As any vegetarian or vegan will tell you, meat is not an essential ingredient in a hearty, satisfying meal. Around town, a multitude of options abound. From ramen and pizza to nachos and hot dogs, you can cure just about any craving with a veggie-packed dish. Here are a few of our staff favorites, procured from local restaurants.
Crazy Noodle, Miso or Vegetable Ramen
Getting a pick-up order at The Crazy Noodle on Madison (the sit-down booths at this Korean-themed Midtown eatery are still unavailable because of the pandemic) is a reminder of two matters: (1) There are things to do with noodles (er, udon) other than make spaghetti. And (2) Korean cuisine favors spicy dishes.
The popular Miso Ramen is a case in point. A soupy mix of spinach, tofu, onions, carrots, zucchini, cabbage, and the aforementioned udon stirred into a tangy bean paste broth, this dish awakens the palate and is hearty enough to be a complete meal.
Another good bet is the Vegetable Ramen (pictured), with similar ingredients, including shiitake mushrooms and Korean radish and just the right amount of red pepper — not so much as to make you take breaks between bites but not so little as to escape your notice. Both dishes are $9.99, and service on the pick-up orders is quick and thoughtful. — Jackson Baker
2015 Madison, 272-0928
Central BBQ, Portabella Mushroom Sandwich
You’re sitting at Central BBQ surrounded by meat, but you don’t want meat. Try the portabella mushroom “barbecue” sandwich. It’s a hefty sandwich with portabella instead of pork. A portabella already tastes a lot like meat, but the folks at Central add barbecue sauce, slaw, and other fixings and — voila! — you’ve got a faux barbecue sandwich.
The sandwich was born when they were “looking for a vegetarian item” to serve, says Roger Sapp, one of the owners. Fellow owner Craig Blondis suggested a grilled portabella mushroom. “We marinate it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar,” Sapp says. “Then we throw it on the grill and serve it like you would a barbecue.” They top it with smoked Gouda cheese and serve it on a bun. If you’re vegan, ask them to leave off the cheese.
Craig’s wife, Elizabeth Blondis, likes the portabella mushroom sandwich with Central BBQ’s mustard sauce. “It makes it not so sweet,” she says. “Just a little bit more savory.” — Michael Donahue
Multiple locations including 2249 Central, 272-9377
RP Tracks, BBQ Tofu Nachos
Pre-COVID, my sister, who admittedly isn’t the most adventurous eater, tried tofu for the first time at RP Tracks — the BBQ Tofu Nachos, to be exact — and loved it. Crispy on the outside with a soft center and tossed in a sweet barbecue sauce, the tofu nuggets are layered underneath loads of lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, cheddar cheese, and black bean chili (be sure to request the bean chili rather than meat for the full-on vegetarian version). All that veggie goodness is piled high on a bed of tortilla chips and topped with a dollop of sour cream. It’s a generous, shareable helping for the price ($10) and a great starting point for the tofu-curious. Really, who doesn’t love a good nacho?
There are plenty of other veggie-friendly dishes on the menu, but don’t sleep on the tofu version of Pedro’s Wings. Strips of fried tofu are covered in your choice of wing sauce, and believe me when I tell you, it’s surprisingly close to the real thing. They’ve even got vegan ranch to dip ’em in. — Shara Clark
3547 Walker, 327-1471
Golden India, Palak Paneer
When I was a freshman in college, I made a short, unsuccessful stint of going vegetarian. Though I quickly gave in at the first hint of pulled pork at a football tailgate, the experience did cement my love for Indian cuisine and for one dish in particular: palak paneer.
The dish, also incorrectly referred to as green paneer depending on where you are in the U.S., is a spinach curry composed mainly of a mix of Indian cottage cheese, or paneer, and puréed spinach. The dish is then served over rice with a side of naan, creating a fairly light but filling meal.
In town, Golden India makes some of the best palak paneer. With mild, medium, and hot — and dear lord is it hot — their palak paneer can please just about any palate. My go-to meal is palak paneer, garlic naan, and a mango lassi. — Matthew J. Harris
2097 Madison, 728-5111
The Doghouzz, Beyond Memphis Dog
If it looks like a dog, feels like a dog, and tastes like a dog, then it’s probably a regular ol’ hot dog, right? Wrong.
The Doghouzz’s full menu can take any selection and swap out an all-beef frank for a Beyond Meat dog. It’s all the hot-diggity-dog goodness of a regular dog bundled up in a nice, vegan package. If you want to keep it quintessentially Bluff City, there’s no going wrong with the classic Memphis Dog. Packing in some staples of 901 dining, the Memphis Dog is slathered with barbecue sauce and smothered under a bed of coleslaw, for good measure. And to provide that last bit of extra kick, don’t get it without the serving of sliced jalapeños.
Perhaps the highest compliment, from this longtime carnivore, at least, is that I couldn’t tell I wasn’t munching on a “real” hot dog. The Doghouzz’s vegan twist on a long-standing fixture of American dinners, festivities, and events makes the “dog” more accessible than ever. — Samuel X. Cicci
1349 Autumn, 207-7770
Sweet Grass, General Tso’s Cauliflower
Food swaps aren’t fun. Zoodles for noodles? Okay, but c’mon. Tofurkey? I get it, but geez.
The General Tso’s Cauliflower ($12) at Sweet Grass ain’t that. I don’t order it because I can’t have or don’t want fried chicken. (I always want fried chicken, btw.) I order the cauliflower because it’s got-damned delicious.
The Sweet Grass General Tso’s is generously coated in tempura and fried, giving the dish a meaty heft that’s substantial under the knife. Then it’s bathed in that classic, orange-brown sauce. Sweet Grass didn’t go haute cuisine on this. The sauce is that sweet, sticky, tangy, slightly hot stuff you know and love.
Together, the tempura and the sauce tenderly hug it all in a flavor parka. Then the whole thing is snuggled down on a bed of coconut rice and tucked in with a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Oh, and there’s cauliflower inside all of that. — Toby Sells
937 Cooper, 278-0278
Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant, Yetsome Beyaynetu
Open the doors to Abyssinia and you are transported to a friendly village in Africa. In this village, the porous injera bread made from teff, a mineral-rich, gluten-free whole grain high in protein, is abundantly stacked in poly bags for takeout.
Owner-operator Meseret “Missy” Abdi serves a visually tantalizing palette of color synonymous with George Hunt Memphis in May artwork — only with food. A menu item called Yetsome Beyaynetu overflows with split spicy red lentils, split yellow peas, collard greens, mixed vegetables, potato salad, and beet salad. It is beautiful and tasty with flavorful spices. Abdi says the menu item is vegan, too.
Dining in Ethiopia is characterized by the ritual of breaking injera and eating from the same plate. Bring friends and partake in this custom signifying the bonds of loyalty and friendship over melded flavors of exotic spices, sweet and savory vegetables, and curiously sour yet nutty injera bread. — Julie Ray
2600 Poplar, #115, 321-0082
Soi Number 9, Crispy Ginger Tofu
Inside the unassuming takeout box is a lunch ready to launch my taste buds on a meatless, ginger-tinged journey to FlavorTown. I open the folded cardboard lid and steam escapes. I got my lunch delivered (GrubHub for the win) from Soi Number 9.
On more than one occasion, I’ve snagged a mid-festival lunch from the familiar orange food truck, so a dish from Soi Number 9 is a little like having a mini-festival in my kitchen. In this year of no gatherings, well-prepared comfort food gives reason enough to celebrate.
Though the Thai street food vendors started with a food truck, they also operate a brick-and-mortar business inside the UT Health Science Center Food Hall. This is the first time I’ve tried the Crispy Ginger Tofu ($9.75), and it does not disappoint. The dish is made with seasoned tofu strips and stir-fried vegetables served with ginger soy, steamed jasmine rice, and cucumbers. The ginger gives the rice, in perfectly sticky clumps, a faint sweetness. The thinly sliced strips of tofu are light and crunchy. The fat slices of carrot may be the star of the show, though. Their crunch complements the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-inside tofu and the sticky rice.
For up-to-date information on the whereabouts of the food truck, check Soi Number 9’s social media pages. — Jesse Davis
920 Madison, 448-3443
Tamboli’s Pasta & Pizza, Veggie Verdura Pizza
Tamboli’s has become one of our regular go-to takeout options in recent months. Locally owned (chef and owner Miles Tamboli is an alumni of the Flyer‘s 20>30 Class of 2018), the restaurant is located in the former Fuel space on Madison.
We’re particularly fond of Tamboli’s hand-made pizzas. There are actually three vegetarian options: a savory cheese; the Cacio e Pepe (herbed ricotta topped with fresh mozzarella, pecorino Romano, cracked black pepper, and white truffle oil); and our favorite, the Veggie Verdura. Here’s how the menu describes it: “Topped with our savory red sauce, olive oil, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, red onions, Bluff City Fungi’s shiitake mushrooms, Kalamata olives, ricotta, and a drizzle of roasted red pepper aioli on 14″ artisan dough.” The menu neglects to mention that it’s “tasty as a mug,” even if you’re not a vegetarian. It’s $14.25, and worth it. — Bruce VanWyngarden
1761 Madison, 410-8866
Global Café, various dishes
With three counters sporting the cuisines of Syria, Sudan, and Venezuela, it makes sense that the Global Café’s vegetarian game is strong. If you’ve had tabbouleh elsewhere, you may expect a lot of bulgur wheat. But, as a Lebanese anthropologist once told me, tabbouleh is really all about the parsley, and that’s very much the case in the Syrian version here. A more authentic example of the dish would be hard to find. The hummus and falafel plate is also quite fresh, with a strong tahini flavor. Both are vegan.
The menu notes that the spinach pie is not vegan, as it’s brushed with egg, but old-school vegetarians can still enjoy that or the cheese pie alternative. Be aware, though, that these do not resemble the classic Greek spanakopita, which uses phyllo dough, but are more like stuffed bread rolls.
Finally, I sampled some Venezuelan potato and cheese empanadas, or small, fried dough pockets (which can also be ordered with black bean filling). These are remarkably airy, and the garlic sauce served on the side complements them well. — Alex Greene
1350 Concourse, Suite 157, 512-6890
Pho Binh, Lemongrass Tofu
People from outside Memphis never believe you when you tell them we have really excellent Vietnamese food here. It goes beyond the preconception of Memphis as a barbecue and hot wing town. But there has been a thriving Vietnamese community in the Bluff City since at least the 1970s, and our cuisine has benefited enormously.
Before the pandemic, Pho Binh, the modest, family-run Vietnamese restaurant on Madison Avenue, functioned as Midtown’s lunchroom. You’d see suited bankers rubbing shoulders with vegan crust punks and Black moms at the crowded buffet. Their vegetarian offerings are always top-notch. Whether sautéed in a rich black bean sauce or stir-fried with green beans, nobody does tofu better than Pho Binh.
The queen of the Pho Binh menu is the lemongrass tofu. Everyone is equal when they’re sitting at a table, picking at the remains of their buffet plate, waiting for the kindly cook to bring out a fresh pile of the dusky tofu cubes. Then, as she returns to the kitchen with an empty chafing dish, the vultures descend. Forget Antifa agitators, if there’s a riot in Midtown, it will start over lemongrass tofu.
What makes it so great? The texture is perfection: firm, but not rubbery; a little juicy, but not soggy. The uniform tofu blocks are heavily tossed with Pho Binh’s secret lemongrass concoction and fried. Serve over sticky white rice, and that’s it. No sauce or additional ingredients required. Perfection itself. It’s even better as takeout, because you don’t have to fight for it. — Chris McCoy
1615 Madison, 276-0006