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Washington's 30 essential vegetarian eats photo
(Eatonville; Jason Berger/The Washington Post)

Washington's 30 essential vegetarian eats

Lavanya Ramanathan  |  Updated 01/24/2013

We called on readers again to point us to their favorite dishes, this time with one major (dietary) restriction: We were going meat-free. An avalanche of vegan and vegetarian suggestions poured forth via e-mail, on Facebook and Twitter, and via the blog. It turns out, this is what we actually eat: Brownies. Thick, carb-loaded sandwiches. Pizza. Pho. Tacos. Deep-fried cheese. See these and dozens of other indulgences that drew readers' raves, below, and be sure to check out the photo gallery, with a photo of each dish. See our staff favorites here.



Washington, DC

Essential dish: Tacos de hongos

Oyamel's hearty mushroom tacos could easily rank among the city's best tacos, veggie or otherwise, thanks to the house-made tortillas and the bright, peppery sofrito. The real secret, however, isn't what happens in the kitchen, but in a field in Maryland, where Oyamel's dedicated forager digs up the mushrooms that grace these tacos. Black trumpet, chicken of the woods, cremini - the varieties that turn up in the tortillas depend entirely on what's growing in the countryside. It's enough to make you want to skip the crema and eat these in their simplest (vegan) form. Andrea Cimino of North Bethesda, who nominated the tacos, prefers them with creamy avocado. "The combination of mushrooms and guacamole," she wrote, "makes it the ultimate vegan umami experience."

$4 each


Tandoori Nights

Bethesda , MD

Essential dish: Pani poori

The most satisfying thing about the northern Indian street food pani poori is the ritual: The crispy puffs arrive stuffed with spiced potato and chickpeas, but then it's up to diners to fill them with brackish, sour pani -- water --- moments before crunching into them in a single, explosive bite that's tart, spicy and sweet all at once. Eating the pani poori at Tandoori Nights, wrote Susmita Dubey of Chevy Chase, "made me nostalgic." The secret is the restaurant's pani, which is infused with fresh raw mango, tamarind and ginger rather than dried spices, says Tandoori Nights manager Shivani Miglani. You can thank Miglani's mother, Veena Kohli, who developed the vegan recipe for the Maryland restaurant.



The Sweet Lobby

Washington, DC

Essential dish: Vegan carrot cupcake

A stylish sliver of a bakery, the Sweet Lobby opened on Capitol Hill in 2011 without much fanfare -- until its founders, two MIT-educated siblings, snagged a win on the Food Network reality show "Cupcake Wars." Two vegan cakes were added to the menu this year; the carrot incarnation won a nod from reader Brian Feldman of Washington. Laced with chunks of walnut, tiny ribbons of shredded carrot and shot through with banana (which replaces the eggs), the cupcake has a hearty denseness that its eggy counterparts rarely muster. "After taking my first bite I realized I was eating the best vegan cupcake I'd ever had at a non-strictly vegan bakery," Feldman wrote. Ever the engineer, co-owner Timothy McIntosh dares readers to challenge the shop to try to replicate more of its flavors sans dairy. "Vegan peanut butter, vegan green tea . . . we could do anything," he says, "because we're that cool."

$2.75. Sold Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.


Shake Shack

Washington, DC

Essential dish: The 'Shroom Burger

"'Shroom Burger" may be a misnomer for this gooey disk of deep-fried goodness, given that the breaded, fried portobello is all but obscured by the inch-thick wedge of Muenster and cheddar within it. Is it delicious? Oh, yes. And guilt-inducing like nothing else on this list. "The piping hot mushroom oozes warm, melted cheese at first bite," wrote Leanne Omland of South Riding, who makes a habit of snagging one of these burgers when she's at Nats Park. It is, she says, "worth two days of sparse eating before and after game day."

$6.75 at the Dupont Circle location;$8 at Nationals Park.


Loving Hut

Falls Church, VA

Essential dish: Wonton noodle soup

Green swaths of Chinese broccoli and bok choy, strips of hamlike soy, tofu- and mushroom-stuffed dumplings, all swimming in a crystal-clear broth - in the winter, could there be a warm bowl of soup more appealing to a vegetarian? Loving Hut, a Vietnamese-inspired vegan restaurant in Falls Church, makes a mean banh mi and vermicelli bowl, but it's the wonton noodle soup that was nominated by Holly Sternberg of Annandale. "You get a generous serving, the broth is flavorful and the wontons are so tasty," Sternberg wrote, "that they're also featured in an appetizer: fried until crisp and served with a sweet dipping sauce. Yum."

Medium bowl, $4.95; large, $7.50.


Pete's New Haven Style Apizza

+ Multiple Locations

Essential dish:Edge of the Woods pizza

It's the mind-bogglingly crispy eggplant - thinly sliced and fried until it's potato chip-esque - and not the cheese, crust or sauce that makes this dish one of the best vegetarian pizzas around. Blissfully, the eggplant is piled high on the Edge of the Woods, offering a smoky balance to sweet caramelized onion, tart tomato sauce and grassy spinach. (Want it vegan? Pete's will happily whip up a dairy-free version by forgoing the ricotta and layering the pie with Daiya cheese.) Votes came in for several of the crispy, thin-crust, New England-style pies at Pete's, and it's no wonder there are so many veggie-friendly options: Founders Alicia Wilkinson-Mehr and Joel Mehr have a young son, "Little Pete," who is a vegetarian.

14-inch pizza, $19; 18-inch, $25.



Washington, DC

Essential dish: Pan-seared tofu at Eatonville

The striking visual appeal of this vegan meal alone inspired Jen Druliner of Washington to nominate it for this list. To make the dish, executive chef Rafael Nunez explains, he marinates tofu in teriyaki, cayenne pepper and cajun seasoning, coats it with panko and pan-fries it. Finally, the crunchy cake is plated with vegan risotto and topped with the highlight: a zesty, garlicky chimichurri sauce Nunez spikes with a touch of coconut milk. In the end, the flavor - Argentinian, Asian, Southern and Italian all at once - was unmatched on this list. Druliner likes to order hers with a side of cider-braised greens. "I have Southern meat-eating friends who are as captivated by the greens as I am," she wrote.

$12 at lunch; $14 at dinner.


Four Sisters

Falls Church, VA

Essential dish: Caramelized tofu with lemongrass

Fried tofu is glazed with sugary soy, then dotted with shards of lemongrass and red chili and cooked in a clay pot until it's sizzling at Four Sisters, the Vietnamese restaurant in Merrifield Town Center that offers a full vegetarian menu that's fish-sauce free. "It has so many different flavors in there," says co-owner Lieu Lai. "You have the sweet, the salty, the flavor of the lemongrass."



Smoke and Barrel

Washington, DC

Essential dish: Vegan wings

Order the four-piece wings at the Adams Morgan restaurant Smoke and Barrel and your server will smile and tell you that they almost trump the real thing. Made with seitan, a spongy, protein-packed mock meat derived from wheat, the drumsticks are smoked for three hours in bourbon barrels to infuse them with the subtle scent of whiskey. When a customer orders the dish, the wings go into the fryer and get a sugar and spice rub for a crispy, complex coating. From there, diners can choose whether they want the drumsticks "dry"; "wet" with brown-sugar Memphis-style sauce, Thai chili sauce, or chipotle honey butter (it's the only sauce that isn't vegan); or "muddy," with sauce and extra rub.



Sticky Fingers Sweets and Eats

Washington, DC

Essential dish: The brownies

Readers nominated a handful of cupcakes and sandwiches at Sticky Fingers, including the chickpea-laden "tuna" melt, but the deceptively rich and cakey brownie is truly essential. "I joke that these are 'adults-only' brownies," owner Doron Petersan says of the dessert, which she tweaked for four years to arrive at a recipe that uses a hint of coffee and three forms of chocolate. The end result? A brownie you wouldn't want to share with anyone, much less the kids.



Afghan Kabob Restaurant

Springfield, VA

Essential dish: Vegetarian dish 2

Never mind the name. You can bet that even the generic "Vegetarian Dish" is far more delicious than it sounds at an Afghan restaurant that meticulously makes each piece of soft, flaky nan to order. The platter arrives, sampler-style, with eggplant, sauteed spinach and golden pumpkin. "It's the perfect mixture of sweet and spicy," wrote Sarah DiGioia of Burke. "Once you try it, you will be hooked!"



BGR: The Burger Joint

+ Multiple Locations

Essential dish: The veggie burger

Bite into this mammoth burger and, inevitably, the first note to wash over your tongue is "sweet." Jarring at first, the mix of sweet potato and oats, brioche bun and glaze of molasses that crisps up when the burger is fired is ultimately what makes this veggie burger so addictive. (It's better still when it's loaded and the acidity of tomato, onion and pickle pierce through the sweetness.) BGR owner Mark Bucher is one of the city's best-known champions of meat, thanks to the successes of BGR and his Cleveland Park restaurant Medium Rare, but for this dish, he credits his wife - a vegetarian. If you're vegan, skip the Mojo sauce and ask for it on a salad - the buns are not vegan.



Ren's Ramen

Wheaton, MD

Essential dish: Vegetable ramen

Once scarce, Washington ramen joints are proliferating, but it was Ren's, a stalwart at all of three years old, whose delicate veggie bowl garnered the nod from a reader on Facebook. Listed on the menu as "shio" (or salt-flavored) ramen, the seaweed-based vegetable bowl requires a quick substitution for it to be truly vegetarian: The salt flavor usually mixed into the broth is made with fish extract, so ask for miso flavoring instead. You won't miss a thing, not with the roasted garlic, rounds of crunchy green onion, bean sprout and thick paddy of wavy noodles, which are imported from Japan's famed Nishiyama factory.

Regular, $11; large, $13.


Masala Art

Washington, DC

Essential dish:Baingan mirch ka salan

Hyderabad, the southern Indian city channeled in Masala Art's thrilling eggplant-and-pepper curry, is notorious for its searing flavors. A bowl of this vegan dish, nominated by Martin Rundle of Washington, is swimming with as many jalapenos as thick slices of eggplant. There is one reprieve from the heat: The creamy sesame sauce with hints of sweet peanut and coconut milk tempers it for Western tongues, without relying on cream or ghee (the usual staples of Indian curries).



Science Club

Washington, DC

Essential dish: The veggie burger

Most veggie burgers are the approximate color of cardboard. So it's surprising when Science Club's vegan burger arrives at your table a vibrant green, reminding you that vegetarian food can still come from vegetables. This burger, studded with black beans and carrots, is coated in a light layer of panko, pan-fried and delivered to the table crunchy and warm. Ordering it with frites seems like tampering with a good thing, particularly when the spinach salad that accompanies the burger proves an ideal, citrusy counterpoint.

$10. Frites are $3 extra.


Pedro and Vinny's burrito cart

Washington, DC

Essential dish: Burritos

For more than a decade, a hurried lunch crowd has waited in line for burritos and a show at the burrito cart Pedro and Vinny's, manned by proprietor/world's-most-efficient-burristo John Rider. Before Rider added chicken to his menu last year, the burritos came only two ways, vegan or vegetarian, and they're still the most popular options; load them up with either vegan black or pinto beans, rice, and guacamole (75 cents), cheese (50 cents) or sour cream (50 cents). The real fun, however, is picking from the homemade salsas, a half-dozen of which beckon from various colorful bottles. Do yourself a favor and pair your black beans with a hearty pour of Rider's sweet mango-habanero Goose Sauce - named for the Grey Goose vodka bottle he stashes it in.

Small (without rice), $4; medium, $5; large, $5.50.


Windy City Red Hots

+ Multiple Locations

Essential dish: Veggie red hot

Windy City Red Hots owner Angel Miranda opened in Leesburg in 2010 fully intending to serve meat - loaded Chicago-style hot dogs, Polish sausage sandwiches, Italian roast beef and sausages. But when a would-be customer asked him for a veggie dog, Miranda didn't think twice. He began offering two meat-free dogs: one that uses egg whites and another that's vegan. The best way to experience them? Chicago-style, with mustard, relish, onions, tomato, pickle, sport peppers and celery salt, on a poppy seed bun. "Windy City's veg dogs may be one of the best kept secrets in Loudoun County," wrote Sue Sedlazek of Leesburg, who keeps track of such options on the Web site Loudoun Veg. "You'd have to travel to Chicago to find a hot dog this good."



Busboys and Poets

+ Multiple Locations

Essential dish: Tempeh sandwich

Even before Busboys and Poets opened on 14th Street NW, restaurateur Andy Shallal planned to include vegan fare. Tracking down vegan ingredients for a large-volume restaurant wasn't easy when the restaurant was in the works nearly a decade ago. To make this sandwich - layered with roasted red pepper, arugula and smoky tempeh (a fermented, firm protein derived from soy) - vegan bread had to be created for the restaurant by a local baker, Shallal says. It was worth the legwork: Crunchy, sweet and peppery, the tempeh sandwich, nominated by reader Alisha Bhagat of Washington, remains one of Busboys and Poets' most irresistible and enduring dishes.



Zorba's Cafe

Washington, DC

Essential dish: Oasis salad

The lone salad on our list, nominated by Andrea Higginbotham of Washington, tops a classic Greek version - lettuce, Kalamata olives, tomato, feta cheese and a simple oil-and-vinegar dressing - with crispy falafel patties. Simple and relatively light, it's a perfect summertime indulgence. "Even though it's a salad," Higginbotham notes, "it's a full meal."



Pho 14

Washington, DC

Essential dish: Vegetarian pho

Vegetarians can find a way to tweak almost any dish until it's meat-free, but one dish perpetually stumps us: pho. The soul of any bowl of the Vietnamese staple is its broth, and broth almost without exception is made with beef bones. That's why Pho 14's vegan pho proves such a find. The rich, brown broth is surprisingly full of flavor, thanks to one ingredient that the typical vegetarian recipes never call for: Fuji apples. In lieu of meat, the soup is loaded with fried tofu and verdant broccoli and thick slices of mushroom.

Regular, $7.95 ; large, $8.95.


Elizabeth's Gone Raw

Washington, DC

Essential dish: Kale chips

"Elizabeth's kale chips are to die for," Susan Prolman of Washington wrote of the spicy, crunchy dish that kicks off every elegant meal at the once-a-week vegan raw-food restaurant Elizabeth's Gone Raw. Each week, chefs coat heaps of kale in a batter of ground cashew, jalapeno pepper, garlic, red pepper, cayenne and B12-loaded nutritional yeast (frequently used in vegan cooking to replicate the taste of cheese), then dehyrate it overnight in time for the Friday-night dinners. The kicky snack never lasts very long at the table; luckily, the restaurant also packages it to-go. NOTE: The restaurant is closed for a renovation until July 27, but bagged chips are available by phone order.

The chips are included in the fixed-price meal, $75 a person. $12 for a four-ounce bag, or $6 for a 2.5-ounce bag.


Great Sage

Clarksville, MD

Essential dish: Vegan grilled Reuben

How, you might be asking, could a sandwich without an inch of corned beef and Swiss cheese ever qualify as a Reuben? For those who miss the unforgettable mouthful of creamy, sour and crunchy that a Reuben provides, the vegan version at Great Sage fits the bill and then some. Filled with baked tempeh and a thick bed of tangy sauerkraut, the sandwich (which is paired with an incredible Dijon-laced coleslaw) won more than one nod. "Their grilled Reuben," wrote a reader of the Going Out Gurus blog, "is crazy delicious."



Sweet and Natural Bakeshop

Mount Rainier, MD

Essential dish: Raspberry thumbprint cookie

The atmosphere is joyful at this vegan bakeshop and cafe adjacent to Mount Rainier's natural-foods market the Glut. And why wouldn't it be? A bright display case shows off a dozen varieties of cupcakes, gorgeous cakes, pies and thumbprint cookies - crunchy, buttery little snacks reminiscent of shortbread. They come six to a box or as one giant cookie. Tapioca flour is a surprise on the short list of ingredients, which also includes vegan butter, fruit and lemon zest. But the real treat is the center of the cookie, a pocket of fresh raspberry jam - or blueberry, apricot or peanut butter and jelly. If you go, don't leave without some soft-serve ice cream or the fluffy sweet potato off the hot bar.

$4.50 for a package of six small thumbprints; $2 for the big cookie.


Galaxy Hut

Arlington, VA

Essential dish: Vegetarian steak and cheese

Every item on the tot-and-burger-filled menu at Clarendon's rocker watering hole can be prepared vegetarian - even the BLTs and bowls of chili-mac. But it is the greasy, could-have-come-from-Philly veggie cheesesteak that reader Suzie Lemieux calls "one of my favorite meals. With a great beer, of course." To make it, seitan is tossed onto a griddle with onions, peppers and a garlic-herb sauce. The mixture is then topped with American cheese and pretty much "shoved into a sub roll," says the bar's owner, Lary Hoffman. If that's still too dainty, you can add veggie bacon for a dollar more. (Update: Galaxy Hut adopted a fully vegan and vegetarian menu in Nov. 2012.)



Mark's Kitchen

Takoma Park, MD

Essential dish: Spinach tofucakes

The very thought of the vegan "tofucakes" at Mark's Kitchen - made with tofu and a mix of vegetables including spinach and red pepper - first struck Susan Miller of Takoma Park as "bland and austere." What arrived at her table, she wrote, "was an incredibly complex and artful tower of greens dressed with raspberry soy sauce over spinach tofucakes made with shiitakes. . . . It would please (and fill) anyone." One of the specialties of the Takoma Park Korean American restaurant, the patties come two ways. The dinner portion arrives vegan and surrounded by vegetables; at brunch, they're accompanied by eggs and an English muffin.

Breakfast, $7.95; dinner, $8.95.



Washington, DC

Essential dish: Vegetarian sampler II

Of the seven vegan dishes generously piled onto spongy injera for this dish at Ethiopic, a few are surprises, and none more so than the fosolia, a stir-fry of string beans and carrots that rarely appears on vegetarian spreads at Ethiopian restaurants in this area. It's among the reasons the platter won a nod from Martin Rundle of Washington. The fosolia, explains owner Meseret Bekele, is a family recipe that involves caramelizing the beans. She attributes the popularity of many of the dishes on the plate, including the fiery gomen (lentils in traditional berbere seasoning), to their traditional preparation.

$27 at lunch; $35 at dinner. (Serves 2-3).


Julia's Empanadas

+ Multiple Locations

Essential dish: Vegetarian empanadas

Julia's quietly vegan-ized its savory vegetarian empanada (nominated via Twitter by Ruth Neustifter of Takoma Park) in late 2011 by eliminating the egg wash. Among the best is a butternut-squash-based dough with a spicy mix of broccoli, sweet potatoes, onions and cabbage, but options change each week, giving regulars reason to return again and again. Doused with the restaurant's blistering green salsa, it's the perfect portable dish for lunch or late-night eating. "Each empanada is beautifully handmade, with a different flourish to the crust," Neustifter wrote. "So even though they're inexpensive, they feel like a treat."



Sunflower Vegetarian

+ Multiple Locations

Essential dish: General Tso's Surprise/General Tso's Magic

Missing the crunchy-sweet kick of carryout Chinese? "The General Tso's Surprise is a nice approximation of General Tso's Chicken," a reader of the Going Out Gurus blog told us. When it arrives at your table, it's a dead ringer for the real thing. The restaurant offers two versions of the dish: the "surprise," which is vegetarian, and the "magic," which is vegan. Both are served with a helping of broccoli and carrots.

Surprise, $12; Magic, $12.50.


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