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FOODIE RUSTICA: NOVEMBER 2008

The Veggie Dining Craze in the U.S.

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(Nov. 21, 2008)—Last night I had the pleasure of joining fellow food blogger Christian Z of Orange County Mexican Restaurants (ocmexfood.blogspot.com) for the pre-opening of The Veggie Grill at the Irvine Spectrum in Irvine, Calif., which celebrates its grand opening on Nov. 21.

While this is the third location the fast-casual eatery has opened in Southern California, it's new-to-me, and surprisingly decadent at that. The opening of this location speaks to continued growth of this sector within the industry. Mother's Market & Kitchen currently has five locations in the area, growing out of its home base of Costa Mesa with talks of opening location No. 6 in 2009. One would think with the economy the way it is, restaurants opening their doors right now to brand new locations seems incongruous.

But not if it's a vegetarian restaurant. In the Fall 2008 issue of Food Service East (www.foodserviceeast.com), which caters to the restaurant industry, Susan Holaday reports the number of those who always order a vegetarian dish rose slightly from 5.5 percent in 1999 to 6.7 percent this year, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group in Baltimore, Md. However slight this increase may seem, Holaday says this year's Zagat Guide lists 24 vegetarian/vegan restaurants in New York, with a handful of upscale operators willing to accommodate patrons who request vegetarian or vegan dishes.

Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York has been at the helm of the vegetarian-dining experience for more than 30 years, when it was still very much a niche market. Today, Moosewood is not only a restaurant but also a frozen food brand. "Moosewood is a pioneer in vegetarian and vegan cooking," says Steve "The Tortilla Guy" Frankl, a 25-year-veteran of the food industry who's worked in sales, operations and owned businesses. "They have published 11 cookbooks and are still making great dishes." With the tremendous growth of the vegetarian-vegan sector, Frankl also refers to Moosewood Chef Wynnie Stein as "innovative and creative," helping to give Moosewood its staying power.

So while restaurants throughout the U.S. close their doors, it's not surprising the mainstream appeal of vegetarian or vegan dining is emerging, especially with growing trends and legislation pointing to trans-fat bans and demands for low-calorie dishes at other reasonably priced eateries. Subway comes to mind, as do fast-food chains who have expanded their salad options.

And now, The Veggie Grill is bottling the concept of a fast-casual restaurant that is strictly vegetarian but with a flair of comfort-food eats to go along with it.

Christian and I started with the "Sweetheart Fries" ($4.25)—seasoned sweet potato fries accompanied by one singin' chipotle ranch dressing. And by that, I mean it was spicy, savory and creamy. Since Christian is the Mexican food blog-king in OC, he was more interested in the carne asada sandwich ($8.95) as an entrée—grilled veggie steak, marinated in Mexican spices with Southwestern vegan mayo—while I had the chop-chop chef salad ($9.50). This salad was not only sizable but hearty and filling with chunks of tempeh, veggie-steak, "chillin' chickin" and roasted corn, all mixed with Romaine lettuce and drizzled with the flavorful chipotle ranch.

While we were there for dinner, the eatery makes for an excellent option for the nearby business crowd, with patrons ordering at the counter and a hard-working waitstaff delivering to the table. There were a number of highlights to this experience that include al fresco dining, a wide open and bright space and Revolution iced tea with unique flavors that weren't too sweet but definitely fruity. Beyond that, The Veggie Grill prides itself in using nutrient-rich, 100 percent plant-based ingredients that are free of cholesterol, animal and trans fat. It also offers a gluten-free dishes.

The decadent factor? OMG, the carrot cake, with a creamy and sweet topping, moist on the inside, this delightful healthy version is dairy- and cholesterol-free and made with unrefined sugar. Yes, the new fast-casual proves vegetarian eating does not have to be boring and healthy eating in general does not have to be "punishment," says co-owner Kevin Boylan, who started the chain with partner T.K. Pillan.

The Veggie Grill

www.veggiegrill.com

Photos: Courtesy of Christian Z (ocmexfood.blogspot.com).

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