Mongolian Grill chef John Kim will stir fry your choice of vegetables and tofu at the River Road restaurant in Puyallup. Photo by Janet Jensen/The News Tribune.
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By Debbie Cafazzo
As a vegetarian, I know I can always make special requests when dining out. But I love it when I don't have to.
There's nothing that excites me more than when I open a menu and see a section tailored to vegetarians. And it's an even bigger thrill when the vegetarian selections are creative and offer something more for the diner, instead of a meat-oriented dish with something subtracted.
Here, I write about three of my long-time favorite veg-friendly restaurants, and a couple of new discoveries.
Note to readers: Share your opinion here if you know of a great South Sound restaurant that caters to vegetarians or vegans. Jut comment here and share your experiences with other TNT Diner readers.
1324 Martin Luther King Way, Tacoma
This is the only all-vegetarian restaurant I'm aware of in Pierce County. And it's entirely vegan (no dairy products or eggs), from the homemade nondairy mayonnaise on sandwiches and in the potato salad to the "mac and yease," Quickie's signature dish that uses nutritional yeast to mimic the flavor of cheese.
I was skeptical when Niombi Howell, who owns Quickie with her husband James, offered me a sample. But the dish has an authentic taste and texture to it.
The most exciting part of Quickie Too is the sandwich menu. After more than 30 meat-free years, I rarely experience cravings for meat any more. But I do sometimes miss the sauces and accompaniments.
At Quickie I can get my fix with a selection of barbecue sauce, grilled onions, salsa and vegan mayo. All the sandwich sauces are homemade. They dress up buns that hold smoked tofu (soybean curd), tempeh (another soy derivative, with a slightly chewier texture), or seitan (made from wheat gluten).
When I lunched at Quickie I enjoyed the BBQ Burger: Smoked tofu on a bun, with grilled sweet onions, barbecue sauce and mustard. This sandwich is messy – in a yummy, sauce-dripping-down-the-chin way. Ask for extra napkins. (Burgers start at $7.25.)
My dining companion had a Jamaican Wrap: Jamaican-spiced tofu on a thin slice of tortilla-like bread with grilled sweet onions, tomatoes, coleslaw, lettuce and vegan mayo spread. (Wraps start at $7.49.)
Sandwiches are served with beans and rice.
Quickie Too started in Tacoma as a sandwich company, supplying vegan sandwiches and wraps for grocery stores. The Howells eventually opened restaurants in Seattle and Tacoma.
Niombi Howell is hopeful that her restaurants and sandwiches can help bridge the gap for those who want to transition from meat to vegetarian eating.
5015 Tacoma Mall Blvd., Tacoma
Wendy Au is one of the Tacoma restaurant industry's grande dames. She began serving Vietnamese food to diners in the Freighthouse Square food court in 1986. The Tacoma Mall Boulevard sit-down restaurant opened in 1993.
Both feature vegetarian menus along with meat and seafood dishes. The mall location offers a wider variety of veggie options, and Au says they're quite popular at both restaurants.
"More people are trying to eat healthy, and they ask for tofu," says Au. "It's high in protein, and mine is not deep-fried."
Au goes beyond curried tofu, although she serves that, too. My favorite veggie dish is lemon grass tofu, a nice blend of garlic, lemon grass, tofu and crunchy veggies. Garlic tofu offers visible hunks of garlic, along with broccoli, cabbage and green onions. And the teriyaki tofu, with cabbage, broccoli and onions in a sweet soy sauce, is a rare treat for vegetarians. (Entrees, served with rice, were $8.95 for dinner. Brown rice is $1 more.)
Wendy's now delivers for lunch and dinner.
Gateway to India
2603 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
C.J. Singh and his brother Surinder have been serving Indian food in Tacoma for 12 years. Five years ago, they expanded the restaurant, increasing seating space and slashing wait times for customers.
Like most Indian restaurants, Gateway has an extensive vegetarian menu featuring 13 entrees. Many are vegan and others can be served vegan upon request, for example, by creating masala sauce without the cream.
C.J. Singh says that most Indians are vegetarian, at least at home. Some consume cheese or yogurt, but not eggs, he says.
While his vegetarian menu includes unusual dishes that you won't find at many Indian restaurants, brimming with the likes of artichokes, okra and chickpeas, I most often return to old favorites: bharta (eggplant baked over an open flame in a special clay oven) or saag paneer (spinach and homemade cheese). Both are $11.50, including soup and rice.
Gateway is famous for its Tuesday through Saturday buffet lunch, which costs $8.99 for all you can eat. There are always vegetarian choices.
6812-B Tacoma Mall Blvd.,
It's easy to miss Steffie's, largely hidden behind the more easily recognized Hooters.
But pull in at the Hooters sign and drive around toward the back. That's where you'll find Michael and Stephanie Archer serving up tofu with the flavors of their native countries: He's from Barbados. She's from Trinidad.
"We do everything from scratch," says Stephanie Archer. "Our jerk sauce is hot but tasty. When you eat it, you're not thinking about spice."
That's an accurate description.
A few months ago, I discovered Steffie's grilled tofu, seasoned with mild spices and grilled with onions and tomatoes. My dining companion warmed up a rainy night with jerk tofu, smothered in a delicately spiced sauce. Of the two, I preferred the jerk. It had a kick, but not one that knocked you out of your seat. Our dinner entrees ($12.95) came with mixed vegetables and delicately fried plantain.
Stephanie Archer says her goal is to please both vegetarians and their carnivorous friends.
"Someone can come in with a meat eater and your plate will be just as nice as his," she says.
You can top off your meal with Kola Champagne ($2.55), a lightly carbonated soda straight from the Caribbean that tastes a bit like cream soda.
725 River Road, Puyallup
The Mongolian-style concept is featured in a number of area restaurants. You fill your own bowl from a buffet table laden with noodles, veggies and sauces, then hand over the ingredients to a chef who quick-grills it all for you as you watch.
And while some Mongolian-style restaurants offer tofu, others do not. You have to ask.
"With a lot of people thinking about their health, we offer a lot of choices," says Suk Kim, who manages Mongolian Grill on River Road for her brother, John Kim.
The vegetable offerings alone are enough to sustain you, with more than 20 varieties. And of course, there's tofu. You choose from three kinds of noodles or rice. There are a dozen sauces.
But the biggest draw for this restaurant is its generosity. Return for seconds, if you aren't stuffed after one trip through the grill.
It's all there for one price: $7.49 for lunch or $9.99 for dinner. There are discounts for children 10 and under.
WHAT: Free food samples, cooking demos, books, nutrition information
WHEN: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: Seattle Center Exhibition Hall
TICKETS: At the door; $7 adults; free for kids 12 and under