As a vegetarian, I can’t really get into one of Texas’ big culinary experiences: great pit barbecue and that unmistakable smell of fine, slow-roasted meats.
The nearest sensory analog for me is probably Hatch green chile season, when a few places I frequent ( Central Market, Whole Foods, Fred’s Texas Cafe) will set up those spinning metal roasting cages and perfume the air with the scent of my favorite kind of burning flesh.
Hatch green chiles have a spiciness that burns in a particular way (if you get a medium or hot batch), and subtle citrusy notes that make them taste like nothing else. And my husband has a far West Texas-New Mexico background, meaning that every August and September, our life becomes an extended Hatch chile safari.
Which brings me to a gripe. Although dining out in Fort Worth has become easier for vegetarians, Hatch chile season in our restaurants is one of those times when I feel left out, and a bit grumpy.
And why? It can’t be hard to create a vegetarian dish using the fresh chiles. I’m no great cook, and I manage to do it every year with peppers purchased from Central Market or Whole Foods. And I’ve had many great meatless plates in New Mexico, at least in the touristy cities.
It’s understandable that restaurants wouldn’t give a thought to vegetarians when they’re throwing, say, a pork chop festival, but there’s no reason we should feel forgotten during a fest that celebrates a green vegetable — or the fruit, to be exact, of a Capsicum annuum plant.
Blue Mesa Grill, which started its 18th annual festival this week and keeps it going through September, does the best job. It’s the only place I know where a vegetarian can get a multicourse meal of Hatch specials, though you have to ask for a substitution on your entree.
The special appetizer this year is asadero bites, Hatch-chile wrapped cheese morsels, battered and fried, served with two vegetarian dipping sauces: a salsa verde and a sweet red chile sauce.
Among four special entrees, only the Hatch chile relleno plate — a choice of three kinds of rellenos that also come with two sauces — can be made vegetarian. Choose two cheese-stuffed (the other options are shrimp and smoked chicken) and ask your server to hold the pozole sauce and top the whole thing with the other sauce, a vegetarian three-chile, suggests Blue Mesa co-owner Liz Baron. “Just order, ‘no pozole, red chile sauce only,’ ” she says. “Other than that, everything on the plate is vegetarian — the rice, black beans and sweet corn cake.”
For dessert, the Hatch brownie sundae is vegetarian, but vegans are out of luck with this whole menu.
The other big player in Hatch chile season, Chuy’s ( whose festival is Aug. 18-Sept. 7), is more disappointing for vegetarians, though this is the 26th festival, and its managers travel to Hatch to oversee the harvest of 1.5 million pounds of chiles for their restaurants.
My carnivorous dining companion will want to come more than once, for some of the seven (!) meaty entrees in the festival, including Green Chile BBQ Chicken Tacos, Frito Pie Enchiladas and Elvis’s Fried Chicken Salad. But the only option for vegetarians here is to order a side dish of fresh chiles (this is easy, even encouraged) and add them to one of the regular veggie items.
Well, there’s also the New Mexican martini they always do, with chile-infused Jimador Blanco tequila. Vegans can at least drink well.
To their credit, both Blue Mesa and Chuy’s have for years clearly labeled vegetarian options on their menus, and they have plenty of them. For chain restaurants, both are way ahead of the pack in thinking about vegetarians, even compared with similar-sized Texas-based competitors like Gloria’s and Mi Cocina.
But Fred’s Texas Cafe, based on a chuckwagon style of cooking that’s not known for sensitivity to meatless eaters, might be my favorite place during green chile season. During a brief time, it will roast its chiles right outside (whoever answered the phone at the original Fred’s said this would take place “sometime between September and August” — don’t you just love Fred’s?). Bathing in that heavenly scent before you even walk in the door is an experience you won’t get at the bigger places.
What vegetarians have to do at Fred’s is ask for fresh Hatch chiles to be added to the portobello burger — it ups the ooze factor on an already too-moist sandwich, but so what? You were going to be using a knife and fork anyway.
Many thanks to the readers who wrote to point out that North Texas has its first all-vegetarian B&B, the Hattie May Inn, at 712 May St., Fort Worth; 817-870-1931; www.hattiemayinn.com. The owners launched hands-on cooking classes this month, with subjects including meatless barbecue and kid-friendly meals. See a schedule on the inn’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/hattiemaybedandbreakfast.