STORY AND PHOTOS BY Pete Dulin
In a city with exceedingly good barbecue, some find it difficult to discover palate-pleasing vegetarian dishes. Uninformed critics bemoan the meat-centric restaurant options, but our city is actually home to diverse and sophisticated vegan and vegetarian fare worth exploring.
“Blue Bird Bistro, Café Sebastienne, Eden Alley and FüD are the staples for the vegetarian community,” says Michelle Worrall Tilton, who has been a vegetarian for 30 years. Tilton and her parents began eating vegetarian after learning her father had high blood pressure and cholesterol. “He reversed it in a short period of time,” she says. “My parents are in their 80s and in excellent health.”
“The best vegetarian meal I ever had in Kansas City was a spaghetti squash ‘pasta’ with tomato sauce at Café Sebastienne. I love the jackfruit tacos at FüD and veggie burger at Blue Bird Bistro,” Tilton says.
FüD (813 W. 17th St.), operated by vegan owner Heidi VanPelt-Belle, serves vegan dishes with local and organic ingredients when possible. VanPelt-Belle’s recipes are colorful and imaginative because, “I don’t want to make boring vegan food from the ’70s,” she says.
The never-boring jackfruit, a starchy, fibrous and nutritious fruit with a texture similar to chicken, has been cultivated and used in south and southeast Asian cuisine for centuries and is found on the ingredient list at FüD. VanPelt-Belle uses the fruit in a Tex-Mex burrito ($8) with organic corn, onion, peppers, cashew goji “cheddar” and cashew-based “sour cream.” The raw vegan Rainbow Taco ($6) pockets wild rice, cashew goji cheddar, cashew lemon cream, pico de gallo and guacamole in a collard green leaf. For sweet endings, shakes ($6) come in flavors such as blueberry caramel, and FüD’s soft-serve ice cream ($3–$6) is a satisfying vegan dessert treat.
Many local ethnic restaurants are vegetarian-friendly but not necessarily vegan. The lunch buffet ($10, plus tax) at Taj Palace on West 39th Street uses butter and cream in several foods, so be prepared to ask for specifics. Tasty dishes include saag paneer, vegetable pakora and samosa, lentil cracker bread and naan. Aloo gobhi, a mixture of cauliflower, potato, tomato, garlic and ginger, is utterly delicious. Chole saag, made of chickpeas with spinach, onion and garlic, or the nine-spice vegetable korma are colorful and seasoned with savory spices.
At Blue Bird Bistro (1700 Summit St.), try the grilled polenta and sautéed organic vegetables ($12) accompanied by herbed toppings and feta cheese. It also serves up a mean black bean burger ($8.50), a popular made-to-order, vegan green curry with vegetables ($12) and tempeh ($16) with Mediterranean spices, polenta and vegetable ratatouille.
Jesse Kates, guitarist and singer in power-pop band The Sexy Accident, has been vegetarian for 16 years. His energy level increased once he stopped eating meat. “I chose to become one for many reasons, opposition to factory farming, a desire to minimize my environmental footprint and the health benefits,” he says.
Kates has a slew of favorite local vegetarian dishes: braised tofu noodle soup with shiitake mushrooms ($11.50) at Blue Koi (10581 Mission Road, Leawood), the Vegetarian Heaven assortment of rolls at Friends Sushi & Bento Place (1808 W. 39th St.) and the Jaffar sandwich ($6.99), which is a wonderful conglomeration of eggplant, cauliflower, hummus, falafel, tahini, lettuce, tomato and onions at Aladdin Cafe (3903 Wyoming St.).
Blue Nile Cafe (13316 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park; 20 E. Fifth St.) prepares authentic Ethiopian fare with nearly a dozen vegetarian selections. Any entrée you order comes with two side dishes of smaller portions of other entrées. Dinich watt ($9.95) features semi-firm chunks of potato cooked with garlic in a seasoned sauce of tomato and berbere, an Ethiopian hot pepper. Yekik watt ($9.95) combines seasoned yellow split peas with ginger, turmeric and garlic. The result is rustic, earthy and soothing.
Mushroom shiro ($10.95) is a savory blend of chickpeas and sliced mushroom in a lightly spiced red sauce. And if you’re feeling spontaneous, use the injera, a soft and spongy Ethiopian bread used to scoop up the food, so you eat sans the silverware.
Emily Catherine Hadley, a vegetarian for nearly 20 years and vegan for 10, says, “Once I started to learn about the lives of animals raised for food, I quickly lost my taste for those products.” A fan of Malay Cafe in the Northland (6003 N.W. Barry Road), she raves about vegan dishes such as the curry tofu, basil tofu and laksa lemak. “The curry tofu here has a real mix of veggies, rather than disappointing with just onions and peppers,” she says. “The coconut gravy is mixed to order. Order it very mild or extra spicy.”
Roti canai ($3.95) is a flaky flatbread served with a small bowl of curried dipping sauce. Both the ginger tofu and vegetables ($11.95, dinner) and black pepper tofu ($6.95, lunch) provide generous portions.
Hadley also vouches for Lulu’s Thai Noodle Shop (2030 Central St.) as a “go-to restaurant since they recently clarified their vegetarian and vegan menu items. The Foundry (424 Westport Road) is my most frequent dining spot because of their vegan-friendly menu and staff, late hours and fantastic beer selection.”
Green Room Burgers & Beer (4010 Pennsylvania Ave.) in Westport prepares a seasonal veggie burger ($5) with aioli that is savory, slightly spicy and hearty. Dig into the spicy chipotle hummus ($5) or pico salad ($5) for reasonably priced eats.
Take a cue from in-the-know vegetarians about town. Some restaurant menus are meat-intensive, but many offer appealing options. Although there is room in the market for even more options, vegan and vegetarian dining in Kansas City is hardly a matter of survival.
SEE MORE PHOTOS HERE.