You don't have to be a vegetarian to enjoy Fort Wayne's growing plant-based cuisine
These days, it seems everybody is following some sort of life-altering food fad. Atkins. Paleo. Gluten-free. Only red and orange foods. Sandwiches one day, rare steak the next. But for Fort Wayne’s die-hard vegetarians, the dining-out scene has steadily improved, with many restaurants going beyond the “salad and a plate of noodles” options of not so very long ago.
Indeed, several chefs have gone far beyond those previous incarnations of vegetarian options to the point that carnivores are ordering – and enjoying – the plant-based cuisine.
Just as there are levels of vegetarianism (from pescatarian to ovo-lacto to vegan and everything in between), there are levels of commitment local chefs are adhering to in creating dishes for those seeking non-meat options when out on the town. Everyone can find interesting and creative vegetarian dishes at fine dining establishments, strip mall cafes and all price points in between.
Perhaps the most “hard-core” vegetarian restaurant in town is Loving Café, 7605-A Coldwater Road. Its many dishes are not only vegetarian, but vegan, meaning no animal products are included and most are completely organic, said the restaurant’s George Le.
“Nowadays, if we follow vegetarian or vegan (lifestyles), it will bring you to the healthy way of life,” Le said. “We are the only (restaurant) in Fort Wayne that’s 100 percent vegan.”
Le said he often has guests who travel long distances to eat at Loving Café, including Bloomington and Indianapolis, but patrons who visit the restaurant, located a half-mile north of the Interstate 69-Coldwater Road intersection, aren’t solely vegetarians or vegans.
“We have a lot of loyal customers who are not vegetarian or vegan,” Le said. “People tell us they’ve changed their lives” after eating vegan dishes at the restaurant.
Popular items on the Loving Café menu include soups, sandwiches and noodle dishes, all created from recipes Le and his staff have perfected since the restaurant opened in 2009. The restaurant also offers a raw foods menu, featuring raw sushi (carrot, apple, avocado, lettuce and cucumber rolled in seaweed), raw taco (includes avocado, walnut, cashew, sun-dried tomato and more), raw smoothies and even raw cheesecake.
Then there are the creations of Matt Rogers, chef and owner of 800 Degrees Three Fires, 5215 Illinois Road. Rogers creatively uses the restaurant’s three wood-burning ovens to coax new and unique flavors from seasonal vegetables that he serves up both as side dishes and as main courses.
“When we are coming through the seasons, I think of vegetables,” Rogers said. “In winter, it’s the squashes. In the spring, it’s asparagus and ramps. I think it’s (because of) the way we were taught.”
Rogers apprenticed in the Joseph Decuis kitchen and said he once cooked $30,000 worth of morel mushrooms in a season, which gave him insights into how popular and versatile seasonal vegetables can be. He waxed eloquent over a spear of asparagus pulled from the ground 20 minutes before he tasted it – “it was so luxurious and flavorful it was borderline candy” – and said tasting vegetables at their peak of freshness inspires him to create new dishes.
“Our butternut squash started out as a special and became so popular we had to put it on the menu,” he said of the vegetarian creation (which does include goat cheese that can be left off for stricter vegetarians). As a restaurant that sells pizza, cheese made from dairy products is a given, but both 800 Degrees locations (the other is at 10020 Lima Road) also offer a variety of salads that feature more than a simple wedge of iceberg and slice of tomato. And there are equal numbers of non-meat pizzas to meat-topped pies at Three Fires, Rogers said.
“Our pizzas, people will order the Verdure Pizza (featuring roasted red peppers, roasted red onions, mushrooms, fennel, basil and chive oil) and say ‘I didn’t even miss the meat,'” Rogers said.
Rogers also plays with vegetarian dishes as weekly specials, such as a roasted cauliflower and onions with Moroccan spices.
“What I love about vegetables is when they’re just cooked, … you can still taste the nutrients,” he said.
Nutrients are on the minds of Catablu Grille’s owners Maureen and Mike Catalogna with the new B. Well Kitchen lunch and dinner offerings at their Covington Plaza restaurant. The couple worked with their chef, Tony Valenza, and Jennifer Wright, owner of Urban Body Sanctuary, to develop a line of nutrient-rich juices and protein blends they plan to sell beginning this year, as well as new cooking techniques at Catablu for those seeking healthier options while dining out.
Take, for example, the taco salad. It’s made with organic greens, peppers, cabbage, tomato salsa and nut taco “meat,” topped with cashew sour cream, for a completely vegan dish that, Wright said, “looks and tastes like a (meat) taco salad.”
Then there’s the spicy cauliflower jambalaya, in which cauliflower takes the place of rice to decrease the carbohydrate levels while still keeping the dish vegetarian. Wright described it as a “huge serving of hearty warmth.”
“The vegetarian dishes have become so good,” Maureen Catalogna said. “Our BWell Burger is made from beets and lentils and smoked paprika aioli, and it’s designed to taste like a Big Mac. (Diners) are looking for that.”
Many of the dishes are already vegan or can be prepared to vegan standards, Valenza said.
“A lot of my inspiration comes from my background, which is Italian and Mediterranean. Those (cuisines) tend to be a little more clean and healthy,” he said. “Probably over the last eight to 10 years as more of the protein-based vegetables such as quinoa and beans have become more available, we’ve tried to introduce them a little bit at a time, trying them in different applications. We have a quinoa risotto that’s made in the same style, the same procedure,” but offers a higher protein content that appeals to vegetarians. The zucchini Pad Thai features zucchini noodles but no tofu, as the restaurant doesn’t use soy-based foods, Maureen Catalogna said.
And “superfoods” like kale that are beloved by vegetarians have earned a spot on the Catablu menu, now that Valenza has developed a technique to “massage” the kale to make it “more palatable” for everyday diners.
“We’re going through a lot of kale,” Valenza said. The restaurant also features dairy-free and gluten-free desserts, including a chocolate espresso pudding made without dairy that Valenza said fooled his entire kitchen staff.
“It’s fun to try new things,” Valenza said. “You can try (ingredients) a couple of different times. That’s the prize at the end.”
Downtown diners have long praised The Dash-In’s collection of grilled cheese sandwiches as non-meat-based lunch options, but when new owners Emily Underwood and Dustin Vice took over in 2009, they expanded the restaurant’s variety of vegetarian and vegan options.
The popular hummus trio was quickly joined by a falafel pita, both made from protein-rich chick peas and then black bean cakes, which are both vegan and gluten-free. The black bean cakes, which appeared on the Dash-In’s menu in 2010, were an immediate hit, Underwood said.
“They’re made with TVP, textured vegetable protein,” she said, “with a roasted pepper coulis and ginger-corn salsa.”
The falafels and hummus are all made in-house, Underwood said.
“We want to make it not so difficult for people” to find vegetarian and gluten-free options, she said.
Underwood is a trained chef who got her culinary degree at Ivy Tech and worked at Bourbon Street Hideaway before purchasing The Dash-In, 814 S. Calhoun St. She described the grilled-cheese sandwiches as “literally our bread and butter” and noted that both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike love their many varieties.
“I am definitely seeing (vegetarianism) being more mainstream,” Underwood said. “It seems to be easier to be vegetarian. It’s definitely an untapped area. Fort Wayne’s food market has been stagnant. People like their meat and potatoes. But (chefs) are getting to be able to play around more and more.”
The Dash-In’s menu also features a large variety of salads that can be made without meats and cheeses, and the restaurant’s tomato bisque soup pairs well with the (at last count) eight different grilled cheese varieties.
“We’ve pretty much figured out what works for us,” she said. “Our daily specials get our juices flowing. Everything is house-made with really good ingredients. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s well made.”
For those seeking an exotic flair to their vegetarian meal, Baan Thai restaurant, 4634 Coldwater Road, tops the list for variety, according to local foodies. Owner/manager Pete Rugsaken said the restaurant swapped fish sauce for soy sauce to meet the growing demands of vegetarian customers. He noted that many Thai dishes use meat sparingly, if at all.
“Meat in Thailand would be more costly” for the average person, he said. “Vegetables can be grown in the backyard. And noodles are less costly, too.”
The restaurant celebrated its 11th year in Fort Wayne in November, and Rugsaken noted that little has changed on the menu since it opened.
“All my stir-fries and curries are vegetarian sauces, with the option of (adding) meat or tofu,” he said. “We have a big variety for vegetarians since we changed to soy” from fish sauce.
Rugsaken said there seem to be a couple types of vegetarians who frequent his restaurant: those who avoid eating meat for ethical or health reasons and those who do so for religious reasons.
“In the last four or five years, I have been seeing people becoming vegetarians because they don’t like eating meat,” he said. “A lot of vegetarians are strict – no dairy, no meat at all. That’s not all the people, though.”
Some of the most popular vegetarian dishes on Baan Thai’s 12-item vegetarian menu include gang dang (red curry), gang keaw waan (green curry) and pud Thai, all of which include egg but can be made without it, he said.
What’s clear from surveying Fort Wayne’s restaurant scene is that local chefs are creating new and exciting dishes that don’t rely on animal sources of protein, and folks here are eating it up.
Vegetarianism occurs on a scale, with the most strict adherents avoiding any animal product, even honey.
A person who uses or consumes no animal products, including dairy products such as cow’s milk or goat cheese or honey. Vegans also avoid using any animal products, including leather, wool, silk or other non-food items made from animal products.
A person who does not eat meat, such as cow’s flesh, fish or chicken, but consumes dairy products, eggs and honey.
A vegetarian whose diet includes dairy products that come from animals, such as milk and cheese, but not eggs.
A person whose diet includes fish but no other meat. This diet is often used as a steppingstone to a fully vegetarian diet.
First appeared in the January 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.