The Southern Vegan


Since I’ve been on the topic of my summer travels, I should probably make some honorable mentions to vegan faire in the States, notably the South.

Let’s start with one of the most popular southern states next to perhaps Texas? Orlando.

A group of friends who are all about traveling had been planning their annual trip to Orlando to visit Disney World, get drunk, and get their own version of Mardi Gras started a few months earlier. I was invited and though hesitant at first, the recurring mentioning of Disney World from all my friends reeled me in, (that and the memories of being a child longing to do this but being too broke to do so) and I decided to go pretty last minute.

Next thing you know, I’m on a plane-ride headed to Orlando at the peak of dawn (slight exaggeration) thinking “I am going to Disney World!”: I was stoked! But also so very tired. Waking up at five a.m to pick up a friend at six a.m to make the airport at seven a.m for a nine a.m flight, all after actually being awake since four a.m because of the insomnia pre-flying gives me…yea, I was running on caffeine and my excitement and…yea…

So we arrive a little after six p.m Orlando time (three p.m our time) and we are all pretty exhausted, but also hungry! We go to our hotel to unpack and unwind and decide “Where should we eat?”.

A few side notes:
1. No one in my group was vegan.
2. No one cared to become a vegan anytime soon.
3. No one was a picky-eater.
4. All were supportive to my vegan lifestyle (except for one gent who found me to be a “picky eater”…oh the trivializations of being vegan).

Thank the lord for Yelp because I managed to find one place near our hotel that was vegan-friendly but not vegan in its general offerings: Yard House. Go figure, there was a Yard House within a two-mile radius from our hotel.

Yard House is what it is: a standard American faire restaurant with a bar where you can get loaded quickly with your buddies on any given night; it is no different from BJ’s except for its vegan offerings, which were actually a lot—-a whole selection dedicated to Gardien products! I was pleasantly surprised.

Gardien BBQ Chicken Salad, Gardien Grilled Chicken and Avocado Sandwich, Gardien Vegan Burger, Gardien Buffalo Wings, Gardien Orange Chicken, Gardien Mac and Cheese (immediately tempted to order this) and Gardien Chicken Bowl. For some unexplainable, neurotic reason, I went with the Gardien Chicken Bowl; guess I was feeling teriyaki sauce on-top of stir-fried veggies or something.

It was a good dish; a great variety of crisp veggies, soy “chicken” and brown rice topped with a teriyaki sauce. Not mind-blowing-good, but tasty enough to suffice my foodie palette.

And this marked my first meal in Orlando soon followed by a box of Oreos to celebrate the beginning of my southern vacation.

Day Two:

This day was marked by going to Animal Kingdom, which I still feel guilt-ridden about but it definitely showed me the horrendous life of animals used for profit and entertainment’s sake and the obliviousness of people to it all. The distress these animals show on their faces and their actions—from ramming their heads into walls until their horns fall-off and just the general anxiety from others—it was a heart-breaking experience and one that makes me swear to never return; if only the employees and patrons alike captured this underlying, sad horror when walking through Animal Kingdom’s various attractions. But I learned from it, so that’s something.

Half of the group wanted to stay until closing to see the Avatar exhibit; I wanted to eat at a vegan restaurant I had bookmarked days before leaving home—obviously we were in a different state-of-mind. By that point my desire to stay any longer was pretty weak (neurotic rain showers will do that to an Angeleno ) so when someone proposed splitting-up for dinner and rejoining later, I had no qualms in doing so. This also showed me which of my friends truly empathize with my vegan lifestyle, since as aforementioned, I was the only vegan amongst the lot.

As to where we ate:

Market On South: This place is in essence Doomie’s with actual Southern genuineness to it and much, much tastier food. I had already looked through the menu and was pretty set as to what I’d be ordering (The Orange Bird with fried Brussels Sprouts), but I still looked-over the menu board—and dessert case!

Chili Dogs, The Carolina BBQ-Pulled Pork, The Fried Green Tomato Sandwich, Cheesy Homies, Christ was I excited…a little too excited. I stuck to my original choice and my friends chose to go with the menu board special “The Chili Dogs”. We also ordered some “Brookies” because they looked FANTASTIC (a giant block of chocolate chip cookie square base topped with a squared brownie: squared chocolate galore all-around!)

Our food didn’t take too long to come out (which was great because after a half-day of walking all round Animal Kingdom with limited vegan options, I was HUNGER-HANGRY). With not even a second thought at grace, I dug in!!!
We all dug in!

So, as to what we thought of the food:

Orange Bird: This was a solid sandwich the first time around (we ate here twice during our trip); a orange-bbq sauce-type that soaked well into the texturized soy-protein (I assume this is what the mock-meat was made out of) and the grilled onions and slaw in it were solid. The bread reminded me a lot of “The Hawaiian King” brand; sweet, soft and hosted the ingredients of the sandwich well. I really liked this sandwich the first time. The second time, it was average. Something about it was off; maybe it was the mock-meat tasting a bit rubbery, or the sauce ratio was less compared to the first time, or the fact that the sandwich was lukewarm—but something was off. My friend’s chili dogs were very tasty—and solid—both times. I don’t know if Field Roast Sausage was used for them or maybe it was also texturized soy-protein, but any meat-eater would be fooled. Chunky chili (beans, chopped onions, spices, the works!) topped these bad boys off and the hot dog buns were fluffy; all these ingredients made these chili dogs some of the best I have ever tried, even though I had like two bites. They were really tasty.

As for the sides:

Crispy Brussels: Amazing both times around. Crispy, fried, topped with crispy onions and pickled onions and just crispy all around. Probably my favorite item at Market on South (yes, I meant item and not side.) An undeniable ten.

Cheesy Homies: These were good but not great. While the taters were cooked to achieve a softness that puts them along the lines of breakfast potatoes (which is fine with me, I love breakfast potatoes), I wasn’t a fan of the cheese; it had a bland aftertaste to it that immediately reminded me of Daiya cheese, and for all I know it probably was.

Mac and Cheese: Not any better than the one at Veggie Grill or Little Pine and I was honestly disappointed; Come on now, we’re in the south, I at least expected the cheese to have more of a kick and for this mac to be ooey-gooey indulgence. Sigh…

We took our Brookies home and…I was sort of shocked as to what we got. While the cookie base was fine, the brownie tasted…healthy? That’s the only way I can describe this bar; semi-healthy tasting. I liked it, but I wasn’t expecting that taste. It was like the brownie was made out of dates or some other fruit ingredient; it was reminiscent in taste to raw desserts. I guess was let-down because I thought this dessert would be full-blown indulgence (it sure looked the part). Not bad, but not what I was expecting.

 

The next day marked no amusement park, but we did experience a rather interesting ride called “The Lobby Escape.” To quickly sum it up, it was my group and I trying to checkout from one hotel and across the street into the next (fancier rooms and parties I was told?). Fancier and more festive and any other promotion fell short quickly when it came to checking into our room, which had been given away. “What??? We all thought. While the hotel management quickly found us another room and apologized deeply for the mishap, physically checking into the room turned out to be a six-hour adventure ride with hotel clerks and managers ending and starting their shifts before our eyes. I quickly started to wonder if we were in a real-life horror movie as every time someone would go check on our room, they’d disappear, never to be seen again and only to be replaced by another employee awaiting the same fate. It was like being in “Groundhog Day meets Prom Night”.

We did eventually end our drawn-out voyage through The Lobby Escape and got our rooms. After a day of literally lounging around, we were split again; half of the group just wanted to get drunk and party, the other half wanted to eat; I was obviously part of the latter half.

Our riding The Lobby Escape was more than just lounging around. True to my friend’s word, there was an all weekend party going on inside the hotel that included an indoor gallery, pool party and booze…free booze. I wasn’t feeling the free-liquor handouts but everyone else was, so while they did that, I yelped my little fingers away, contemplating a place to appease the group as a whole. And alas, I came across “Mellow Mushrooms”.

Mellow Mushrooms is the Chucky Cheese of Orlando; arcade-type games (basket-ball hoops, ice hockey, a total childhood nostalgia) and of course—pizza—pizza all around.

I don’t know why I added that exclamation, because I’ve never actually been a fan of pizza. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had great pizza, but it’s never been the food-type that comes to mind when figuring out what to have for dinner; I’ve always been a bigger fan of sandwiches, subs, entrees with POTATOES! That said, I wanted us all to have dinner together and Mellow Mushrooms made eating vegan at a carnivorous-pizza joint really, really easy.The menu actually excited me; tempeh-bacon, vegan crust (though most pizza crusts are vegan by default), Daiya cheese (meh) veggies, mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms! Yup, I love me some mushrooms and this place lives well to its name.

I ended up splitting a vegan tempeh-bacon pizza with one of the adventurous foodies in our group. The pizza consisted of flaky, generous bits of tempeh-bacon, tons of grilled onions, peppers and tons of mushrooms. I was a happy, happy camper. And that’s saying a lot because I’ll reiterate—I do not generally go for pizza or much less rave about it after eating it.

Our other two fiends went for the “Meat-Lovers”; needless to say, these carnivorous foodies were more than happy with their choice.

On our third day we went to Magic Kingdom…and man did Orlando rain on our parade almost immediately. Rain started pouring left and right and I was just not getting a break while in Orlando, so after aimlessly trying to ride Space Mountain and realizing this nor anyother ride worth riding was going to reopen anytime soon, we decide to just eat.

We were lucky enough to snag a table at “The Plaza Restaurant”, which I couldn’t believe came to be so easily with the heavy rain and all; guess not everyone’s togo move in times of watery distress is food.

I looked through the menu already praying in thought that I would find something vegan-friendly. I was lucky, there were two items that could be made vegan easily with one or two substitutions ( I hate being that guy but Magic Kingdom and the Disneyland Resort need to up their vegan game if they hope to avoid vegan modifiers like myself); “The Fried Green Tomato Sandwich” and “The Veggie Burger”.

I debated between these options because while The Fried Green Tomato sounded interesting in description ( Deep-fried Green Tomato, sub-out bacon, sub-out pepper jack, Alabama White Barbecue Sauce on a Kaiser Roll), I have always been keener on veggie burgers; in the sake of indecisiveness, I asked the hostess and she immediately opted from The Deep-Fried Green Tomato Sandwich, and the waitress next to us who overheard our brief interaction twisted her head back and chimed in “Yea, definitely, The Fried Green Tomato.” ; The Fried-Green Tomato Sandwich it was with the above-mentioned alterations and added Veggie Patty for the sake of heartiness and gluttony.

The place was pretty empty (maybe people actually went home instead of lingering around to eat leisurely), so we got our food quicker than expected.

The Fried-Green Tomato Sandwich: Good and different…very different. The Fried-green Tomato was definitely the star of the show and gives the Burger a uniqueness which to my palette, was delightful; juicy, battered (similarly to tempura) and savory; it was good! The veggie patty ( it tasted like a hybrid of rice and veggies) was also crispy and quite flavorful, but the fried-green tomato definitely reigns superior. The Kaiser Roll it everything was stuffed into was nice and thick, which allowed the juices from the ingredients to soak into it; it was an overall solid sandwich. Even the veggies inside it (tomatoes and arugula) were fresh and complemented all the main ingredients adequately; I rather enjoyed this item and would order on a return visit to Magic Kingdom. Oh, and the fries it came with…let me just note…NOM NOM NOM. NOM!!!

On our second to last day theme park expedition, we visited Epcot Theme Park. This was by-far from favorite from the lot and while all the other parks at Disney World were fun but not necessarily warrant a return visit, I will definitely be returning to Epcot.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of “Around the World in Eighty Days,” well, that’s what Epcot feels like. I am just sad that we got there really late into the evening (a whole other story I don’t want to get into for briefness sake) and only got to experience a limited amount of attractions. But we made the most of it.

The cool thing about Epcot is that since its main intent is to recreate a global experience for its visitors, it also does this in terms of cuisine. One of our group members actually looked up a place where we could all eat (which I appreciated highly): Tangierine Cafe.

The was—without exaggeration—the BEST meal I had while in Orlando.

I’ve had falafel before, and pita bread, hummus, tabouleh, Israeli side salads; but man was this the real-stuff; I got authentic-tasting Mediterranean food at an amusement park. This stuff is unheard of but I swear I am being Whole-heartedly honest.

 

To break it down:

Falafel: deep-fried, ball-form goodness that I couldn’t believe (here I go again with the “but it’s amusement park food” rant) I was eating such authentic-tasting falafel at an amusement park.

Hummus: creamy, chickpea goodness. I got a double helping since I subbed out the lentil salad for it (it had egg in it); and I am so glad I did. I love hummus and this one payed respects to every other hummus I’ve had elsewhere. Top-notch stuff.

Pita Bread: it was good. What else can I say? It’s pita bread but it was soft and fresh, no hints of staleness detected in any bite. It complimented all the other great items well.

Side salad: citrusy, tangy, and with a minty taste to it; I am not a big side salad fan but this one was palatable and also complimented the dish well.

All in all, all these items paired together made for—in iteration—the best vegan meal I had during my Orlando stay. Learn Disneyland, Six Flags, and Universal Studios—LEARN!

So this was part one of my whole Southern travels vegan-expedition take; on to part two!

A few months after Orlando, the same group of friends I traveled to Orlando with decided they wanted to give New Orleans a visit and seal their Summer escapades. I was not all too excited because my first New Orleans’ trip was half-marked by food poisoning; one of the most debilitating ailments a Foodie/person in general can undergo. If you’ve had food poising, you unfortunately know what I am referring to.

But, I am also one to give everything and everyone on planet earth a second chance and when a newly-formed friend during my. Orlando visit decided he’d be joining for the New Orleans affair, I eventually gave-in; he’s way too nice of a guy for me to pass-up hanging out with him (that and he’s super open-minded to exploring the vegan scene in general; traveling-Foodie companion: score!).

So, while Orlando offered me the Wonderful World of Disney, a superior take on Doomie’s through “Market on South”, and neurotic rain showers, New Orleans offered me a world of culture. From a strong influence of French-African-American history, historical infrastructure, landmarks, and New Orleans 19th-20th century art, I found myself in a culturally-artistically rich city; I was caught-off-guard and proven wrong in the best of ways.

 

Once you get past the drunken tourists infiltrating Bourbon Street and once you get passed the foulness of piss and booze on the streets, you enter the definition of NOLA culture that is often undermineded by the rest of the states. I went on a two day venture (one with my adventurous Orlando buddy and the second on my own) that led me from the corridors of Bourbon Street, past the French Market and onto the actual city. I found nothing but innovation as an Angeleno only having been to five-six major cities nationally and abroad, and I loved every minute of it.

As for the food; it’s what you would expect from the south; deep-fried, battered, goodness combined with Cajun flair. I love this cuisine-type but was forewarned by fellow vegans that I’d be in for a challenge in finding all vegan or even vegan-friendly restaurants: challenge accepted.

The first place I found is one of the most popular vegan restaurant in New Orleans: Seed (the New Orleans version of Little Pine, in essence.
Or so I thought…).

My adventurous foodie buddy and I walk in and are greeted by who we thought was the host, are seated, and that’s that. We are eventually handed menus and then seemingly forgotten about for about fifteen minutes. I don’t usually point-out service because I understand that sometimes customers are awful, your coworkers are awful, maybe your personal life is currently— awful—; I am pretty easy going even when eye-rolls, mistaken orders, or hot-food standing at the expo window for minutes and minutes-on as servers chitchat amongst each other occurs; I let all this go. Why? I work in the food service industry and I know it can be tough, especially on busy, hectic nights.

But this was different…we were flat-out ignored for nearly fifteen minutes. Two employees (one the same gentleman who sat us and the other a young lady) just kept walking past us, there were three other parties in there and another that walked in AFTER us and were immediately greeted and their order taken…do we smell? Did our breaths stink? I swear I groomed before coming in… Either way, this did allow for us to experience the wall-art which reflected the previously seen art I scoped during my exploration of NOLA that day; I actually liked the wall-art the best out of my entire experience at this restaurant.

We are eventually greeted by our server, who was lukewarm in demeanor but I could care less because I was hangry. I did ask her about the Fried Tofu PoBoy and The Fried Tofu Nuggets; she says she prefers the nuggets so I go with that…though I was still eyeing that PoBoy description (Fried Tofu, slaw, vegan mayo) on the menu, but next time, maybe? Because I was still considering giving this place a second-go despite the service if the food was tasty.

After about ten minutes or so, our food arrived, so at least the Back-of-House is on-top of their game.


Fried Tofu Nuggets: Ok. The batter was off-putting; maybe it was the chickpeas used to make it (I love chickpeas, but I think they had no place in this batter), or maybe it was because it added nothing to the biggest: bland. They were bland and this is so mind-blogging because I could actually taste the spices (pepper and salt)melded into the batter, so I was at a loss…either way, not a fan at all.

Mac and Cheese: also not a fan. It reminded me of the one at Veggie Grill and other places except the paprika was unnecessary; it deducted from the overall taste and was a needless addition; the sauce was also tasteless and overall, this was a creamy but somehow extremely bland mac.

Surprisingly, the sauces were amazing: both the Bbq and ranch were rich, creamy, and had that needed kick to dip almost any veggie or bread in them; unfortunately, my main dishes were so forgettable tasting that not even these amazing sauces could do them justice.

My friend wasn’t too hungry so he just got the apple slaw, and he was also not happy; this is coming from the most easy-going eater I know. This says a lot.

Either way, I was unimpressed on too many levels and my previous contemplations on a return visit had completely vanished by the end of my dining experience.

On my last night in New Orleans, the entire group decides one final dinner together would be a nice move, so I propose a place that’s on the completely opposite end of the spectrum to Seed: Sneaky Pickle.

And this definitely a sneaky place as it is very easy to miss (you would literally think you are walking past a house of you walk by it). Either way, once again Yelp came through for me and we found in front of the most authentic Southern Dining experience to date.

The menu looked promising from the get-go: Mac and Cheese, Hand-Made French Fries, Vegan Reuben, Bowl O’Food, Pickle Plate ; I was obliviously in store for an “as real as southern vegan grub gets” experience; I was excited! I was also set way before coming in on the Vegan Mac and Cheese (those Yelp pics really do this dish justice).

We placed our order (two vegan macs and “Real Meat Flatbread”); our omnivorous/‘strongly-carnivorous friend shortly regretted his decision when he saw my adventurous foodie busy and I dig in; we were in heaven! Not just foodie heaven, but full-blown Carby-Cathy Heaven! My lord, as I mentioned on a previews post dedicated solely to vegan max; THE BEST MAC AND CHEESE MY TASTE BUDS HAVE BEEN FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO TASTE. Salivating about it at this moment while typing.

What it so great? Everything! From the cashew cheese, to the diced shiitake mushrooms, peas and onions, to the tempeh-chorizo and even the heirloom tomatoes (I am not a fan of tomatoes); everything mixed together perfectly to create the best, best, BEST pasta dish in both the vegan and non-vegan world. Like I noted, my die-hard carnivorous buddy kept salivating just by looking at me and my other buddy revel in our cheesy feast. Still, even with these words, there are no words to describe how freaking delicious this dish was. If in NOLA and you miss out on this experience, you have failed at life! Seriously.

A really awesome part about the experience was how hospitable the owner is; he came out even after they had shut-down to ask if we liked everything…which was soon followed by a one person rant by me in how that mac was the best pasta dish to have graced my tastebuds. Seemingly amused, he was trusting enough to share his entire preparation process/ingredients list for the dish, and I swore an oath of silence between us both. I can’t think of a better dining experience that could have sealed my worldly-southern-summer travels. Best meal of the summer, hands down!

So there you have it folks, my somewhat drawn-out but whole-heartedly detailed account of my southern foods. If traveling to NOLA, please do yourself a grand, grand favor and go to Sneaky Pickle; it’ll it’s way into your heart until-death-do-you-and-your tastebuds apart!

Honorable Mentions: Sucre Confectionary in New Orleans has an amazing “accidentally vegan” chocolate (Dark Chocolate and Rose Petals) that I highly recommend to all chocolate connoisseurs; silky, melt-in-your mouth goodness with an interesting, unique touch through the candied rose petals.

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