Vegan on the Road
It’s always interesting to observe how people react when I tell them I’m vegan, usually as an explanation for why I won’t eat whatever is being offered at the moment. Most often, they think I’m crazy or misguided or a hippie or just plain weird.
“I could never be a vegan,” was the reply I received recently. And why is that? Because you’re addicted to McDonald’s hamburgers? Because you don’t like vegetables and you think tofu is disgusting? Because your significant other would leave you and your friends would try to enroll you in a 12-step program? Actually, none of the above.
“Think of all that chopping,” he said, sadly shaking his head.
Chopping? That must be some other vegan you’re talking about. I don’t do any chopping unless you count the occasional onion or slicing up a brick of tofu. Oh, all right, maybe a tomato and a cucumber once in a blue moon when I actually decide to make a salad.
The fact is that I work a lot of hours and I have neither the time nor the inclination to cook. My wife and I also travel whenever we can. I rely on a lot of convenience foods, such as the aforementioned brick of tofu, garbanzo beans in a can, soy “deli slices” for sandwiches, Boca burgers and Gardein’s frozen “fishless filets.” Olives out of a jar. Athenos roasted garlic hummus (one of my fave craves). Potatoes that I can slit and throw in the microwave to bake while I’m taking a shower. Fresh fruit that I can toss in my lunch bag. Trader Joe’s vegan “cream cheese” (read a nice review of this product here) for my toast. Almond milk for my cup of tea.
Chopping is not my problem. Eating out is.
Being a vegan on the go can be quite a challenge. Over time, you might say that I’ve been schooled, mostly the hard way. Like the time we arrived on Whidbey Island in Washington State late in the evening and found no restaurant open but a couple of fast food drive-thrus. On that occasion, I managed to run into Safeway just before they closed to pick up a baguette and a tub of hummus. Or the time at a hotel in Phoenix when I had to borrow a can opener from the front desk so I could settle for a can of spinach for my dinner.
The most important lesson I’ve learned about eating vegan on the road is to take nothing for granted. Plan what you’re going to eat in advance and bring it with you. If you get lucky and find plenty of delectable vegan eats where e’er you roam, you can spend lots of money eating out like everyone else and just ignore your stash from home. (Don’t tell my wife I said that.)
You can’t go wrong by packing bread or tortillas, peanut butter and jelly, hummus, canned veggies and fruit. Granted, that kind of diet can get pretty boring after a while, but it’s worth the peace of mind to know that you’re not going to be stuck making a meal out of a bag of potato chips and a soda from a gas station (been there, done that).
Even if you should find yourself in a city or town that has a vegan restaurant, unfortunately you are not guaranteed a garden of earthly delights. After some less than positive experiences with a few vegan restaurants that shall remain nameless here, I am always glad to know that, as a fallback, I can make myself a sandwich.
That said, I will admit that, when traveling, I do everything in my power to eat at “normal” restaurants (yes, even chain restaurants) and find something vegan on the menu or that the cook is willing to prepare for me. I may end up paying a lot of money for a plate of steamed vegetables and a baked potato, but it’s worth it if that allows me to sit across from my wife while she has her bacon and toast or her patty melt. It’s really more about the company than the food, don’t you think?
Now that it’s Labor Day weekend, I can look back at the summer and say that my vegan luck on the road has been very good indeed. I highly recommend PETA’s guide to eating vegan at chain restaurants (thanks to my wife for finding this). That’s where I learned that I can enjoy a vegan meal at Olive Garden by ordering pasta with the kids’ tomato sauce, salad and breadsticks. It’s also where I learned that Del Taco’s bean burritos are vegan if you hold the cheese, sour cream and rice.
While playing at a Scrabble tournament at a resort hotel in July, we discovered a Johnny Rocket’s on the premises and found out that they serve a dish called the Streamliner, which is none other than my tried and true Boca burger. (Here in Sacramento, I often enjoy the same thing at Red Robin or at Brookfields.) We visited Johnny Rocket’s twice during the tournament, and both times I had a delightful meal by adding avocado and all the fixings to my Boca. We also enjoyed the oldies music and were entertained by the staff performing renditions of 1950s dances in the aisles.
Shake, rattle and roll at Johnny Rocket’s
Then we visited Chili’s, where I ordered the citrus salad without the chicken and had the balsamic dressing. Topped off with chips, salsa and guacamole, a vegan meal worked out just fine.
Our next outing was to Texas Roadhouse, which is unfortunately known for those dead pieces of flesh in the display case out front (I’m pretty sure I heard someone call them “steaks”). To my pleasant surprise, they have a country vegetable platter that features four items of one’s choice. Not wanting quite so much food, I settled for a baked potato and the steamed veggies. I never heard of steamed vegetables being prepared with butter, but this place does! Fortunately, I checked first, and they had no problem preparing them without for me. Just like at Johnny Rocket’s, we enjoyed the staff’s performances, which at Texas Roadhouse involves country music, line dancing and many choruses of “Yeehaw!”
On my wife’s birthday, we took her out to Farrell’s ice cream parlor, where I discovered that even in this bastion of dairy, there is a vegetarian sandwich made out of a grilled Portabella mushroom. My guess is that this was not strictly vegan (particularly since it contained pesto), but it was excellent! For dessert, I sampled two of their nondairy sorbets, lemon (not bad) and mango (incredible!).
I must say that Farrell’s made me feel like a kid again. From the candy shop in the front of the store to the staff (oops, “cast members”) who bang on drums, play ukuleles, crack jokes, dance and sing humorous renditions of old-timey songs in honor of birthdays, anniversaries and, well, probably just because they feel like it, Farrell’s put a big smile on my face.
Vegans need no longer fear traveling, be it cross country or just around town. It is indeed possible to enjoy the ubiquitous chain restaurants with friends and family and still have some good food that is vegan or a reasonable approximation thereof.