Veggie Road Trip: We Survived 23 States without Eating Meat
Being a vegetarian in New York City is easy. Within a few blocks of my apartment, we have not only Superiority Burger—rated one of the most delectable plant-based burgers on the planet—but also Peacefood Café, By Chloe, and at least three restaurants from superstar plant-based chef Matthew Kenney. That’s not even counting the numerous gourmet salad chains, cute açai bowl restaurants, and ramen restaurants with vegan options that are just steps from our front door.
Needless to say, my pescatarian/vegetarian family never has a problem deciding where to eat on a Friday night. However, three years ago, my younger daughter Molly, who was then 13 and had been a vegetarian since she was 7, was cast in the National Tour of Broadway’s Matilda the Musical, and we embarked on a 13- month, 23-city tour of the United States and Canada. It was an absolute dream come true for both of us, and it gave us the chance to see what sticking to a plant-based diet is like for the rest of North America.
Molly was one of 12 children in the cast (though when you added in the adult actors, backstage crew, musicians, hairstylists, costumers, production staff, tutors, guardians, and parents, we traveled with close to 100 people!). While the other kids were usually happy ordering chicken fingers from room service or finding the nearest
burger joint, Molly and I made it our mission to seek out the best plant-based food in each city we visited. It wasn’t always easy, but thanks to the Internet, advice from friends, and the fact that the actress who played the beloved schoolteacher Miss Honey in the show was also an adventurous vegan who would eagerly share her finds, we managed not only to survive, but to eat deliciously well along the way. Here’s some of what we learned:
Canadians love their meat: We spend 6 of the 13 months of the tour in a “sit-down” engagement in Toronto, Canada. We absolutely loved our time in Toronto and made some of our best friends for life there. Because we were there for so long, we rented an apartment and were able to cook our own veggie meals much of the time (in most other cities we stayed in hotels with the rest of the cast and crew, though we did rent a couple of Airbnbs). But finding fast, veggie-friendly food to eat between shows near the theater in Dundas Square, the Toronto equivalent of Times Square, proved to be a bit of a challenge. Canada has a lot of chain restaurants, and they are all about meat topped with more meat. Often the only meatless item on the menu was macaroni-and-cheese, which my daughter (who is vegetarian, but not vegan), enjoyed, but not for every darn meal.
Our solutions: Spring Sushi, just across the square from the theater, had many vegan options and was a great compromise when all the kids wanted to eat together. We also spent many meal breaks with friends at Blaze Pizza, which offered a tasty vegan cheese as an option on its personalized pies. The Eaton Center—downtown Toronto’s biggest shopping mall—had two different food courts. One had typical fast food, which we usually steered clear of, but the other had healthier options, including decent ramen and veggie tacos served out of an old Volkswagen bus. Halfway through our stint in Toronto, Pusateri’s food hall opened in the basement of the Saks Fifth Avenue near the theater—food halls are ideal for offering a variety of cuisines and dishes so that a diverse group of eaters can all find something they love.
We also found that if you ventured further afield from the central square, there were many creative new restaurants serving great plant-based food—you just had to look for them. Two favorites: Planta, for upscale, date-night food when my husband was in town, and Fresh on Bloor, where we finally got to try poutine, Canada’s favorite dish (the French fries were smothered in mushroom gravy instead of meat, and topped with vegan cheese curds).
The best vegan meal we had was in the middle of Barbeque country: Perhaps our most memorable meal of the entire tour was at Fiction Kitchen, a creative vegan restaurant in Raleigh, NC, a city best known for its down-home barbeque. We returned a couple of times during our one-week stint in Raleigh, and to this day, I dream of the cornmeal-fried oyster mushrooms.
Speaking of barbeque, we had awesome vegan BBQ in Portland, OR: One of the treats I sometimes miss from my younger, meat-eating days is a good old sloppy heap of barbecue. Luckily, our Miss Honey told us about the vegan Homegrown Smoker, in the hipster capital of the U.S., Portland. They did miraculous things there with seitan, tempeh, and tofu, not to mention the delicious sweet potato fries and vegan mac-and-cheese piled on the plate. Also a highlight of Portland: The food truck “pods,” one of which was down the block from our Airbnb. With a dozen or so different trucks offering a variety of foods, there was always something veggie to try.
International cuisine almost never disappoints: When we arrived in the adorable small city of Sioux Falls, SD, a Midwestern friend tipped us off to Sanaa’s, an inexpensive vegetarian restaurant featuring delicious Syrian food. While Molly and I were eating our lunch, an older gentleman chatted us up, asking how we liked our eggplant fateyas and hummus. After he left, another customer pointed out that I had been chatting with the owner’s husband, former U.S. Senator James Abourezk, the first Lebanese-American to serve in the Senate. See what you get from trying new things? In other cities, when we couldn’t find any specifically vegetarian restaurants nearby, we knew we could always find something veggie on the menu at a Thai, Japanese or Mexican restaurant.
College towns are veggie havens: Molly always loved when the tour touched down in a college town. She spent a blissful week riding her skateboard across the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, and we roamed the Ivy-covered campus of Brown University in Providence, RI. And it turns out, anywhere you find college kids, you’re likely to find tasty, inexpensive vegetarian food. In Tempe, we skateboarded over to Desert Roots for takeout wraps and salads, and we found delicious tofu bibimbop and vegetable dumplings on the omnivore Korean menu at Mokban in Providence. Salt Lake City, though more well-known for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and skiing, is also home to the University of Utah. We found some great pizza in SLC and ate several meals at Mollie & Ollie, where we ordered customized tofu scrambles, curry noodles, and breakfast bowls from computerized menus.
Hardest place to be vegetarian? That would be Fort Worth, TX. Downtown Fort Worth was fine, with a variety of casual lunch spots. But one evening, after the matinee, the kids decided they all wanted to visit The Stockyards, Fort Worth’s historic livestock district. Molly enjoyed walking through a corn maze with the kids and looking at the kitschy souvenir shops (thankfully, we missed the parade of cattle who were destined for someone’s dinner plate). But when we sat down at the burger place the other kids had picked for dinner, we found the only non-burger options were hot dogs and chicken. Luckily, there was a special side dish available that evening. Reader, we ate a plate of fried pickles for dinner.
When it comes down to it, there’s always Starbucks: While Molly and I made an effort to seek out the most interesting local restaurants in every city we visited, there were times when the best we could do was a bagel from Brueggers or a PB&J box from Starbucks. And you know what? Sometimes that’s perfectly fine. Especially when you know there’s going to be something delicious to discover in the next city.