Eating Vegan in Ocracoke

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This year, my wife, daughter, and I vacationed on the island of Ocracoke, the most remote of North Carolina’s Outer Banks islands, a 40-minute ferry ride from Hatteras.  I was a tad concerned about the vegetarian options on the island, but was pleasantly surprised by the choices.  In addition to staying at an accommodating bed and breakfast, we found that the island has a surprising amount of vegetarian food available for the taking.  Here’s a quick run-down of where we went (and a few we didn’t) for others that might be considering a visit to Ocracoke.  Keep in mind that many of these places don’t have web sites (and those that do are often very low-budget), but if you Google the name and “Ocracoke” you may be able to find menu scans or, at the very least, an address.

Ocracoke Coffee Company – A great little coffee shop that seems to have its fair share of regulars.  They have the standard assortment of coffee options (with soy milk on hand), a modest loose tea selection (sadly, stored in glass containers, exposed to the light), and some really good smoothies.  The smoothies are cheap ($4 for 21 oz.) and tasty.  Their Very Scary Berry smoothie (which is their Very Merry Berry smoothie plus spirulina) is excellent and their Tea Breeze smoothie with berries and black tea is unique.  Some smoothies have yogurt but soy milk can be subbed.  I didn’t ask about the source of their optional protein powder. None of their baked goods appear to be vegan. Free wi-fi and a connected bookstore make this a must-visit if you’re on the island.

Fig Tree Deli – Right next door to where we stayed was The Fig Tree Deli and Bakery (also the Sweet Tooth ice cream shop).  They offer three vegetarian sandwiches.  One is cheese-heavy, but the other two are perfectly serviceable (and, indeed, tasty).  So stop by and enjoy the Hummus and Veggie Wrap (homemade hummus, lettuce, and cucumber-tomato relish on a flour or tomato tortilla) or the Rice Salad Wrap (marinated rice, black beans, and veggie salad with lettuce and tomato on a flour or tomato tortilla), just ask them to hold the feta.

Ocracoke Pizza Company – Take out only here, but they offer olive oil (with no cheese) or tomato sauce as a base on a hand-tossed or thin-and-crispy crust.  All the standard toppings.  Note that their pesto base does contain cheese.  We ended up ordering twice from here.  Both times, our pizza was decent.

Thai Moon – A Thai restaurant seems out-of-place here, but it’s mighty welcome thanks to their good vegetarian selection.  I was told that their vegetarian options do not have fish sauce or fish seasoning, though I’m not sure whether the oyster sauce used in one of their vegetarian dishes is vegan or not.  I really liked their veggie fried rice (which uses fried silken tofu!) and Huyen enjoyed their sweet and sour veggies.  Take-out only and very easy to miss.  Shop next door at the Natural Selections hemp store while you wait for your order.

Mango Loco – Though not very vegan-friendly by default, this Mexican/Carribean restaurant on Hwy 12 turned out to be a great visit.  Knowing that the preparation of Mexican food varies greatly from restaurant to restaurant, I told our server I was vegan and wanted to make sure the beans weren’t cooked in lard.  She said, “The beans are safe, but the rice isn’t.  That’s cooked in chicken stock.”  She then offered alternatives and said she’d check on anything else we had questions about.  Huyen had a mighty spicy spinach and mushroom enchilada (hold the cheese and sour cream, white rice instead of their regular rice).  I opted for a delicious Mexican lasagna with layers of tortillas, beans, and salsa (again: hold the cheese and sour cream, swap out the rice for white rice).  The plate was huge and I only managed to finish half, still coming away feeling uncomfortably full.  Chalk this one up to a good vegan experience in a seemingly unvegan restaurant thanks to a very helpful waitress and accommodating kitchen.

Places We Didn’t Eat That Have Veggie Options

Back Porch Restaurant – There’s not a lot here for vegans, but their Chana Masala (tofu, spinach, and chickpea curry) sounds mighty good.  I might have given it a shot if it wasn’t $18.

Cafe Atlantic – They have a vegetarian pasta that would likely be vegan without feta and a veggie or Carribean wrap that could easily be made vegan.

Howard’s Pub – Their “PETA Burger” is vegan, though I was told that it’s just a frozen patty (Boca?) that’s been reheated and not homemade.  I haven’t confirmed this.

Creekside Cafe – Standard wrap options.

If you’re going…

The Variety Store across the street from the Fig Tree Deli/Sweet Tooth seems to be the best place to get groceries, but you’ll definitely want to stock up before coming because it’s small and isn’t exactly teaming with vegan convenience foods.  However, they have a large selection of menus posted outside and flyers and newspapers inside that will help you decide about where to go for dinner.

The Natural Selection hemp store (mentioned in the review of Thai Moon) is worth a stop for their inventory of hemp, organic cotton, and bamboo products.  They’ve got a few vegan snack items in their kitchen area.

A B&B is a good way to go, though it is a tad more expensive than other options.  But, B&Bs will often cater to your dietary needs when they serve up a homemade breakfast.  Our hostess was wonderful, serving up fruit and toast with hummus one day, nearly-vegan waffles and pancakes two other days (we found out later that they were made with honey… an honest mistake), and delicious black bean enchiladas on our last morning.  She noted that it was a challenge for her, but she never complained about it and was extremely friendly (and not just because we were her last guests before selling the place!).

Of course, it’s also worth looking for lodging that offers at least a fridge and perhaps a microwave or kitchenette.

I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of options there were on the island.  Being as remote as it is, I was half expecting to be subsisting on Clif Bars for four days.  But thanks to the B&B and the good restaurant options, we ate well during our entire visit.

(I also can’t let this post go by without a shout-out to my sister who made some kick-ass vegan cupcakes for our daughter’s second birthday and put us up for the night on our way to the island.)

Xuan Saigon

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I’ve mentioned before that finding a good variety of veggie food can be difficult in Loudoun County, VA.  It gets trickier the further west you go.  Leesburg offers a few restaurants with a few veggie options, but nothing anywhere near an all-vegetarian restaurant.

Thankfully, there’s Xuan Saigon, Leesburg’s only Vietnamese restaurant, located on Fort Evans Road in the same shopping center as Anita’s (which is visible from business Route 7).  Their menu [PDF] [1] has a seemingly small vegetarian section, but there are other veggie options scattered throughout the menu, and all are quite good.

Chef Xuan Nguyen’s daughter-in-law is vegetarian (possibly vegan, I’m not sure) and helped to ensure that these dishes are made and served truly vegetarian.  They’re not made with fish sauce, which is comforting, and if they happen to bring you fish sauce as a side, you can ask that they bring out a tasty veggie sweet and sour sauce instead.

I’ve been to some Vietnamese restaurants that offer a “vegetarian pho,” but when grilled about the broth, they admit to using the same beef stock that they use for their beef pho.  Thankfully, this isn’t the case at Xuan Saigon.  Instead, their broth is a homemade veggie broth that’s simply delicious and compliments the full bowl of rice noodles, veggies, and lightly fried tofu.

The one appetizer that you simply have to try is the Ginger-Lime Tofu.  Every guest we’ve taken to the restaurant–including avowed tofu haters–has been amazed at the ginger-and-onion-topped crispy tofu.  It’s finished off in a nice sour-and-salty fashion with a dip in a lime juice, salt, and pepper mixture.  .  For every two people in your party, order one of these appetizers.

Last night while talking with our server (one of the chef/owner’s sons), he asked if I was vegan.  When I nodded a confirmation, he mentioned that they’ve just worked up a new dish that’s not on the menu, a vegan crepe stuffed with all sorts of veggies.  It sounds like banh xeo, which I’ve had homemade before, but never in a restaurant.  Let’s hope it makes it onto the menu soon.

Beyond the food, though, is the service.  Many of the people you’ll encounter are family members and Chef Xuan often comes out and greets diners during their meal.  She’s a kind, generous woman and it’s heartening to see her vision for a unique Vietnamese restaurant succeeding in Leesburg.

So, next time you’re shopping at the outlets or hanging out in Leesburg for some other reason, schedule some time in for a stop by Xuan Saigon.

[1] The menu on their web site seems to be a little out of date – the latest version of the menu has a few more options listed.

College dining options for vegans

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Out of curiosity today, I did a quick search of my alma mater’s dining services page to see how accommodating they are to vegetarians and vegans.  I wasn’t even a vegetarian when I was in college, so I have no recollection how it was back in the day, but I was happy to see that today, there are at least some good choices for vegans:

The Grill
offering All-American standards like hot dogs, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, or even grilled cheese and fries. Vegetarian or Vegan? Grab a veggie burger or soy chicken patty instead!

Top Hits
If you are looking for something made-to-order, this is the place for you. Top Hits provides you with a rotating schedule of our most popular made-to-order items, including omelets, crepes (made the vegan way), salads, and more!

The crepes, in particular, took me by surprise.  In addition, “The Bistro” has a “Vegan/Gluten Free Station.”  I can guarantee you, that wasn’t there ten years ago.

The catering arm of dining services also offers an impressive vegetarian selection and the college itself mentions the vegetarian and vegan options in their prospective students FAQ.

How does your alma mater/current/future school stack up?

(Edited to add: Just noticed that Gary has a couple of posts on the topic over at his blog. Read ’em.)

Fast Food Recollections

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Yesterday, Josh wrote to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Big Mac while recounting his own fast food experiences:

I used to have a job giving tours at the computer museum in Boston. There was a McDonalds downstairs right between us and where the Boston Tea Party ship (and annoying reenactments) were.

I used to eat at that McDonalds once a week or so. I was still a year away from going vegetarian at that point, but even then I knew McDonalds was a terrible place to get food. I’d be walking around monitoring one of the galleries or giving a tour thinking about where I was going to eat and invariably my brain would say “McDonalds!” Most days I’d give that cartoon bubble thought above my head the smackdown, but once a week or so I’d give in. I even felt sick before I got there and I knew I’d be dragging ass the rest of the day with all that grease and fat in my stomach. (I would add “death” to that list of things in my stomach, but at the time those thoughts were still in the murky unknown part of my brain trying to reach the surface.)

The one thing I always tell people after they find out that I’m vegan and say, “I could never do that!” is that I would regularly eat two (yes, two) Big Macs for dinner when I was in high school. Back then my metabolism was insane and I never topped 115 pounds.  I wasn’t exactly a football player.  I was barely a member of the bowling team.

As I was transitioning to vegetarianism, I had a set number of days a month where I’d have only meatless meals.  During those days, I always ended up going to Subway for lunch on my “vegetarian days.”  I honestly had no idea where else to go for a quick veggie meal in those days. 

After going veggie, I kept up with the occasional visit to Subway and even had a few BK Veggies when I was on the road during those first few years.

Today, though, I can honestly say I eat at a fast food restaurant maybe once a year.  And that would be a place like Subway during the most dire of situations (a 10pm, middle of nowhere, nothing else open, forgot to pack a Clif Bar, and have to to go the bathroom-type deal).  It’s kind of funny to look at the completely different mindsets of High School Ryan and Vegan Ryan even though I still feel like I’m pretty much the same person at my core.   I guess it’s like how your body regenerates all its cells every nine years — you’re technically a whole new person, yet you still feel like the same big collection of bio-junk you were back then.

Anyway, I’m glad to be done with fast food restaurants.  No more dealing with the funny smell that envelopes you after you’ve been in a Subway.  Or the employees not remembering to leave the mayo off of your BK Veggie (back when the burger itself was actually vegan, of course).  Or the sticky floors in McDonald’s bathrooms (actually, I still deal with that since that’s the sole reason I’ll go into a McDonald’s).

But there are so many people for whom fast food is still a way of life.  It seems so foreign to me now, but I remind myself that it’s just as foreign for others think about life without fast food.  It’s a tough gap to bridge without devoting some time and real effort, especially since there are no vegan fast food chains to help ease the transition.

Let’s hear from some long-time vegans: when was the last time you ate at a typical fast food joint?  Did you used to be a fast food junkie?

My new favorite lunch

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There’s not a vegetarian restaurant to be found near where I live or work.  Our county, despite being the richest in the country and one of the fastest growing, doesn’t have a single vegetarian (let alone vegan) eatery.  Sadly, much of the eastern part of the county has been strip-malled to death so there are Ruby Fridaybee’s everywhere.  Thankfully, there is a pretty good variety of veggie-friendly Vietnamese, Thai, India, and Mexican restaurants.

One of my favorite of these restaurants is A Taste of Burma in Sterling, VA.  It’s the relatively new sister establishment of the excellent Myanmar Restaurant in Falls Church, where my wife and I ate at frequently when we lived in the area.  Burmese cuisine, I’ve found, is unlike any other single cuisine in that area of the world.  Sure, it’s got touches of southeast Asian style as well as obvious Indian influence, but there are some recipes that seem to be wholly Burmese.

One of these is my new favorite dish, their Fermented Tea Leaf Salad.  The menu describes it as “pickled tea leaf, cabbage, tomatoes, sesame, peanuts, broad beans, lime juice, garlic chips, and seasoning.”  While the idea of eating a tea leaf salad may sound a little strange, let me assure you that it’s delicious.  I honestly cannot even find the words in my vocabulary to describe what the taste is like.  I can’t compare it to anything I’ve eaten before.  But, wow, is it good.

The restaurant itself is fast becoming my favorite place in the area to eat because it’s usually relatively empty (hopefully not a bad sign for the business, as two consecutive Thai restaurants in the same location went ouf of business in less than two years).  Initially, the service was kind of slow, but recently has picked up quite nicely.  The owner, the brother of Myanmar’s owner, is very friendly and sometimes brings out new non-menu items for me try.  His sister is vegetarian, so I’ve been told to rest easy that the vegetarian dishes really are (ie. no fish sauce).

If anyone’s ever out my way during the workweek and wants to meet up for lunch, let me know.  It’s not hard to convince me to make a trip there.