By Amanda Bonner and Kristen Kuchar
Photography by Cassandra Stiltner
Plant-based dishes are going mainstream—and local restaurants are adding their own tasty twists
When you hear the word “vegan,” do you picture a plate of lank greens, a lifeless brick of tofu or a meager smattering of nuts and berries? If so, you’re in for a delicious surprise.
Veganism—a diet without meat, fish, dairy, eggs or anything else that comes from an animal—is skyrocketing in popularity. (In 2016, Google Trends saw a 90 percent increase in “vegan” searches, up from an already rising 32 percent increase in 2015.) And with that growth comes not only a wealth of great new cookbooks but also a bumper crop of Front Range restaurants offering scrumptious vegan options, including City O’ City, WaterCourse Foods, Beet Box, Native Foods Café and Root Down.
Vanessa Gochnour, owner of NOOCH Vegan Market in southwest Denver (10 E. Ellsworth Ave.), says cities such as Portland, Los Angeles, New York and Austin already have vibrant vegan communities. “Denver still has a lot of catching up to do but it’s getting better,” she says. “It’s really cool to be right in the middle of it.”
Local offerings should make even the most fastidious foodie happy, from City O’ City’s PB&J Waffle and Tempeh Bacon Hash to Root Down’s Smoked Corn Chowder and Chopped Salad to Beet Box’s Cremini Panini to WaterCourse Food’s Thai Curry and Street Tacos Platter.
“The food itself speaks volumes,” says Forest Ragar, the executive chef at WaterCourse Foods. “It used to be just hummus and tofu wraps, but now there are so many options. Vegan food is like craft beer; it started out really popular in big cities and then it spread. I would predict that in 15 years, you’ll see 50 percent of all food consumed being vegan.”
A lot of the growth has to do with being healthy. “There’s a lot of awareness about food and what is good for us—what’s sustainable and what’s not,” says Justin Cucci, owner of Root Down, Vital Root, Linger, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox and El Five. “I’m not vegan but I align with veganism because I want to eat things that are grown and don’t have to be raised or farmed out or killed.”
Adds Mark Reinfeld, author of “Healing the Vegan Way” and a 2017 inductee into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame: “All major health organizations recommend eating more fruits and vegetables. One large study found that the single greatest factor that determined length of life was the number of fruits and vegetables a person consumes.”
And it sure helps when the food tastes so good. “We’re trying to make all of our food as crave-able as possible,” Cucci says. “And at the end of the day, if something is delicious, does it matter if it’s real turkey or tofu? Does it matter if it’s nut cheese or real cheese? We use some tricks to make vegan food craveable. We do a lot of things with healthy fats, whether avocado, coconut oil, olive oil or nuts. If you get healthy fats in there, it’s not only tastier, but it fills you up. For sweet dishes, we add maple syrup and vanilla.”
Lisa Wong, owner and operator of the Wong Way Veg food truck, serves vegan and vegetarian street food using local, seasonal produce inspired by global cuisines. There’s a Smoky Braised Jackfruit Quesadilla, Agave and Lime Roasted Sweet Potato Tacos, Salted Caramel Bread Pudding and the most popular item: the Boulder Philly, with portobello mushrooms, toasted green chiles and sautéed onions and peppers on a toasted hoagie roll.
If Wong’s dishes are making your mouth water, it’s partly because vegetarian dishes allow her to be more creative. “Meat dishes tend to rely on the animal fat and the meat itself as the main flavor component,” she says. “With plant-based cooking, you get the opportunity to experiment with different seasonings and fresh herbs so the end product has a fusion of multiple flavors.” (For at-home cooking, see the below guide to spices.)
Even traditional restaurants in Denver are starting to offer meat- and dairy-free options. “Mainstream restaurants are meeting rising demand by offering vegan options like pizzas with vegan cheese, vegan burgers and veggie platters,” Reinfeld says.
Phil Simonson, owner and “chief mad scientist” at Chocolate Lab, now offers three vegan truffles—coconut curry, banana coffee and coconut and piña colada, all using coconut cream to replace dairy cream. “I was getting a lot of requests for vegan truffles, including from a regular customer who found out she was allergic to dairy but loved my truffles,” he says. “Almost daily a customer will ask for a vegan dish. In the seven years I have been in business, that question has always come up, but it has increased by about 30 percent in the last year.”
At True Food Kitchen in Cherry Creek, vegans can order the TLT Sandwich (with smoked tempeh, tomato, avocado and lettuce), the Ancient Grain Bowl or Teriyaki Quinoa. Mercury Café offers a Vegan Grill (breaded tofu with mushrooms, veggies and two vegan sauces). And even the famous sausage maker Biker Jim’s offers a vegan sausage, spicy or herby.
Beyond that, Reinfeld says, the vegan cheese scene is exploding. “I like to say that ‘No cheese will remain unconquered’ by the plant-based food scientists,” he says. “Look to see more vegan cheese shops and even vegan butcher shops opening up. I think there will also be a vegan equivalent to most of the fast food, fast casual and upscale restaurant franchises. The number of vegans will continue to grow, and the number of people requesting vegan meals—I like to call them the ‘veg curious’—will expand, too.”
Denver companies are also creating innovative vegan products, including The Honest Stand (which makes dips that can be used with chips or even as pasta sauces), Boulder’s Earth Balance (which makes nut butters, dressings, butter-like spreads, crackers and snacks) and newcomer Ripple Foods (which makes a dairy-free line of milks with pea protein).
“Plant-based living is catching fire,” says Caitlin Maddox-Smith, marketing manager at Ripple. “The conversation is really starting. We’re trying to empower people to make small changes throughout the day.”
Adds Cucci: “If you open your mind and give yourself a chance, you can train your palate and affect the way you eat in a positive way.”
Debbie Devore, founder of Almost Vegan Cooking School, tells us about the flavors that should be in every vegan pantry.
By Katie Berohn
(Clockwise from top left to bottom left)
1. CARDAMOM 2. CINNAMON 3. NUTMEG 4. GINGER
“These signature chai ingredients are fantastic in breakfast porridge with fruit, bakery items, sweet potato pancakes and chocolate dream creams, as well as blended into refreshing drinks. They add such exotic flavor with sugar and heat.”
“I love it and use it all the time, especially with Mexican and Middle Eastern dishes, both ground and in whole-seed form. It’s also an important dry spice for Moroccan carrots, olives and lemon juice.”
6. RED CHILI FLAKES
“Just a little pinch adds that extra kick to soups, vegetable dishes, hummus and spreads.”
“I use it nearly every morning in savory oatmeal or breakfast tofu scrambles with onion, peppers and cheese. It adds a beautiful golden sunshine color to food. Cooked turmeric offers DNA protection, and the raw form has great anti-inflammatory effects.”
8. SMOKED PAPRIKA
“I often use paprika and smoked paprika together in the same dish, and, yes, they are different. I like the gentle heat that comes forward in the smoked powder and use it to spike up lentils for tacos and handmade veggie meats.”
9. CORIANDER SEEDS
“I use whole seeds or grind them by hand with a mortar and pestle. Coriander is great tucked into delicacies such as Turkish lentil kofte and caramelized cauliflower bits with roasted red peppers and rice.”
10. MARJORAM 11. THYME 12. BASIL
“Italian minestrone soup could not exist without dry spices and tomatoes. I grow marjoram in pots during the summer. I add its fresh leaves to French potato salad and Mexican fried rice.”
13. CURRY POWDER
“It’s versatile, addictive and life changing! I use it in guacamole with fresh dates, lime juice and cayenne powder.”
ALMOST VEGAN COOKING SCHOOL offers local and online classes on everything from desserts to plant proteins.