By Erika Kwee
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 3, 2016 AT 6 A.M.
Ah, Houston Restaurant Weeks, the most wonderful time of the year for exploring new restaurants around Houston. While many carnivores can expect to be delighted by impressive beef fillets and decadent pork shoulders, vegetarians may be side-eyeing some of the menus, expecting to be relegated to meals of salad* and grilled-vegetable plates.
After much combing through the menus, here are ten of the most surprising vegetarian menus of Houston Restaurant Weeks 2016, both in terms of innovation and the atmosphere in which they are served:
*If you are curious, you can subsist on a two-course vegetarian meal composed entirely of salad — delicious salad, to be sure — at B&B Butchers, which means you've probably earned a double allowance of the New York cheesecake for dessert.
Sal y Pimienta: This South American restaurant specializing in sourcing free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free organic meat is typically known for meat dishes, but plant-based diners can still find an excellent meal on the HRW menu. Start with either the soup of the day, the house salad (greens in a creamy cilantro dressing) or two mini empanadas: Both the spinach and the creamed corn are excellent choices, wrapped in a flaky phyllo crust. For an entrée, the spinach canelones tuck a filling of creamy spinach into delicate sheets of pasta, blanketed under a crust of cheese. For dessert, caramel lovers should opt for thedulce de leche cheesecake, though the flan, chocolate cake or fruit salad are equally delicious. Portions are ideally sized so that you'll come away feeling very full but not stuffed.
Down House: By far one of the most exciting vegetarian entrées of the HRW menus, Korean fried cauliflower is one of two vegetarian starter options (kale salad is the other choice). Fried cauliflower nuggets come tossed in a spicygochujang sauce with pickled daikon and sesame seeds. After ricotta-stuffed ravioli with carrot butter and summer vegetables, vegetarians can end the meal with chocolate flan doused in candied pepitas, spiced caramel and whipped cream, bread pudding or a lemon tart.
El Tiempo: Locations abound for a night out at this iconic Tex-Mex establishment (participating locations include Annex, Gessner, Katy, Montrose, Navigation, Richmond, Vintage Park and Washington), but at any restaurant, you'll find a surprisingly vegetable-forward menu for those eschewing meat. The mango jicama salad in a black pepper mango sauce can be followed by a platter of veggie fajitas and then your choice of a dessert: the chocobanana is a mammoth banana wrapped in dough and fried like a sweet, sweet, ice-cream-adorned empanada. The fried ice cream and Mexican flan are also worthy options. For just $25, you'll leave dinner stuffed.
Añejo: For $35, you get the mother lode of four courses at Añejo: a huitlacoche (also known as the “Mexican truffle”) quesadilla with Oaxaca cheese and guacamole, a choice between an unusual roasted beet ceviche or the house salad for the second course, spinach enchiladas for the third course, and dessert offers horchata tres leches, mango panna cotta or classic Mexican flan.
Foreign Correspondents: Diners are treated to a four-course dinner for $35 at this northern Thai establishment. Plant-based diners can start with sticky rice that's stuffed with local vegetables, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. The second course includes a choice between okra and glass noodles or a seasonal local vegetable stir-fry; the third course is a tofu and vegetable stir-fry in a central Thai-style curry with coconut milk. The fourth course is a celebration of coconut: coconut ice cream on warm coconut rice with peanuts, jellies, evaporated milk and white bread, tako (layered sweet corn and coconut cream) or fresh local fruit and coconut sticky rice.
Brennan’s: This classically meat-heavy Creole restaurant offers a surprisingly plant-focused trio of options for the dinner menu. First-course options include an heirloom tomato gazpacho or Brennan’s salad with grape tomatoes, brioche croutons and parmesan in a red wine herb vinaigrette. The Creole theme stays strong in a rich medley of vegetables: smothered okra and tomato, poblano cheddar grits, stewed lima beans, charred onion braised collard greens, fire-roasted beets and chow chow. Bananas Foster is the obvious choice for dessert, but should you choose to be a rebel, you can also select the beignets, Creole bread pudding or chocolate sorbet.
Vic and Anthony’s: This classic, pricey steakhouse offers decent-sounding salads (Greek or iceberg wedge) for a vegetarian first course, but it really hits it out of the park with a gnocchi entrée peppered with exotic mushrooms, arugula, hazelnut pesto and agrodolce. Classic dessert options include croissant bread pudding, tres leches, chocolate cake or house-made gelato.
Alamo Drafthouse: Not expecting to find vegetarian-friendly options at this movie theater/bar/restaurant? Think again. Try the truffled parmesan buttered popcorn or the crushed avocado crostini for a first course, followed by a main course of hatch green chile mac ‘n' cheese with a combination of five different cheeses. Dessert choices include three warm baked cookies, funnel cake sticks or an adult milkshake with crème de cassis, soft serve and whipped cream.
La Table: Dine lightly at La Table with a starter of tomato cherry gazpacho or avocado and cucumber salad. An entrée of sweet pea ravioli can be nicely rounded out with a choice between a chocolate soufflé, key lime tart or crème brûlée vanilla with lemon and honey madeleines.
Amalfi Ristorante Italiano & Bar: This Italian trattoria on Westheimer offers one of the most generously sized appetizers around: a small boat of tender and fragrant roasted eggplant garnished with fresh tomato sauce, melted buffalo mozzarella and basil pesto. Just ask for the entrée of the paccheri with summer black truffle cream sauce without the duck confit for a flawless vegetarian option, and end your meal with one of the well-portioned desserts. The flourless almond and dark chocolate cake with pistachio gelato is a winner for chocolate lovers, but the Amalfi take on strawberry shortcake — with lemon mousse, fresh berries and crème de cassis sauce — is equally delicious.