Friday, July 1, 2016

Edible Road Trip: NOLA on Veggies

Published on July 1, 2016 in Edible Memphis

I went to New Orleans with a vegetarian — the kind that doesn’t actually eat any meat or seafood. Thankfully, I make it down to the Big Easy several times a year, so I viewed this trip as a happy challenge rather than an impossible task.

I keep a running list on my phone of places to try, and I have my favorites. Before leaving Memphis I looked at the menus of my top three restaurants (MoPho, Killer PoBoys, and Shaya) and they all had plenty of vegetarian, even vegan, options that appealed to me. At that point I had a crazy idea. I decided that I would also maintain a strict vegetarian diet during our four day stay.

It’s not like I decided to go and not drink any alcohol. I’m not that crazy.

We hit the road at 6:00 am on a Sunday and drove straight to Buffa’s on Esplanade for the Sunday jazz brunch. This was more for the music — the band, “Some Like It Hot” is backed by a close friend’s female cousin who learned to play the drums at age 50 — than the food. However, the menu featured eggs, hash browns, and biscuits, so we were off to a fine start.

After brunch we checked into our Airbnb in the Bywater and consulted with our host about vegetarian dinner options. We were going out with a group, and decided the St. Roch Market on Saint Claude was the way to go. St. Roch is an indoor market with several incubator restaurants. You can order from whichever one (or more) that you like then meet up with your group at a table in the middle or on the patio. It’s basically a hipster food court. With a bar.

Said bar, The Mayhaw, features ingredient-driven cocktails, classic cocktails, local beers, and eclectic wines. You can also grab a bottle of wine and a few glasses from the retail section to drink on site. We ordered a fancy cantaloupe and tequila cocktail and a local Gnarly Barley Rye P.A.

Foodwise, La Mezcla won us over with their fresh California- and Texas-style Mexican cuisine. They serve homemade tamales and tacos, refried pinto beans and aguas frescas. And, they are super cheap. We split several $4 tostadas loaded with beans, lettuce, cheese, fresh salsa, and guacamole.

The best part about St. Roch is its location. After dinner we were within walking distance of several bars that we wanted to visit — the Hi Ho Lounge, Siberia, and Saturn. The Hi Ho, which has a very original Hi Tone kind of feel inside also has a cozy Cove-like courtyard in back that features various pop up restaurants that serve food from 5:00 pm to 1:00 am every day. On our visit, Fry and Pie was set up selling — are you ready for it — fries and pies! They had several loaded fry options that were vegetarian friendly (such as Pesto Presto Margherita with tomato, pesto, fresh mozzarella, parmesan and provolone). One of the two pie options featured marshmallow (read gelatin) filling, which is a no-no for my vegetarian, but maybe not yours.

Siberia, which is a hard rocking late night place, has a full restaurant in back, Kukhnya, which offers burgers, Eastern European style crepes, and Slavic soul food. The bulk of the menu is rather meaty, but if you are a fan of beets, there’s a beet salad, soup, and veggie burger. A few other salads, a couple of blinis, and the pierogi are also vegetarian. I kind of love that you can see a death metal show and have a bowl of borscht in the same place. They open at 4:00 pm daily.

For breakfast on day two, we walked over to the Satsuma Café, which specializes in freshly made juices, breakfast, and lunch using quality, local and organic ingredients. Almost everything in the kitchen is created from scratch. We tried the Mexican breakfast and a hearty egg sandwich. Satsuma has a quaint side patio and it’s always full of interesting people with plenty more walking by.

Somehow we never ate lunch (Who skips a meal in Nola?), so naturally, we had two dinners. We met some Memphis transplants at Josephine Estelle, the new Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman restaurant in the recently opened Ace Hotel in the CBD (Central Business District). I worried that there would be very few menu items that came without some form of pork, but the few they had were stellar. We sampled the Josephine Estelle salad, three pastas — gemelli, canestri, and gnocchi along with a trio of vegetables — beets, broccoli rabe, and polenta. The canestri with cacao and pepe (Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper) was the stand out. (We didn’t time it right, but there’s a public pool and a bar on the roof of the Ace. It’s definitely worth checking out before or after a meal at Josephine Estelle.)

For our second dinner we went back to the Marigny to try Paladar 511, which opened last year in a gorgeous warehouse. It’s become our friends’ go-to spot in their hood and it did not disappoint. Started by a San Francisco duo, the focus is on seasonal, local cuisine both on and off a pizza crust. We split a damn fine margherita pizza, a salad, and the panna cotta.

We got our third day off to the perfect start at the Sneaky Pickle on Saint Claude — a vibrant, yet subdued spot that caters to vegans, but also offers a sustainable meat dish or two. The owner/chef uses locally sourced ingredients, so the menu is ever changing. I was instructed by a local to get the “bowl of food” which changes often but always includes one grain, one legume, and an assortment of vegetables. Mine had rice, lentils, potatoes, red pepper, onion, and a spicy, savory secret sauce. It was incredible. And filling! This may have been my favorite meal, and if we had more time, I would have tried everything on the menu. My vegetarian had the almost equally delicious breakfast flatbread with tofu, potatoes, caramelized onions, chipotle aioli, topped with seasonal slaw.

Lunch ended up being of the liquid variety procured over several hours on foot between the Bywater and the Quarter — frozen Irish coffee at the Erin Rose, a daiquiri at Bar Tonique, a pint of Hopitoulas at the R Bar, and a Miller Lite at Big Daddy’s.

Dinner was meant to be at Red’s Chinese, a funky spot on St. Claude that features an assortment of vegetarian dishes like kimchi, Buddha’s delight, and Bywater eggplant, but we arrived to find it closed for the evening — the one downside of a non-weekend visit to the City. We ended up next door at Sugar Park. Sugar Park had a lovely back patio, a freshly made frozen strawberry margarita, and some pretty tasty pizza.

Our final meal (sniff) was at Seed in the Lower Garden District. Their menu is totally vegan and their motto is “Garden based Nola taste.” The menu features all of your favorite comfort foods, vegged out, wearing their Sunday best. The menu also has a stunning array of chef designed salads and a killer assortment of sides and starters. It was really difficult to narrow down what to eat, as everything sounded great, but I had to try the Seed Gumbo (traditional roux, okra, green and red peppers, collard greens, mushrooms, topped with spicy seitan) and the Southern Fried PoBoy (fried tofu, light chickpea flour breading, lettuce, tomato, vegan mayo, poboy bread). My vegetarian couldn’t resist the BBQ Sandwich (house-made seitan, BBQ sauce, slaw, whole wheat bun). We shared a kale salad with cashews, mango, and a mind blowing miso maple dressing.

The gumbo was so close to being awesome, but inexplicably included beans. (I am wondering if the kitchen accidentally mixed it up with the chili?) The tofu poboy, with the addition of hot sauce, hit the spot, though I was wishing for a slice or two of pickle. The standout ended up being the BBQ sandwich. The house made spicy seitan, which was its base and also topped the gumbo, seemed to be the secret ingredient. Again, if I had more time I would have insisted on another trip or two to try more menu items.

On our way out of town, we made a quick stop at the Nola Brewing Company’s taproom on Tchoupitoulas. I was curious to see how it compared to the ones in Memphis, and well, I wanted to buy a case of Hopitoulas. When we arrived we were a bit confused as the taproom looked a lot like a restaurant. Unlike the taprooms here that have a rotating cast of food trucks, the Nola Brewery taproom had a built-in BBQ restaurant. There were lots of folks, presumably on their lunch break, enjoying a beer with their food. Unfortunately the whole place smelled like smoky meat — not a good way to end our vegetarian trip. However, we did discover the rooftop bar on our way out, so that’ll do on the next visit.

I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and satisfying it was to eat vegetarian all weekend, and frankly I’m quite glad to have tried it. Turns out that eating healthy in New Orleans is a nice balance to all of the usual debauchery. (And I can always just get my shrimp poboy fix at The Second Line anytime I like.)

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