood appetizers while I stick to the Thai options on the menu. I like the spicy Pad Thai, the best one in town and the Thai Curry, a house specialty. Donna always goes for something with a Spanish flair, such as the Paella de Verdura, which blends two flavors—saffron and capers—which almost has the power to instantly transport you to a sun-drenched patio overlooking the Mediterranean. Order a bottle of wine (or sangria, if you're her), some desserts and then, best of all, let Dad treat.
When we decide to celebrate something important at the JFP, at least half the time we pick Ruchi (5101 I-55 N, in the Passage to India building, 366-9680), a restaurant that we're so happy to have in Jackson that we feel we have to show up on a regular basis. Of course, Indian cuisine is generally very friendly to the vegetarian, with the average menu offering at least 25 percent vegetarian options if not more. And Ruchi's options hang well with some of the best Indian we've had anywhere, and we've had some fine Indian.
Of particular .note are their appetizers, some of which are a pure delight. The Ruchi Special appetizer includes a Masala Dosa: a large, thick crepe filled with potatoes and onions sautéed in Indian spices—ginger, curry and turmeric among them—and then served with a lentil broth (which isn't always vegetarian, unfortunately, so ask ahead of time). Also worth trying is the Lettuce Wrap, which features iceburg lettuce and a spicy mango chutney combination that breathlessly folds together searing spiciness and cool, crisp vegetation. (Warning: If you think the salsa at any of our local Dixie-Mex restaurants is a four-alarm fire, stay away from the Lettuce Wrap.) For entrees, we tend to just order enough Nan (pan-fried bread) and fragrant rice for the table, then ask them to serve up the vegetable dishes family-style. We've had a better Saag Paneer (spinach and cheese cubes) than Ruchi's, but it's a staple that we always order. Their Aloo Gobi Masala on the other hand, is a standout dish, with potatoes that retain their texture, tender cauliflower without sogginess and a sauce that allows you to taste some of the leafiness of the curry. They also offer curried vegetables, vegetables baked in the Tandoor oven and even a unique okra dish. If you're ready to plunge in and try one entirely meatless evening this month, Ruchi is my choice for the place to start.
One of the things that vegetarianism did for me was wean me from that classic dilemma that faces the American male—should I have chicken wings or BBQ ribs tonight? When you're vegetarian, you have to get creative, try new things and find solace in international cuisines that raise vegetarian cooking to an art form. Thai cooking is one of those art forms and Thai House (2665 I-55 S, McDowell Road Exit, 373-8154) offers one of my favorite international cuisines in a non-threatening, everyone-can-eat environment. We dine there often with friends who opt for cow, fish or chicken—and given our grab-and-share approach to dining out, you'll even see them with an occasional fork-full of tofu. Thai House prepares their tofu with a very crisp and chewy consistency, as opposed to the watery bites you may have had in the past.
Sushi? For vegetarians? Actually, the raw-fish variety is just one of many classes of menu item that the Japanese call "sushi." Another entire category is rolls and wraps that feature cucumber, asparagus, Amitake and Shitake mushrooms, tofu, cabbage, peas and, of course, seaweed. The vegetarian can feel right at home with a table of garrulous fish-faces, dipping, laughing and slurping away at Little Toyko (4800 I-55 North, 982-3035) or Haru (5834 Ridgewood Road, 899-8518), both local favorites, perhaps starting out with a little vegetable tempura and then moving right into the vegetable rolls. Plus—and this is a big bonus in my book—vegetarians get to sidestep that "mystery fish" game that veteran sushi pescavores like to play on their uninitiated neophyte brethren. (I've still never been able to get that monkey-brain scene out of my head from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." I'm not sure how I got from sushi to monkey brains, but if one does have those sorts of leaps in logic, it helps to be a vegetarian.)
We wrap up this round-up with the staple in the mixed-company (veggie and non-veggie) staple of the American dine-out experience—Italian. While Jackson's premier Italian restaurants don't go overboard with vegetarian options, you can generally ask for something in a different sauce, or without the animal parts, and you'll be obliged. BRAVO! (4500 I-55 N., 982-8111) points out its vegetarian fare on the menu, which translates to another plus that we veggies like to see—ingredient-aware pricing. Your average vegetarian ought to be able to get out the door with a few bucks shaved from the check. That happens on Bravo's menu, which highlights some veggie-friendly salads, pizza, polenta dishes and a vegetable napoleon. We're often seen seated behind the Rigatoni with Roma Tomatoes or the simple basil-heavy Margherita pizza.
Amerigo (6592 Old Canton in Ridgeland, 956-7419) doesn't flaunt its vegetarian options, and you have to be prepared for the possibility that you'll be in the vicinity of veal. But a careful look at the menu—and some creative requesting—can get you a plate of almost too much tasty spinach Cannelloni or a Chicken Margarite hold-the-chicken—angel hair, mozzarella in a creamy basil and garlic sauce. If you're a fan of the pungent sharpness of goat cheese, Amerigo has as goat-cheese pasta that can be had without crustacean or fowl, in a mixture that offers impressive ingredients that, in my experience, don't quite marry up the way that the Cannelloni ends up balancing on the tongue.
And that ain't it, Jacksonians—there's quick veggie food, veggie brunches, and my picks for the best veggie burger, best fried vegetable (did I mention those extra pounds?) and the best late-night fare for veggie dining. More to come!
Todd Stauffer, the publisher of the JFP, grew up in Texas. If he can give up cow, anybody can. (Todd was actually born in the great state of New York, something his long-time significant companion forgot when she put his tagline in the print version this issue, calling him a "Texas native." It seems it's one thing to grow up there, quite another to be an actual native. She apologizes heartily.)