The vegetarian and vegan dining landscape has pushed and pulled since I’ve been this paper’s hired belly. One veg-friendly restaurant closes, one more opens. That has left a stable number of veg-leaning restaurants, but the market hasn’t really expanded much, either.
Two recent Tacoma openings, however, do make meat-free dining easier. Today’s dining column takes a look at Happy Belly and Viva Tacoma, both catering to meat-free dining in quite different ways. I’m also checking in on two Tacoma institutions focused on vegetarians and vegans: Marrow and Quickie Too.
Before I launch into that, I wanted to tip off vegetarian and vegan (those who eschew all meat and animal products) diners to a few restaurants embracing easier forms of meat-free dining. While Tacoma might not be gaining new restaurants exclusively catering to vegetarians and vegans, plenty of established restaurants are making a play for vegan and vegetarian diners.
One example is downtown Tacoma’s Pacific Grill, which designates a portion of its menu to vegan and vegetarian items. The restaurant also now uses a symbol throughout the menu denoting items that can be turned vegan.
That’s excellent news for any diner who has sat tableside asking food prep questions intended to reveal the often-hidden ingredients that aren’t compatible with a vegetarian or vegan diet: “Was that soup made with chicken or vegetable stock? Is there beef demi-glace in that gravy? Did the chef use butter in the roux?” As a diner, I find it incredibly annoying to pepper a server with questions — especially when I find many incapable of answering. Chefs find that frustrating, too. “On a busy Saturday night when a server comes into the kitchen to start asking what dishes could be modified I finally decided it was just easier to label the menu. It has helped tremendously, and the response has been very enthusiastic,” wrote Pacific Grill co-owner Gordon Naccarato by email.
Using a symbol on the menu assuring a diner the choice is vegan is a smart strategy for restaurants looking to pick up an underserved dining population. I’d appreciate seeing more of Tacoma’s top restaurants following Pacific Grill’s lead.
What surprised me most was a recent discovery that some of the city’s most varied vegetarian and vegan eating can be found at bars.
At Top of Tacoma, the McKinley neighborhood bar, one menu symbol designates vegetarian entrees while another marks vegan dishes. More than a dozen items on the menu carry those symbols. The newly opened Valley Pub lists both a vegan melt and a veggie sandwich on its menu. The Red Hot, a Sixth Avenue craft beer destination known for its lengthy list of hot dogs, lists three vegan dogs — a dog, a brat and a kielbasa — with complicated toppers that have some thought and flavor behind them.
At a stylish bar across town, Hilltop Kitchen, vegetarians have myriad meat-free options, although I wish they were more clearly marked on the menu.
Quick lunch spots also prove good sources for meat-free dining. Infinite Soups, the niche soup shop in the St. Helens neighborhood, has separate daily changing menus for vegan and vegetarian diners. Marlene’s Deli, inside the natural foods grocery store near the Tacoma Mall, skews in favor of vegetarian diners on its take-out deli menu.
That’s all good news for anyone skipping meat for whatever reason. Can we please have more of that? I’m looking at you, restaurant owners.
At Proctor’s Viva Tacoma, plates of vegan cuisine appeal to the eye as much as the belly. Chef and co-owner Francisco “Paco” Hernandez has capitalized on the vibrant palette of the vegetable world. Plates popped with reds, greens and yellows, arranged in eye-catching designs that weren’t overly fussy.
Flavor and texture mingled well in dishes Hernandez has honed while chef at two Tacoma restaurants. He first worked at AmeRAWcan Bistro, the Tacoma vegan eatery that opened in 2011 and closed earlier this year. While there, he executed a mostly raw menu. At Viva, which opened in September, the menu is split between cooked and not — but all the food is vegan.
What was surprising was how little texture suffered in the uncooked dishes. One reason is Hernandez’s cooking techniques using temperatures below 116 degrees to retain as many nutrients as possible. Dehydration is one way Hernandez incorporates textural dissonance, most notably in the raw enchiladas ($13.95). Dehydrated cashew tortillas broke pleasingly to a loose walnut stuffing spiced to mimic taco meat. Cabbage, greens and diced tomatoes added snap. A taco salad ($10.95) carried that same Latin thump of cumin and chili powder.
Zucchini manicotti ($12.95), another raw dish, featured broad swaths of zucchini sliced so thin, the rolled-up tubes yielded easily under the nudge of a fork, revealing a stuffing of snappy red peppers, mushrooms and greens. Fans of AmeRAWcan Bistro’s Sun Burger will recognize the Viva La Burger ($12.95), with a dehydrated onion bun sandwiching an all-vegetable patty. Salty kale chips were crunchier and more expertly prepared than when AmeRAWCan Bistro first offered that side dish.
Skipping over to the cooked side of the menu, portobello tacos ($12.95) presented an unusual find: handmade tortillas. Tucked into the tacos I found a tasty melange of cabbage, portobello mushrooms, avocado and a swipe of cashew cream.
The tiny restaurant has been doing brisk business, which is why I recommend visiting during an off-peak time. Service proved helpful and on-point, both positive signs for such a new restaurant.
The small dining room looked as attractive as it was when the restaurant housed the cafe and take-out business Capers.
I appreciated that the restaurant prices seemed fair considering the restaurant’s effort to cook only with organic produce.
Think of the menu at Happy Belly as an accordion menu that shrinks and expands with your dietary needs. Chef-owner Jennifer Johnson opened her casual eatery in early October with the intention of catering to vegetarians, but with a few heartier items that would appeal to the meat-eating crowd.
Her diet, like her restaurant menu, is mostly meat free. She also focuses on a dining category I wish would grow more popular: sensible portions that help diners with calorie control.
Her menu focuses on beans, grains and veggies, with a few meat sandwiches with turkey and ham.
A trio of portobello black bean tacos ($9) on doubled-up white corn tortillas were spiced up with Sriracha and cooled down with cilantro crema. A tasty kale and mixed vegetable soup ($3/$6) was creamy from a partial puree of the soup’s red pepper base.
The menu dips into far-flung flavors — from flat bread ($8) with marinated vegetables punched up with kalamata olives, to almond butter and cherry preserves on a croissant ($6) that looked fit for breakfast or lunch.
During a first-bite visit, service was friendly and efficient at this order-at-the-counter outfit. Get there early; seating is limited to a handful of tables.
Because the restaurant is so new and the kitchen so small, expect possible food delays for larger parties.
Since it opened in 2011, Marrow’s dual-purpose menu carried an ambitious dissonance, catering to vegetarians and meat eaters all on the same menu.
The restaurant was the project of Jaime Kay and Jason Jones, who also own the McKinley neighborhood bar Top of Tacoma, and Tacoma chef Kyle Wnuk. In August, the trio sold the restaurant to Hilltop Kitchen co-owners Chris Keil and Matthew Schweitzer. The restaurant has cycled through its first menu since Wnuk left the kitchen and is soon introducing its second menu.
Schweitzer, who also designs the veg-friendly menu at Hilltop Kitchen, called the upcoming menu his most ambitious vegetarian menu yet. About half the menu appeals to diners who skip meat by offering grains and lofty ingredients instead of gimmicky meat substitutes.
“I don't want to do remakes of meat dishes that hide the flavors of the vegetables behind salt and fat,” wrote Schweitzer by email. “Our food concept is simple: Seasonal, Northwest cuisine. Every dish we put together, we ask, ‘What makes that Northwest?’”
The menu? It’s the most ambitious vegetarian menu I’ve seen in Tacoma.
Beets show up twice — as a carpaccio with marinated cucumbers and in a risotto with leeks and fennel. Wheat berry salad comes with winter squash, honeyed hazelnuts and sunchokes. There’s also baked cauliflower with mushroom mousse and truffle oil, as well as confit squash with sunflower cream sauce and grilled dates, and a root vegetable pot pie.
Going forward, expect even more advancements on the vegetarian side of the Marrow menu, Schweitzer said.
Vegan soul food seems such a disconnect, but if anyone can make meat-free Southern-style soul food eats work, it’s the Howell family.
They’re the owners of Quickie Too, which started as a wholesale sandwich shop in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood before switching to a vegan restaurant format about eight years ago.
Co-owner James Howell is from Alabama, which explains the Southern touches scattered throughout the lunch and dinner menu.
His wife, Niombi, is the chief vegan in the kitchen, working alongside daughter Afi. Another daughter, Makini Howell, has found vegan fame in Seattle for her Plum vegan restaurants and food truck, as well as for a recently released vegan cookbook.
Quickie Too’s menu relies heavily on burgers and sandwiches built with meat substitutes such as tofu, tempeh and seiten, as well as grains such as quinoa and millet.
The burgers and sandwiches are delicious. I highly recommend every diner — vegan or otherwise — dig into the quinoa-millet Mama Africa burger with fries ($12.99).
Stick with the soul food side of the menu for dishes teeming with down-home Southern flavors. A Mac and Yease ($5.99) uses nutritional yeast in lieu of dairy cheese. The Friday night “fish” fry dinner special ($16) substitutes crunchy-coated tempeh for fish. A Southern Comfort dinner ($16) mashes up tofu steak with a vegan gravy and potatoes, mac and yease, greens and hush puppies.
Here’s something that diners are looking for: an almost entirely organic menu as well as a menu that’s about a quarter gluten-free.
Another bonus? A vegan Sunday brunch, served 11 a.m.-3 p.m.