No longer does a boring salad or tofurky come to mind when one thinks of vegetarian or vegan cuisine. Meat-free fare is easily found -- and taken to the next level -- on the Midpeninsula, with local chefs cooking up modern dishes that appeal to veggie-eaters and carnivores alike.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of go-to spots in Palo Alto and Mountain View for all-vegan and vegetarian-friendly dining.
Veggie Grill | 565 San Antonio Road, Suite 26, Mountain View; veggiegrill.com
For an institution truly dedicated to vegetarian and vegan food, look no further than Veggie Grill in Mountain View. The fast-casual restaurant chain serves up innovative food -- minus the meat -- in a bright, modern space with wood-topped tables and soft lighting from hanging spherical fixtures. Creative veggie-focused entrees that hit the spot include the Sonoran summer bowl, ($10.95) an assortment of organic quinoa, black beans, fire-roasted corn, avocado, salsa, jalapeño and tortilla strips in a roasted red-pepper sauce. Other satisfying choices: the crispy cauliflower bites ($6.45) of panko-breaded cauliflower florets served with a sweet and spicy orange dipping sauce, and the banh mi salad ($9.95), which is loaded with organic tofu, eggplant, pickled carrots, white cabbage, cucumbers and daikon, accented with basil, cilantro, mint, kale and a five-spice glaze. A popular sandwich among herbivores and carnivores alike is the Santa Fe crispy chickin' sandwich ($10.95), according to its vice president of marketing, Leah Smith. It's loaded with lettuce, tomato, red onion, avocado and a spicy mayo. The fried "chickin'" is a veggie protein that is marinated and seasoned for a crispy coating "that delivers a sensory experience in terms of flavor and texture," Smith said. Veggie Grill also offers a selection of organic iced teas and juices -- no sugary sodas here. As the largest vegetarian fast-casual restaurant chain in the U.S., Smith said, "we strive to be the go-to destination for craveable and innovative veggie-centric food."
Veggie Garden | 2464 W El Camino Real, Mountain View; veggiegardenchinese.com
If you're a vegan on a budget, you can't do much better than a trip to family-owned Veggie Garden in Mountain View. Lorita Teng and her husband opened the restaurant after their daughter developed a skin allergy and their family doctor advised a change in diet, Teng said in an interview, and they felt compelled to spread the gospel of the vegan lifestyle. The small-yet-cozy restaurant offers traditional Chinese food that is completely meat-, dairy- and egg-free. Try the mouth-watering house-made wontons ($7.95) stuffed with fresh cabbage, carrots and zucchini and topped with chili oil. The dumplings are served on a bed of bean sprouts, shredded cucumbers and red cabbage, with a peanut dipping sauce. The wontons, which Teng said are made to order, have a nutty taste that is balanced by the sweetness of the peanut sauce and spiciness of the chili oil. A popular dish, Teng said, is the black-pepper "chicken" ($7.95), made with a meat substitute, onions, carrots, zucchini and green onions and sautéed in a black-pepper sauce. The meat substitute, which is imported from Taiwan, is made from soy-bean fiber and shiitake mushrooms, which mimic the texture of meat, Teng said. "It's good because there's a lot of fiber, so you feel full but you don't get all that fat," she said. Teng credits the success of the restaurant to the quality of the ingredients they use. "Our food is not oily like other Chinese restaurants, and our vegetables are very fresh because we don't order a lot. We order little by little," she said. If you have food allergies, employees will do what they can to accommodate you, Teng added.
LYFE Kitchen | 167 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto; lyfekitchen.com
LYFE Kitchen is not a completely meat-free restaurant, but it has an extensive menu with many vegan and vegetarian-friendly dishes -- and all under 600 calories. The fast-casual restaurant on Hamilton Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, voted best vegetarian restaurant by Best Of Palo Alto voters four years in a row, serves up Instagram-worthy meals inside a large, bright and modern space with a vertical herb garden as the focal point. For vegans, there's the rich sweet corn chowder ($5), which has the creaminess of traditional corn chowder but is made with cashew cream (it's also gluten-free). Or, try the quinoa crunch bowl ($10), a popular item among vegans and carnivores alike, said Robert Griffin, the senior brand manager. The filling and flavorful dish comes with quinoa, fresh, crunchy vegetables (like snap peas), avocado, arugula and an edamame hummus, all tossed with a chipotle vinaigrette and Palo Alto Firefighters hot sauce. It has a lot of good things going on in one bowl. For dessert, munch on a warm vegan chocolate chip cookie ($2) or dig into the chocolate or banana-coconut budino ($4), LYFE's take on the Italian dessert. LYFE caters to vegetarians and vegans because "with a growing number of guests choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, it makes sense to not only be able to serve them delicious, satisfying meals, but to be able to serve their families and friends also, regardless of dietary preference," he said. "No one's excluded at our table."
Calafia Cafe | 855 El Camino Real #130, Palo Alto; calafiapaloalto.com
At Calafia Cafe in Palo Alto, chef-owner Charlie Ayer has created an entire menu dedicated to "plant eaters." The restaurant's four vegetarian-friendly salads are all tantalizing and satisfying, but the crimson quinoa salad ($14) with beet-infused quinoa mixed with dried red currants, lemon zest, parsley, roasted beets, wild arugula and basil-citrus vinaigrette, and "super salad" ($16) of kale and quinoa pilaf tossed with feta cheese, walnuts, dried cranberries and lemon olive oil dressing, are go-to plant-based entrees. Another favorite is the "Buddha Bowl," ($21) a tasty medley of sautéed seasonal veggies, soft tofu, quinoa pilaf, cauliflower puree and ginger-scallion sauce. For "meatier" options, the veggie burger, roasted wild mushroom tacos and vegan plate (a shareable spread of roasted seasonal veggies) are must-trys. "Not enough restaurants offer exciting and or compelling vegetarian or vegan items on their menus unless that is their focus," said General Manager Chandra Lama. And that's why Calafia offers such a menu, to allow "both meat eaters and plant eaters a place where they can both enjoy a meal together where everyone feels satisfied," Lama said.
Other veggie-friendly eateries to check out
Mountain View's Yam Leaf Bistro was started by six friends who wanted to promote healthful, environmentally friendly eating. The quaint restaurant offers organic vegetarian food with vegan options. The pupusas ($13) are a must-try. The Salvadoran dish is made of a thick corn tortilla and are commonly prepared with a variety of fillings. At Yam Leaf, the pupusas are stuffed with soy chorizo, mushrooms, beans and squash. A satisfying cold-weather dish is the veggie medley soup ($5.25 for a small bowl), which changes with the availability of fresh ingredients. 699 Calderon Ave., Mountain View; yamleafbistro.com
Lemonade, a new cafeteria-style restaurant in Palo Alto, offers a vegetable-centric menu, which changes four times a year with the season. Diners can choose from a variety of hot and cold dishes, including some vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options like sesame-marinated lo mein noodles with fermented carrots, mushrooms and edamame ($2.95), roasted broccoli ($2.95) and Honey Kiss melon tossed with beets, kalamata olives, sheep's milk feta and an arugula pesto ($2.95). And don't forget the namesake beverage ($3.50), which comes in several flavors, including classic, cucumber mint, blood orange and guava limeade. 151 University Ave, Palo Alto; lemonadela.com
Mountain View vegan cafe The Phoenix offers a healthy take on the lunchtime buffet. For $12.95, dine on mixed vegetables with coconut curry, cheese-less baked eggplant Parmesan and penne pasta lightly tossed with pesto and mushrooms, among other healthy options. The cafe also offers fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies. 650 Castro St. #130, Mountain View; phoenix-juice.com
Garden Fresh is a family-owned vegan restaurant with Chinese roots and has a basic menu oriented toward family-style meals. Try the sweet and sour veggie "pork" ($9.95). The pork is made from soy chicken strips, which gives you the same mouth-feel as regular meat, and is sautéed with carrots, bean sprouts and green onions in a special spicy sauce. 460 Ramona St., Palo Alto; gardenfresh.us