It’s time to get honest, folks. This edition of FirstBites scared me. Why? Because I’m an omnivore, a total meat eater – I love cheese and I am PASSIONATE about bacon. Mind you, I’m a huge fan of leafy greens and vegetables; I’ve even enjoyed my fair share of veggie burgers. But making the switch to a meatless life, let alone entering into a vegan world sans cheese, dairy and everything I’m comfortable with, scares my socks off.  But I am dedicated to helping those of you who might share my fears of the unfamiliar bridge that gap. So today, I bring you the challenges, results and pretty delicious discoveries that await you in the world of vegetarian and vegan dining.

First things first, what is the difference between vegetarian and vegan food? The answer can get a bit complicated but let me try to break it down. Vegetarians follow a diet that excludes most obvious meat products. Ovo-lacto vegetarians will eat eggs and dairy, while pescatarians stick to a primarily vegetarian diet but also eat fish. Vegans avoid any foods with animal products, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, and gelatin (sayonara, jello!).

Choosing a Restaurant

One of the more intimidating parts of this quest was actually finding a restaurant that was dedicated to vegetarian/vegan fare. I didn’t even know where to start. Is there a secret handshake that non-meat eaters use to get the info? Is there a veggie hotline that I can call for clues? The answers are no, and maybe (but no one would give me the number).

I started by going to Restaurant.com and searching for restaurants that specialized in vegetarian/vegan cuisine. Turns out, the website makes this SO simple. All you have to do is enter your zip code and click on the “Cuisine” option on the left hand side of the page. If there’s a restaurant with vegetarian or vegan options in your area, you’ll know it in about three seconds.

There was one restaurant within five miles with food that would suffice – a Mediterranean restaurant with veggie options – but having previously decided that I wanted to plunge head-first into this new and exciting world with a restaurant dedicated to only veggie and vegan food, I opted for a quick Google search. Lucky for me there are plenty in Chicago (it also helps to ask your friends/coworkers for recommendations – mine were awesomely helpful)!

Easy Vegetarian/Vegan Menu Choices

Here’s where the quest can get tricky. If you live in an area that doesn’t have any restaurants with veggie or vegan options, what should you do? First step, DON’T PANIC. Whether you’re like me and trying something new, or dining with a friend who has vegetarian or vegan needs, it’s fairly easy to find menu items that will work. If you’re making the plans, call ahead or checkout the menu online to see what’s available. Foods to look for include:

–          Portabella mushrooms – Delicious grilled, stuffed, sautéed, stir fried, on sandwiches, in wraps, pasta, and even by themselves.
–          Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) – While most people think of this as a grain, quinoa is actually a seed and is related to leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard. With a fluffy texture and sort of nutty natural flavor when cooked, it is a great base for lots of seasonings, sauces and veggie mixes.
–          Salads with dairy-free dressing options – Look for salads with LOTS of ingredients like avocado, fresh veggies, nuts (raw pecans are awesome addition to salads), and beans or lentils. Pair a big bowl like this with a non-dairy and meat-free dressing for a great veggie/vegan option.

Embracing the Veg(an)

In order to really get a sense of vegetarian and vegan food, I met a friend at The Chicago Diner (Meat Free since ’83!) for a leisurely lunch. To put it simply, I was AMAZED.

She started by ordering a Cookie Dough Peanut Butter Shake (which our waiter informed us won the Best Shake in Chicago Award a couple of years ago). Not only was this thing beyond delicious, it was also totally vegan, dairy free, and sweetened with beet sugar. For those of you keeping track, the score is now Veg(an): 1 Foodie Fears: 0

My friend ordered a Caprese Sandwich with char-grilled veggies, her choice of cheese or cheeze (the vegan, non-dairy cheese option), tomato, fresh basil and a balsamic reduction. She opted for the dairy version of the cheese making this delicious sandwich a very vegetarian friendly meal. (Veg(an): 2 Foodie Fears: 0)

I went with “The Soul Bowl” which featured seasoned quinoa, blackened tofu, sautéed kale and spinach, mashed sweet potatoes, black beans and avocado. To put it simply, it was scrumdiddlyumptious. Even the tofu (which I usually avoid because I’ve only ever had the kind that is wet, jiggly and altogether bland) was firm, warm and bursting with flavor. Each item in my bowl was perfectly flavored and uniquely complimentary of the other ingredients. I cannot remember the last time I didn’t add something to a dish (salt, pepper, Tobasco, ketchup, ranch, ranch, RANCH, etc.) but friends, this dish was wonderful exactly as it came. (Veg(an): 3 Foodie Fears: (still) 0.)

Stepping It Up

If you peruse a vegan menu, you will likely see seitan (pronounced – say-TAN… as in, “say, you’re looking very TAN) as a very common ingredient. It’s basically processed gluten. If you do an internet search and land on the Wikipedia listing for this ingredient you will find the words “elastic mass” in the first two sentences. (Barf, right?) But, to really get a sense for this whole vegan thing, I asked to sample a piece. I promised to include my fabulous waiter’s caveat here which is this: seitan is wildly diverse and the flavor changes drastically depending on how you prepare it. The Chicago Diner uses it in “roast beef” sandwiches, “chicken wings” and much more. It’s also a popular addition in some of the best veggie burgers out there. I was assured that there are plenty of delicious ways to prepare this ingredient. That said, by itself, on my little plate, it was more than a little “meh.” The un-sauced, un-winged, un-veggie burgered portion left me trying to smile through the flavors the way you do when your significant other’s mother cooks you something almost terrible and you have to pretend to like it. Here’s my advice: don’t be brave like I was and try this by itself. Stick with how it’s prepared on the menu and you’ll be a happy vegan wannabe. (Veg(an): 3.5 Foodie Fears: 0.5)

I am so glad I set aside my vegan and vegetarian fears. While I won’t be giving up meat any time soon, I can’t wait to try more delicious options. What are your favorite vegetarian or vegan dishes? Weigh in below and share the veg(an) love!

FirstBites shares pictures, thoughts and advice about the foods and flavors you’ve always wanted to try. Hungry for more? Check out our guides to tapas, sushi, Indian food and brunch!