Let’s be clear about something from the get-go, here: I know next to nothing about the American South. It’s one of those areas of my own country that, for some reason, I haven’t been very quick to go forth and explore, one of those regions I’d rather fly right over with a passport and a Lonely Planet than actually take the time to touch down in. That means my impressions and judgments of the South have always been just that: they’ve never really been informed by anything other than TV specials and required reading lists, Anthony Bourdain and Pat Conroy. I know it gets damn hot down there, I’ve heard they love their slow drawls and sweet tea, and I’ve been assured every authentic local dish must be seasoned, fried, or slathered with pig fat.
When it came time for my first real trip down south — a weekend in New Orleans for my best friend’s bachelorette party followed by a few days of solo exploration — it was that last part (you know, the lardy bit) that had me nervous. Because by all accounts, food in the South — particularly New Orleans — is not only meat-centric, but is also a big deal. A plan-your-whole-trip-around-it, make-your-dinner-reservations-months-in-advance, search-Yelp-obsessively-for-the-best-gumbo-reviews-in-town deal. And traditional southern food, the stuff that draws the tourists and keeps the locals happy, isn’t dainty, or fresh, or healthy, or green, or any of those other adjectives a lot of people might associate with vegetarian fare. Instead it’s messy, it’s deep-fried, it’s fatty, it’s stewed to monotone perfection. And for a minute there, it felt a lot like cause for concern: Would I get down South and starve? Would I find myself happily devouring a plate of red beans and rice only to discover hidden pieces of gristle halfway through dinner?
But I decided to swap concern for excitement when I remembered something: I’m stubborn. When I’m traveling, I still refuse to miss out on the local culture just because I don’t eat meat. New Orleans didn’t have to be any different from France or Cambodia or Vietnam.
So before taking off from San Francisco, I decided I’d stick with my typical travel-diet plan: patience, curiosity, and optimism — intimidation (and stereotypes) be damned. I decided I wouldn’t come back from this southern culinary capital and tell you about all the great Indian and Thai restaurants I ended up at out of laziness or desperation. I wouldn’t whine about how hard it was to find a salad in this town. Instead, I’d seek out the local flavors, specialties, and epicurean main attractions of the city, all in a vege-friendly way.
And I have to say, the whole experience exceeded what even I had feared might be my naive hopes. Everything I ate in New Orleans was certified lacto-ovo (often even vegan) friendly, spot-on with regional flavors, and, most importantly, delicious. Here are a few of the places that made my search a snap, and a few more that will make a return trip — all in the name of research, you understand — inevitable.
This little French Market shop is charmingly all-inclusive, catering to everyone from serious carnivores to diligent vegans. I stopped in one day for the veggie jambalaya and chowed down happily between the girl with a gator-sausage on my left and the guy with a steaming bowl of seafood gumbo on my right. The next day, I went back for the traditional New Orleans Monday night meal of red beans and rice, made vegan by nixing the sausage. Both meals were just the right amount of spicy, smoky, and satisfying, and I didn’t doubt their southern credentials for a second. If I’d had more time in town, I’m sure I would have gone back for the grilled-vegetable Po Boy sandwich.
13 MONAGHAN BAR
Speaking of po boy sandwiches: they’re about as omnipresent in New Orleans as pizza is in New York, but they’re usually spilling over with fillings like shrimp, crayfish, roast beef, or alligator. So even though I knew a po boy was going to be essential to the authenticity of this little food-quest, I figured it would be a tough box to check off. Luckily, I found 13 Monaghan Bar in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. This unassuming Irish pub offers not one, but two different kinds of tofu po boy, hanging out on the menu right below the BLTs and pulled pork sandwiches. I opted for a BBQ tofu number slicked with vegan mayo and stuffed with lettuce and tomato, then added a Pimm’s-and-gin cocktail, a side of tater tots, and a generous stack of napkins.
This no-frills coffee shop two blocks from my Marigny guesthouse pulled me in with its up-front name: in the throes of an unanticipated Monday morning hangover (hello, New Orleans), few things succor the soul more than the promise of an easy journey and a boatload of flour, butter, and sugar. I was honestly expecting nothing but cake, so I couldn’t believe my dumb luck when I opened up the menu and saw a tofu scramble and, even better, a vege-version of the Southern-as-it-gets giant biscuit with (mushroom) gravy. I knew the vegetarian biscuit was the epitome of everything I’d been looking for on this trip, and that I had to order it and tell you all about it. I felt triumphant, vindicated, smiled upon by serendipity… but mostly, I felt like eating cake. So instead of trying the biscuit, I asked for an oversized cinnamon roll. I felt like a bit of a cheater, but as I watched the woman behind the counter dump warm icing all over my breakfast, I didn’t really care. I don’t regret my decision, but I do wish I’d had the appetite for the biscuit, too.
CAFE DU MONDE
All I’ll say is this: Café du Monde fries its beignets in cottonseed oil, not animal fat. So they’re fair game. I have no idea what the other beignet shops around town use to fry their dough, but after plowing through a tray of Café du Monde’s, I didn’t bother to ask around.
When I made reservations at GW Fins for my best friend’s bachelorette dinner, I had no idea the restaurant would make this list. I mean, it’s a seafood restaurant, for God’s sake. I planned on getting through the meal, not dreaming about it later. I’d called ahead and made sure they’d be able to whip up something unoffensive and (most likely) bland for me, and something even more pedestrian for the vegan in our party, figuring we could disappoint our taste buds for a night as long as everyone else was happy. As it turns out, I wildly underestimated this restaurant. Without even having to go off-menu, I found asparagus in lemon olive oil, spaghetti squash with pine nuts, and the dish most likely to remain my favorite from this trip: mashed sweet potatoes with banana, bourbon, vanilla bean, and brown sugar. My pesto gnocchi with red peppers and chanterelles was so light it made me forget that I don’t like gnocchi, and the eight meat-eaters in our group kept ogling my vegan friend’s fried leeks and yam chips when they should have been tucking into their red snapper and scallops.
There were a few more promising-sounding spots I just didn’t have the time to try: The Gumbo Shop (which apparently has a daily vegetarian plate), Dreamy Weenies (which offers two kinds of vegan dog as the base for a lengthy list of toppings), and Verti Marte, a Cajun deli on Royal with veggie burgers and vege-dinner plates scattered across its chalkboard menu of po boys and jambalaya. Finally, Satsuma in the Bywater neighborhood perked me up on my last morning in NOLA with a frothy carrot-beet-apple-lemon juice, much needed after five days of all things deep-fried, gooey, and locally brewed. Had I not inhaled a stack of pancakes at a nearby coffee shop 20 minutes beforehand, I’d have loved to sample one of the several veggie dishes from Satsuma’s menu: a Mexican tofu scramble with avocado and cilantro; a chanterelle, zucchini, and kale omelet; or a roasted eggplant sandwich.