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Vegan Dining Tips for Eating Out at Any Restaurant
Eating out vegan
I've found, as a vegan (someone who doesn't eat any animal products), it isn't always easy to eat out, especially with friends or family. But for me, a self-described foodie, abstaining from restaurants entirely is not an option. Luckily, I've finally picked up some vegan savvy, and it's become easier and easier to dine out.
This is generally meant for people who are looking for more variety in their cuisine, but I hope that most vegan and vegetarian (and omnivorous and carnivorous) readers will find this helpful - or at least interesting.
Comments and feedback are greatly appreciated, and I hope you enjoy!
Tips for vegans dining out
First, a few tips for restaurants in general.
1.) There's almost always something. Even at a steakhouse or a dim-sum restaurant. Even if nothing is vegan to begin with, some dishes are easy to vegan-ize, and most restaurants are perfectly willing to put less ingredients on the dish if you ask nicely. Some restaurants are easier than others, though, and I'll cover in far more detail where to go and what to order specifically later
2.) Start your order with, "I'm vegan, so I don't eat any animal products, including milk, eggs, and butter." This generally makes it much easier for the waiter to understand what your problem is, instead of thinking you have a dairy or egg allergy during your order.
If you are traveling in a place where most people don't speak your native language, consider buying a vegan passport, something that states your veganism in most of the world's languages. Or just learn the phrase for, "I don't eat animal products, including milk, eggs, and butter. Thank you," in the language you'll be communicating with.
3.) Be very, very polite. I've discovered that this is an important one. It's already difficult for waiters and chefs to juggle orders in crowded restaurants, and special orders can really be a pain. Be patient and explain your veganism clearly and choose dishes that aren't nearly impossible to make vegan. Also, consider leaving a nice tip and spreading some nice rep for us vegans!
4.) Embrace technology. There are apps and websites all over, developed by a great community of vegans and vegetarians online. Most famous is happycow.net , which is basically a Yelp for vegans and vegetarians. Other good options include vegdining.com and the iLocate app for vegans.
Restaurants that are vegan-friendly
By vegan-friendly, I don't mean they have some dishes that are vegan or easily veganized. Most restaurants have at least something. What I mean is that they have have a large variety of choices and dishes that are high in deliciousness. Sorry, wilted salads don't make it on this list.
Restaurants that focus on cultures that are traditionally vegan-friendly (ex. Indian) will of course have more options, but some places on this list are a bit of a surprise, at least to me. If any readers have had good experiences with other kinds of restaurants, please feel free to share in the comments. This is a live hub, so I continue to update as I gain more experience as a vegan.
Now without further ado, the list!
Friendly restaurant list (In no particular order)
1.) Indian. Seeing as Indian culture that has been influenced by strict vegans like the Jains, it's no mystery why Indian cuisine is quite vegan-friendly. Two common foods that are not vegan are ghee (a kind of butter) and paneer (cheese, not tofu, though it looks a lot like tofu).
Ask when you order naan or roti (types of bread) to see if the restaurant uses ghee. Besides that, most vegetable curries and vegetable samosas are vegan, and almost all of the mixed vegetable dishes are vegan. Many Indian restaurants mark their vegan dishes, and the waiters and kitchen are often fairly used to taking vegan orders.
2.) Korean. I never knew that Korean food was so vegan-friendly until I went to a Korean restaurant expecting to only eat their vegetable appetizers. Some Korean restaurants offer a complementary selection of appetizers (banchan), most of which are vegan. However, if you're unfamiliar with Korean food, bear in mind that sometimes they have meat that doesn't really look like meat.
Korean cuisine is famous for bulgogi (marinated chicken, pork, or beef), but it also has a wide variety of easily veganized dishes. The tofu, soup, and noodle dishes give an incredible variety of choices. Just bear in mind the top three tips and add that you'd like your dish cooked with water (You can ask for vegetable stock, but the kitchen is more likely to be irritated), instead of chicken or beef broth. For everyday Korean dishes, I found this great blog by vegan Koreans who share recipes and stories called The Vegan 8 Korean. I'm not paid for this link; I just think it's great. Check it out!
Thai Pineapple Rice
3.) Thai. Thai food has a large variety of vegan or easily veganized dishes, making it one of the most vegan-friendly categories of restaurants on my current list. My favorites include Thai curry and vegetable stir-fry, though be sure to ask that they use a vegan oil. Besides those, there are the always easily veganized noodle and tofu soup dishes.
The coolest things Thai food has for vegans, in my humble opinion, are their coconut milk soups. If you're a vegan who likes cream, Thai coconut cuisine includes the flavors many vegans miss out on. Also, if you like to cook, don't forget to cook some vegan milk dishes at home! People say they aren't healthy, but hey! You've got to live life!
4.) Italian. Italian restaurants are so common here in the States that I view them as default restaurants. Many of the classic Italian dishes, like pasta and pizza, are easily veganized. I was never a cheese fan, though, so judge for yourself whether you miss the dairy. Use tips 1-3 and simply request to not have cheese on your pasta or pizza, which usually isn't a problem. Also, bread with olive oil is just a nice appetizer.
5.) Mexican. Mexican food is a great option for vegans. I've always loved Mexican food, so I was happy to dig around in the menus and search for some vegan dishes. Generally, if you request no meat and no cheese, most dishes are quickly veganized.
Be careful when ordering refried beans, as much of the time they are cooked in lard. If you can give those up, I'd suggest just going with black beans. With beans, avocado, tortillas, salsa, chile verde, and other delicious vegan ingredients, there shouldn't be much of a problem finding something to order.
6.) Actual vegetarian/vegan restaurants. I live in the Bay Area, so we have many of these, but many major cities and now even smaller ones have developed some. Personally, though it is nice to have to freedom to order anything on the menu without asking questions, I've found that these restaurants focus more on health than on deliciousness, which is a bit of a conflict in priorities for me.
Restaurants that can be difficult
Some restaurants are not quite so vegan-friendly, though many on this list would be fine for vegetarians. Most of these restaurants have dishes that are vegan or easily veganized, but I've found that, in my experience, they don't have large selections of delicious dishes that can be effortlessly ordered.
I would recommend going to these only if you need to, unless you really enjoy some of the dishes available. However, I'm relatively new to veganism and will keep this list updated as I learn more. Additional suggestions are very much welcomed in the comments section!
McDonald's and Vegans?
Not-so-friendly restaurant list (no particular order)
1.) American fast food. Call me unAmerican, but I just don't like American fast food generally. However, occasionally I'm stuck somewhere or have a rare desire to eat junk, and fast food stops like McDonalds or Burger King are ubiquitous throughout much of the United States.
Most big chains cook their fries in vegetable oils, and McDonald's famous hash browns are vegan. Besides that, some of the big chains are aiming to get healthier with salad and fruit options, so if you just need to grab something, look for those.
2.) Japanese. I don't know about anyone else, but I was surprised to find Japanese restaurants so difficult. Well, not difficult so much as limited. I never realized before ordering as a vegan how much fish the Japanese eat. It's in everything, from the sushi to the appetizers to even the crackers. They also use bonito (fish) in many of their soups and other dishes.
The best things I've found to eat are tofu dishes and vegan sushi rolls, and noodle dishes are also a good choice as long as you ask whether there is bonito. There is a fantastic blog for vegan Japanese cuisine called Tokyo Vegetarian Guide, which is full of great information about specific Japanese vegan dishes.
3.) Southern United States cuisine. Sorry, Southerners. I haven't found much to eat besides salads on the menus of Southern restaurants. Things like chili and gumbo usually include meat, and the things that don't include meat include butter.
Please keep in mind that I only mean in restaurants, and it's perfectly possible to cook traditional Southern dishes vegan-style. Here's a link to some great Southern recipes from the Vegetarian Times, though please bear in mind not of all of those are vegan.
If any readers know of dishes that vegans can order from Southern restaurants without almost creating a new dish, please leave it in the comments!
4.) Steakhouses. Steakhouses actually aren't all that difficult, but I included them because they're often used as examples of Not-so-friendly restaurants. In fact, though not the best place for a vegan, dishes like baked potatoes and vegetable medleys are easily veganized. Plus, most waiters at steakhouses in America speak English, so orders are far easier to place than at, for example, a Chinese or Korean restaurant. Keep your eyes open for dishes like sautéed mushrooms, grilled artichoke, and steamed asparagus.
5.) Seafood restaurants. This is not really a good place for vegans. Many dishes include seafood (fair enough), and staples like clam chowder include cream. However, you don't need to starve! Many seafood restaurants also have a small pasta or pizza section, and those can be easily veganized as mentioned in the Italian section in Part 1. Salads are of course a default option.
6.) Chinese. Chinese restaurants have a lot of dishes that would be good for vegetarians (tofu, soups, noodles, stir-fry), but I put them on the NSF list for a couple of reasons.
First, legitimate Chinese restaurants, not Panda Express or P. F. Chang's, often don't have waiters fluent in English nor well-translated menus. This can make it a little difficult to get an order clear. Second, the waiters are also often good-naturedly rude and impatient, especially at a good dim-sum place, so it can be difficult to order something unavailable on the menu.
Avoid all meat dishes. This may seem obvious, but it can be more difficult than it sounds. For example, beef dish's colloquial name might translate to something like "Husband and Wife's Lawn". But if you speak Mandarin or Cantonese, or if you were blessed with the virtue of patience, many dishes can be veganized.
I recommend just requesting water in dishes that require soup, like tofu or noodles, as if you request vegetable broth you may just get a "Sure, sure," nod and then be served chicken broth. However, if you are willing to go through the hassle, you might just end up with a delicious vegan dish. Best of luck!
If you love food, of course I recommend exploring restaurants - just be prepared and avoid causing migraine for the staff and kitchen. People have lives to live and jobs to perform, so try not to be that customer who creates an entirely new dish for the kitchen to make. Do your best to order off the menu and choose an item that is easily veganized.
Enjoy exploring and eating! (Mmm. Grabbing these pictures has made me hungry...)