After a recent tour of Valley BBQ joints, it was time to turn the tables. Tuesday, four of us decided to check out some of the Phoenix metro area’s top-regarded vegetarian restaurants. Our goal: five restaurants in five hours.
MXSW’s fellow culinary adventurers were Gilbert restaurateur Joe Johnston (Liberty Market, Joe’s Real BBQ, Joe’s Farm Grill), Foodies Like Us co-founder Susie Timm and food-tographer Chanelle Richardson (who also was our group’s only real-life vegetarian).
Woodlands Vegetarian South Indian Kitchen
We began our quest at Woodlands, on the northeast corner of Ray and Rural roads in west Chandler. The strip-mall restaurant’s no-frills decor is utilitarian but spotless. Everything – entrees, soups, drinks — comes in Styrofoam containers. The friendly husband-and-wife owners helpfully steered us to the menu’s two dinner specials — the Grill Thali ($9.99) and the South Indian Thali ($9.99) — and an array of dishes and breads soon covered our table.
The former features iddly, a savory rice cake; vadai, a savory donut; and masala domai, a paste-stuffed crepe made from rice and lentils (all pictured at right in middle). The latter includes sambar, a tamarind-tinged vegetable stew; rasam, a tomato-based soup; dhall, a spicy lentil dish; and kootu, a thick vegetable-and-lentils dish (all four pictured at right on top); as well as papadum, a cracker-like flatbread, and chapati, an unleavened flatbread.
We sampled several of the offerings from a condiment bar — our favorite being a spicy green mint paste. For drinks, we indulged in a chickoo shake, which tasted very much like a date shake, and falooda, a unique concoction of rose syrup, ice cream, vermicelli noodles and tapioca seeds (pictured at right on bottom). Coffee and tea were included with the dinner specials.
Don’t let the atmosphere — or lack thereof — at Woodlands fool you. Everything we tried was delicious. Even the most committed carnivore could leave full and happy.
Pomegranate Indulgently Healthy Cafe
Next we zipped over to the recently opened Pomegranate Cafe, another strip-mall joint, on the southeast corner of Chandler Boulevard and 40th Street in Ahwatukee. Like Woodlands, it’s an order-at-the-counter place, but the menu is a little more raw-focused. It’s only open for breakfast and lunch.
We started with one of Pomegranate’s signature herbal elixirs, in our case the Celebration (pictured at left), New Age-ly described as “a deep Chi tonic and energy builder you can feel right away.” To be honest, it tasted more like watered-down pomegranate juice with a dash of cough syrup, but at least it came with strawberries and dark chocolate.
Things picked up considerably when our food arrived. The raw collard wrap ($10, pictured in middle) — two large leaves stuffed with carrot, tomato, avocado and a delicious house-made almond cheese — was so tasty I didn’t even bother adding the side of “living Caesar dressing,” which I’m guessing is yogurt-based.
Equally impressive was the smokey tempah BLT sandwich ($9.50, pictured on bottom). The thin, crunchy strips of tempeh, sort of a soybean cake, combine with a smoky miso mayo to produce a fair approximation of bacon. And the dried vegetable chips were bursting with flavor.
Pomegranate’s staff seemed a little overwhelmed at times — there was a Help Wanted sign in the window — but there’s no denying that the food is very good.
Green New American Vegetarian
Our third stop was Green, chef Damon Brasch‘s funky eatery on Scottsdale Road just north of McKellips Road. Its proximity to ASU helps draw a steady stream of college-age diners, but an older clientele also is well-represented. Even though we arrived well after 1 p.m., a line soon stretched out the door, attesting to Green’s popularity.
Green’s menu features many faux versions of popular comfort foods, and there’s no better example than the spicy buffalo “wings” ($5, pictured on top). I have no idea how Brasch makes these, but it’s almost unbelievable how much they taste like real chicken. And the sauce is killer.
But for all the home runs on Green’s menu, there also are some strikeouts. On this day, the latter definitely includes the daily special, a BBQ rib plate ($10, pictured in middle). The “ribs” are squares of tofu on a stick — weird tofu Popsicles — covered with fried tempura batter. The fried batter and sauce are enjoyable enough, but there’s nothing enticing about the slabs of tofu.
Green redeems itself with dessert — a Better Finger Soy-nami (pictured on bottom). The soy ice cream is delicious, as is the faux Butterfinger candy bar filling.
I would be tempted to disregard the “ribs” in the grading process since they aren’t part of Green’s regular menu, but the staff enthusiastically recommended them, so …
Just-opened Nourish, our fourth stop, isn’t strictly a vegetarian restaurant, but advertises “comfort food with a healthy twist.” Located in Optima Camelview Village (the same complex where you’ll find Josh Hebert‘s fabulous Posh) on the northwest corner of Scottsdale Road and Highland Avenue in Scottsdale, Nourish offers many vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and lactose-free options.
At this point, we’re all getting a little full. Fortunately, as we sipped organic cocktails, we noticed the menu lists a tapas plate ($7.50), which includes half-portions of any four appetizers. Chef Dan Santos even came out of the kitchen to chat with us as we sampled them. Owner Kirstin Carey also stopped by our table.
Our chosen apps (pictured above left) — in order of enjoyment, starting with the best — were a delightful salad of red and white quinoa with black beans, dried apricots and toasted almonds (normally $4); creamy lemon-artichoke hummus with garlic-sprinkled pita bread ($5); a chunky sweet potato and avocado salad with sweet soy dressing ($4); and the salsa of the day, which on our visit was a disappointingly bland pineapple salsa ($3).
Desserts made with Wei of Chocolate were tempting, but we decided to save them for another day.
Fresh Mint Cafe
Our final vegetarian destination was two-year-old Fresh Mint, on the northwest corner of Scottsdale and Thunderbird roads in north Scottsdale. It’s a friendly husband-and-wife operation, the wife being chef Mai Ly. The couple owned two Fresh Mints on Maui before following their college-bound daughters to the Valley.
We ordered spring rolls, which we were told are the restaurant’s most popular item. We soon discovered why. Working like a sushi chef behind the counter, Ly painstakingly crafted a near-perfect roll, then sliced it into sushi-like pieces ($5.95, pictured at right on top). The accompanying peanut sauce was fantastic — not thick and cloying as so many versions in the Valley.
The most popular entree, a heaping platter of Kung Pao Soy Chicken ($13.95, pictured in middle), kept our taste buds dancing. The spiciness wasn’t apparent at first bite, but a slow warmth slowly built. The vegetables were fresh, and the soy chicken tasted almost as good as a real bird.
We washed down our meal with four large green goblets of mixed-to-order mint tea (pictured at bottom), each sip a wave of refreshment.
If I lived in north Scottsdale, I could see myself dining at Fresh Mint every week to work my way through menu items like lemongrass curry eggplant, vegetarian citrus spare ribs and soy fish in a clay pot.
Final thoughts: Per tradition, we stopped at Sweet Republic (where co-owner Helen Yung let us try luscious tofu and purple yam ice creams!) to celebrate another successful culinary tour. Joe Johnston and I agreed that, overall, the vegetarian restaurants were better than the BBQ joints on our previous tour. I’m not ready to give up burgers and brisket. But if I ever had to, it might be easier than I thought.