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The Vegetarian's Guide to Pittsburgh

I really thought this would be an us versus them kind of story.  

Us (including me), the red-faced pig bacon lovers of the world, waving our kielbasa and hotdogs at the non-carnivores, a healthy-looking group with lots of facial hair, riding their bicycles across town in search of the one place that actually knows how to cook tofu.

But in scoping out the best places to score vegetarian in the city, I was set straight by Sam Brayer, a practicing vegetarian of several years in his sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh, and also the eldest son of the healthy-eater-in-my-life.

“It’s not so much about restaurants that are strictly vegetarian,” he tells me, adding that Mad Mex, at the corner of Atwood and Bates in South Oakland, is one of his favorite haunts even though its menu contains many meat entrees. “The market for a strictly vegetarian restaurants isn’t that great. Even with that, other restaurants still cater to that type of demographic.”

In short, we can all dine together. Think Aladdin's Eatery or any of the Big Burrito restaurants or the Silk Elephant for outstanding--and certified-- Thai food.

Other vegetarians and the one vegan queried, made similar pronouncements. This same vegan, who happens to be a very detailed-minded coworker but also a private person who didn’t want to be interviewed, even sent me a compilation of his top places in the city and beyond to score vegetarian. (see bottom of story).

I trust him. He and his office mate are the ones who introduced me to the warm, spicy, non-meat samosas at Kohli Indian Imports market on South Craig Street in Oakland. These delicacies can be had for under a $1. When I am broke and I am hungry, those samosas are there for me. They care. (I recommend getting there early. They sell out.)

That’s not to say all is lost for those diners in search of a completely vegetarian or vegan dining experience. Au contraire. I enjoyed many fabulous meals in researching this story. (I missed the third Wednesday of the month at Kaya in the Strip--widely know for its fabulous vegetarian feast--but I'll get there eventually.) Please know, I was happy to do it for you, dear reader.

East End Food Co-op
Thomas Murphy, who co-manages the café with Amber Perts, describes East End as a vegetarian and natural café that also serves fresh juices and organic smoothies. The menu at the hot bar, which is available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, varies depending on what’s in season and who’s commanding the kitchen.

“We leave a lot of creativity to whoever our cook is on any given day to come up with something,” Murphy says.  

A recent Friday sampling including vegetable soy cheese pizza and vegetable dairy cheese pizza, cashew curry and tofu. There are also vegan and vegetarian soup offerings including tempeh cabbage, cream of broccoli, and Thai coconut. The cafe also does a brisk weekend business with brunch menus that include, on one recent Saturday, scrambled eggs, (from local and free range farms), a tofu scramble, seitan sausage gravy, roasted potatoes, vegan biscuits and wheat-free pancakes.

In the summer, the Co-op cafe relies on the produce of the local farmers, primarily Grow Pittsburgh and Braddock Farms, and their crops dictate the menu, Murphy says.
Hoi Polloi Vegetarian Café & Coffeehouse – This is one of the newest additions to the all-vegetarian dining scene. The menu varies daily and, one recent weekday included a black-bean and corn quesadilla and a spinach salad with sliced granny smith apples and cheese.  
Partners Jessica Burgan and Sandra Telep opened thei business in early December at a corner store in the Northside’s West Allegheny neighborhood. At  first, the warehouses and rowhouses that make up Allegheny West didn’t seem, at least to me, the right fit for a meat-free, serious-about-coffee wireless cafe like Hoi Polloi.  Then, one afternoon, I sat down with Burgan.

The two moved back to Pittsburgh from Washington D.C. in May.

“We could have literally had a parking space in D.C. for this space,” says Burgan, looking around the dining room which is decorated with the creations of the local artist, Sketch Master Flexx. “There’s so many cool spaces throughout the city and ways to be involved in the neighborhood both as people and as business people.”

“The neighborhood’s been really great,” says Burgan, adding that they received a startup loan from “The Northside Community Development Fund.”

And she likes the grittiness of West Allegheny. Hoi Polloi shares block space with abandoned warehouses and, across the street, the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center.

“It’s an addiction recovery center. The guys are great,” Burgan says, adding that since moving to Pittsburgh, her priorities have shifted in a good way. Success now means something new.

“You just live every day and you try to d o a good job at that. It’s not concrete measurable accomplishments,” she says.

Although the bar goes vegetarian for only one night a week, the starving artist Sunday supper, brings out Pittsburgh’s meatless devotees. Eric Stern who owns and operates the Brillobox with his wife, Renee Ickes, started the vegetarian nights a little more than a year ago. Now, the Sunday night vegetarian supper, claims a devoted following.

Don’t let the $5 price tag fool you. Sunday-night chef Nathan Vaughn, who also creates the Italian wonders at Piccolo Forno, considers his once-a-week stint a chance to show off his creativity.

On Valentine’s Day, for example, he hand-rolled raviolis filled with goat cheese, ricotta, beets, apples and walnuts. He usually makes a puree, dairy free, soup that can be ordered ala carte for an additional 50 cents. And diner who want to splurge on dessert, can plunk down an additional two quarters.

On any given Sunday, Vaughn estimates that 85 percent of the meal is organic.  

In the coming month, Stern and Ickes plan to transition the entire menu at the establishment to vegetarian and vegan.

“It’s good for the community, good for the environment. It’s good for people to eat. It radiates positive energy in people’s lives when you eat healthy, as healthy as you can,” Stern says, who says he and his wife also recently became vegetarians. “We just made a decision that we no longer want to contribute to industrial farming of meat. It’s gotten out of control, both healthwise and the treatment of animals.”

The Zenith
At The Zenith, at the corner of Sarah and 28th streets, you will find a vegetarian meal, serious coffee and a 50s-era retro dress and matching earrings.

The Zenith is part café, part vintage store and part gallery and just about everything is for sale, down to the plates and glasses you drink from.  

Elaine Smith, who runs the operation with her partner, Robert, says she used to help out the previous owners. About five years ago, when they wanted to sell, she took it over.

“Most of the sauces I make myself,” says Smith, including the tangy concoction that she serves with the barbecue tofu sandwich on a vegan Kaiser roll as well as the vegan mayonnaise.

On a recent Friday, the Zentih pulls in a robust crowd but Smith says it’s their Sunday brunches that draw serious crowds. (Make sure you come early. Zenith opens for business at 11 a.m. and stops seating at 2:30 p.m.) For $10, diners can score an almost entirely vegan meal., except Smith does offer scrambled egg dish. Most Saturday nights, she doesn’t sleep in order to put together nearly a dozen salads, including a massive fruit salad, and bake many pies and cakes. Smith says she e also tries to include some gluten-free items.

Throughout the week, the menu is somewhat less elaborate, but still includes one staple.

“Every week we have peanut noodles,” Smith says. “If I didn’t make peanut noodles I’d probably get killed by a customer.”
Here is the Vegan Coworker’s List of best places to score vegetarian and vegan, along with his comments.

New Dumpling House
2138 Murray Ave.
    Squirrel Hill
- chinese and sushi in Squirrel Hill, under Jerry's records. Vegetarian pork, chicken and beef. yum.

Milky Way
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
2120 Murray Ave
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15217
Squirrel hill, kosher deli. Vegetarian meatball subs. from time to time they also have had "chicken" nuggets and even “chicken” parm. Closes Friday afternoon and through most of Saturday for the Sabbath.

Murray Avenue Kosher
1916 Murray Ave.
Squirrel Hill
Squirrel hill grocery store, great place to buy vegan whipped cream (they even have it in a can) as well as a good selection of Tofuti brand cream cheeses and sour cream.

Double Wide Grill
2339 East Carson St.
Vegan pulled "pork" sandwiches as well as Pittsburgh's only vegan BBQ wings.

Silk Road Gourmet Chinese Restaurant
Caste Village Shopping Center
Grove Road
Phone: 412-279-8088
Chinese restaurant with fake ham, duck, chicken and fish. A south hills vegetarian must.

Thai Cuisine
4627 Liberty Ave.
Particularly good for vegans since all the servers seem to know and understand what vegetarian and vegan mean. They will alert you if a certain dish normally has fish sauce in it.

Tram's Kitchen
4050 Penn Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15224-1336
Phone: (412) 682-2688
No fake "meats" but very good tofu dishes.

Sree's Foods
2103 Murray Ave.
Squirrel Hill

701 Smithfield St.

Indian take out and eat-in with vegetarian and vegan lunches. Very affordable.

Maggie's Mercantile
1262 Route 711
Stahlstown, PA 15687
(724) 593-5056

300 South Craig Str.

Vegan restaurant in Stahlstown PA (right off the PA turnpike, about 30 minutes or less from Monroeville). They have a great all you can eat buffet on saturdays...but you have to call and make reservations. Also, a new location on S. Craig in Oakland, more tailored towards students and professionals for lunch.

Mad Mex
Oakland, South Hills, Monroeville,  & Robinson
Mexican with flair, tofu tacos, tofu sour cream available as well as soy cheese to replace in any dish.

oh yea! ice cream
vegan ice cream and waffles! Need i say more?

Royal Caribbean
128 S. Highland Ave.
East Liberty
Only two vegetarian/vegan dishes...but its worth it. Spicy jerk tofu I think it is. Oh boy. Very good.

Kohli's Indian Imports
319 S. Craig St., Pittsburgh (Oakland), PA 15213

Quiet Storm Coffeehouse
Also a vegetarian and vegan restaurant
5430 Penn Ave.


Seitan Wings at the Double Wide Grill

Quiet Storm Coffee House and Restaurant

Organic produce at the Eat End Food Co-Op

Hoi Polloi Vegetarian Café & Coffeehouse

Vegetarian Pepper Steak at Zenith

Spring at the East End Co-Op

All photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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