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The Lonesome Vegetarian: going veggie in Fort Worth

Posted 12:31pm on Thursday, Jun. 26, 2014

“Isn’t it hard to be vegetarian in Cowtown?”

I get this question, or some variation on it, quite often, and I think it’s high time for everyone to retire it.

The answer, just for the record, is no. At least not anymore.

Today, Fort Worth has a nationally recognized vegan restaurant, swaggering cowboy-cuisine chefs who do killer vegetable dishes, and several restaurant rows where I can eat myself silly and never have to explain my meatless philosophy to anyone.

I was a longtime vegetarian in 1998 when I moved to Fort Worth from Washington, D.C. Though I’m a native Texan, my East Coast friends were amazed that a veggie would move to a place that styles itself Cowtown. The nickname, as well as that “Fort” business, made people imagine a bunch of cowpokes walking dirt streets lined with rickety wooden sidewalks (that’s only in the Stockyards, people).

And many people still think this way. Just this month, a USA Today story about the supposedly astonishing sophistication of Fort Worth led with that small daily cattle drive we stage for tourists and their iPhones (“Longhorn cattle still roam the streets of this historic cow town,” the story began — um, no, they don’t) and implied that meat-packing just recently stopped being the center of our economy.

Fort Worth may be the victim of its own “Where the West Begins” reputation, but over the past 15 years, as the foodie scene here developed, then exploded, vegetarian dining has also become interesting.

It’s a city where stereotype and reality can co-exist: You wander in for a bite in a place where mounted animal heads loom above you, and they serve you a sophisticated vegetarian dish, as good as anything you’d get in Seattle or San Francisco.

But it wasn’t always this way.

First few sprouts

Fort Worth in the 1990s was like many small or medium cities in America, stuffed with Chili’s-type chains, fast-food huts and home-cooking places. And there were cherished old-school institutions (that I hope never change) like Kincaid’s, Joe T’s, Paris Coffee Shop and numerous barbecue joints that seemed to have never encountered vegetarians. It was a bit harder to eat meatless here than in the biggest cities or certain college towns.

But I love to eat out, so I plowed through lots of iceberg lettuce salads, freezer-case veggie patties, big-chain pizza and, especially, cheese enchilada plates (learning not to inquire about the use of lard and animal-based stocks in my Tex-Mex — I have a don’t ask-don’t tell policy on these things, which some vegetarians may not like). Asian restaurants, a couple Middle Eastern spots and the ubiquitous red-sauce Italian offered some meatless options, but mostly were uninteresting.

Faced with all that, I goofily daydreamed about moving to Austin, that hippie/hipster cliché of a city where vegetarians maybe weren’t so exotic.

But there were glimmers.

Back in 1998, the first place I got excited about was Reata. Its ultra-Texan ranchy decor — leather saddles, animal heads, cowhide — tested my self-righteousness and squeamishness and probably made me instantly more tolerant and Fort Worth-ready. And the meatless things on the menu showed that cowboy cuisine and vegetarianism weren’t hopelessly in opposition.

I was already a fan of one dish: Before I even moved here, during a lunchtime job interview, I’d ordered the jalapeño-cilantro soup, which made me perspire like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. (Didn’t get the job. Adored the soup.)

But the real knockout was the vegetable plate, a far cry from everyone else’s, which were mostly the kind of deal where you pick three or four “sides” from an anemic list of indifferently prepared vegetables. This was a Texas-sized expanse that was hard to lift: polenta, sweet potato, asparagus, zucchini, portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, all beautifully grilled or roasted, with some kind of cream drizzle and rice and beans, if memory serves. As a Texan, I like comfort food, generous portions and big flavors. Score.

At around the same time, there was a buzz in my office about Hot Damn, Tamales! It wasn’t a restaurant yet — just a market counter — but it offered one of the first things that we might have called “artisanal,” if we’d been that pretentious back then: tamales with gourmet, and maybe healthier, ingredients, although there’s always been a handmade art to real tamales and plenty of small-batch artisanal makers, too, known as grandmothers. But tamales were always made with things like pork stock and lard. Hot Damn’s were wonderful, meat-free concoctions like goat cheese and wild mushrooms, or the vegan poblano-corn. A wonderful, traditional food that I thought I’d never enjoy again opened up for me.

Central Market arrived in 2001, both as a response to and an accelerator of Fort Worth’s foodie growth. The next year, Amy McNutt opened a vegan restaurant, Spiral Diner, in the Fort Worth Rail Market downtown, to general amazement.

“I was really young and stupid when I did it,” McNutt says, though people embraced the idea fairly quickly.

“Everybody came out of the woodwork,” she says of her early customers. “But since it was an open-air market, some people walked by who were totally confused, and we’d get funny comments. I remember one lady who said, ‘I don’t want no vegetation burger.’ People were super-baffled. But we had people who ate there every single day, people who ate there twice a day.”

Two years later, she expanded to a full restaurant on Magnolia Avenue on the near south side, and eventually opened a second location in Dallas. Today, Spiral is a comfortable, welcoming place with an enormous menu that smartly reworks classic diner favorites, including salads, sandwiches and wraps; homey “hot plates” for dinner; shakes, smoothies and desserts; and pancakes and “scrambles” for Sunday brunch. It’s like Denny’s went all hippie.

And also in 2002, Café Modern opened in one of the most stunning restaurant spaces in town, overlooking the reflecting pool at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. It made me so happy that at this showcase restaurant with distinguished architecture and national attention, chef Dena Peterson had vegetarian dishes on every section of the menu, and often highlighted produce and cheese from local farms. It was from her that I first heard of Scott Farms in Cisco, and the goat cheese from Latte Da Dairy in Flower Mound (I could have made similar discoveries at Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, which opened in 2001 and was also doing farm-to-table).

In full bloom

Then, around 2005 or 2006, it seemed, Fort Worth’s serious food scene began to really expand, as food became a national obsession. Maybe it was Top Chef, which premiered that year, and all the other food TV. But in quick succession we got Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana, Nonna Tata, Lili’s Bistro, Love Shack and more in a tidal wave of restaurant openings that continues today.

You can see the boom most vividly by taking a walk down Magnolia Avenue. Little besides Tex-Mex shrine Benito’s and the Egyptian restaurant King Tut (both veggie-friendly) remain from the strip I knew when I lived in the Fairmount neighborhood in 2000.

Now, from one end of Magnolia to the other, it’s pretty much veggie paradise.

• There’s Ellerbe Fine Foods, where nationally recognized chef Molly McCook is a former vegetarian herself and makes dishes like the fusilli with assorted summer vegetables, wilted greens, chevre, herbed breadcrumbs and Texas pecan and spring onion pistou.

• Nonna Tata features Italian owner/cook Donatella Trotti and her handmade gnocchi and pasta specials like the delicate butternut squash tortellini.

• Next door to Spiral Diner is Lili’s Bistro, where chef Vance Martin does what he calls unpretentious global cuisine and the menu includes six (six!) vegetarian entrees.

• Magnolia Cheese Company, in addition to excellent cheese plates and sandwiches, has a quinoa and a hummus du jour.

• Mijo’s Fusion is a wacky mashup of global flavors where vegetarians can get a noodle bowl or chile poblano braised tofu.

• Dallas import Cane Rosso features six meatless pizzas, and an app starring house-made burrata.

• And near Magnolia’s intersection with Hemphill, there’s a trio of veggie-friendly places: sushi standout Shinjuku Station, Thai restaurant Spice and Hot Damn, Tamales!, which now offers much more than its 15 varieties of tamales.

“We’re so busy now,” says Spiral Diner’s McNutt, a key Magnolia Avenue pioneer, “and that shows you how much things have changed. Our first few years were challenging, but now there’s a wait for lunch, a wait for dinner, we’re pretty much at capacity all the time. We don’t have to explain it to anybody anymore.”

When I asked Kari Crowe Seher, the owner of the delightful new Rosedale Avenue ice cream shop Melt, about her vegan flavor, she said she felt she had to offer one because of her location near Magnolia. It was a little startling to hear her matter-of-factly reference what she called the “south-side vegan culture.” It is getting really Austin down there.

But a meatless diner could take a similar odyssey around the glitzier precincts of the West Seventh corridor, where, to name just one great spot, the blackboard specials at Fireside Pies — as I’m writing — include five seasonal vegetarian dishes, including chilled quinoa salad with spring green vegetables and a pan-fried gnocchi with English pea puree and pea tendrils. The burrata-and-pesto pizza is out of this world, too.

You say taco, I say …

It’s not always high-end or even sit-down restaurants for me. My daily life changed when Fuzzy’s and Yucatan Taco Stand arrived with decent and very affordable veggie tacos. Now, vegetarians can be part of the taco tsunami at Revolver Taco Lounge, with its fancy huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffle) or calabacitas (squash) versions; Torchy’s; Salsa Limon; and Velvet Taco (though its vegetarian and vegan choices, filled with tabbouleh or falafel or fried paneer, make me miss having Mexican flavors inside my tortilla).

Vegetarians also can sometimes participate in that other street food craze, food trucks. Sauzy’s is worth chasing down at Clearfork Food Park or Fort Worth Food Park for its delish beet burger. Best of all is the pioneering Good Karma Kitchen, which frequently brings its rotating menu of all-vegetarian and gluten-free dishes — including a glorious vegetarian chili — to Clearfork Food Park on South University.

Good Karma Kitchen co-owners Megan Topham and chef Christina MacMicken say the response has been strong, and that they’ve been surprised that their sales have been competitive with meat-based trucks. “We’ve had meat eaters say our truck is the best food they have ever had without even realizing we are vegetarian,” MacMicken says.

“We don’t necessarily think that vegetarianism is growing, but rather that people are becoming more educated on healthy, balanced diets and nutrient-dense foods, and are incorporating plant-based meals daily.”

What Love’s got to do with it

I love the pure vegetarian and vegan spots. But maybe the greatest pleasure in eating vegetarian in Fort Worth is doing it in macho, Texas-cuisine places, echoing my first feelings at Reata. I know not every vegetarian or vegan will agree, but I take subversive pleasure in settling in under all the mounted longhorns and digging into a great beet dish.

A short mosey from the ruins of the old Swift and Co. meat-packing plant, Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove Western Bistro makes an absolutely killer chile relleno with sweet potato and caramelized onion, served on black bean emulsion and corn puree (Jon Bonnell has a great one, too, filled with grilled vegetables and Texas cheeses). Add Lonesome Dove’s beet home fries with goat cheese and chiles, and a jalapeño-cucumber margarita, and you feel you’ve had a great meal with produce treated right. It’s fun to find these little pockets of meatless excellence amid all the cocoa-rubbed tenderloins and the lamb saddles (whatever those are). I still think about those achiote-seared chickpeas with goat cheese at the much-missed Lambert’s.

For some vegetarian diners, Love’s Woodshed Smokehouse may present even more of a, let’s say, cultural challenge (one online commenter said it was so “paleo” you can practically hear the beating of drums as your meat platters are served). The place has an “animal of the day,” which you might glimpse turning on a spit in the kitchen through the window by the hostess stand. Most restaurants don’t want you to think about — or, especially, see — where the meat is coming from. For vegetarians, walking into Woodshed can create an emotional state that reminds me of that Francis Bacon painting Figure With Meat ( just Google it).

At Woodshed, there’s a certain fragrance in the air, as all manner of animals get roasted or grilled (out of sight, to be clear) over wood fires made with mesquite, hickory, oak or pecan.

Once, when Love stopped by our table there, I gave him a little vegetarian ribbing, and he seemed to bristle slightly. He told me he loves vegetable dishes. And like many high-end chefs do these days, he treats them well.

You’ll need to make a meal of starters like smoked olives or nuts, salads and “simple plates” that star one vegetable. But those vegetables can be incredible, as with the whole roasted cauliflower with lemon and chiles, or the acorn squash glazed with Tuaca — both of which have rotated off the seasonal menu.

Bring on the burgers

When it comes to restaurant names, it doesn’t get much more Cowtown-y than DFW.com Burger Battle champion Rodeo Goat. Which brings me to veggie burgers, a category where you can really see the recent rapid evolution of vegetarian dining.

In my first two decades of meatless dining out, I ate a stupid quantity of frozen veggie discs that I now wouldn’t go near. A decade or so ago, I ranked Fort Worth’s veggie burgers for the Star-Telegram, and at the time, the patty at Tommy’s came out on top. But since then, the veggie burger has undergone a major evolution — a sort of microcosm of the scene itself. Back then, I was just looking to replicate the burgers of my childhood, when I still ate meat (read: Whataburger). A veggie burger represented a longing for the comfort of old flavors, a vehicle for mustard, pickles, onions, jalapeños — the mouthfeel of a burger and all that familiar savory goodness.

At restaurants that want to play in the burger wars, hockey pucks are no longer acceptable. At places like the Twisted Root chain, Sundown at Granada and Hopdoddy in Dallas, LSA Burger in Denton, even the Bearded Lady bar on Magnolia, house-made patties of grains, beans, vegetables and sometimes dairy are de rigueur. (They often taste pretty good; the texture, however, still defeats many cooks, and diners. You too often have to resort to a fork.) And even restaurants that aren’t known for burgers are doing terrific veggie patties. At the West Coast seafood restaurant Pacific Table, a veggie burger made with sushi rice and a pineapple glaze proved so popular as a special that it moved to the regular menu.

In fact, the market has so matured that Rodeo Goat has added a choice of two house-made veggie burgers, the Neil Young, a vegetable concoction, or the Redheaded Stranger, made from red and brown quinoa.

More signs that make me happy: Wine and beer dinners were a world I felt left out of until, well, pretty much right this second. Grace, a restaurant that I’d never considered great for meatless dining, especially at its high price point, is having a vegetarian wine dinner in August. Just this month, Dena Peterson at Café Modern had a vegetarian wine dinner scheduled on the day after Libertine Bar in Dallas threw a vegan beer dinner.

And Lanny Lancarte Jr. announced late last week that on Saturday, he’s closing Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana after nine years and replacing it with a healthy-cuisine restaurant called Righteous Foods. The menu has not been released, but it seems likely that this will be very welcoming to vegetarians (as was Lanny’s — I still remember the fabulous beet risotto I had at my first dinner there).

The fact that I have to pay attention every day to keep up with major foodie news like this makes me very, very happy. And very, very full.

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