The good food is out there for vegans, but sometimes, hidden among other menu items, it can be hard to find. On my search for the best vegan food in Madison, I focused on locally owned restaurants and menu items that are always vegan, requiring no substitutions or omissions. I also gave extra points for dishes that are unique - veggie burgers are fine, but here we're looking for something special. If you're vegan, vegetarian, or just looking to incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet, here are five dishes you should definitely check out.
Note: Each restaurant verified that these dishes contain no meat, meat broth, eggs, dairy products or honey. Still, recipes can change, so I advise vegans and anyone with food allergies or sensitivities to always ask questions.
Sambal goreng tempe, Bandung
Indonesian cuisine is known for its contrasting flavors and textures, and this dish is a perfect example. Sambal goreng tempe is a stir-fry of fresh green beans, roasted potatoes, house-made tempeh and lemongrass in a rich, flavorful sauce that is both sweet and spicy, served over steamed white rice. I've ordered it many times, and find the green beans consistently crisp, the potatoes tender and the tempeh firm and (dare I say) meaty. The sauce, thickened with candlenut and sweetened with palm sugar, is almost dessert-sweet, which could be overwhelming if not for the heat from the chilies and the citrus overtones of lemongrass. If you try only one dish on this list, make it this one.
Black beans and rice, Buraka
Buraka has four vegan items on its menu, but this is my favorite. Black beans, rice and potatoes are simmered in Ethiopian spices to form a thick and satisfying stew. The ingredients are simple, but the result is as warm and inviting as the restaurant's deep orange and red walls. I like my food spicy and usually find restaurant menu items labeled as such disappointingly mild, but not at Buraka. If you order the black beans and rice, be prepared to sweat a little. All dinners are served with your choice of rice or injera, an Ethiopian sourdough flatbread.
Barbecued jackfruit sandwich, Green Owl Café
Green Owl Café is Madison's only vegetarian restaurant and has the most vegan options of any mentioned here. Jackfruit is native to southern and southeast Asia. It's often referred to as "vegetable meat" for its poultry-like texture. When slow-cooked in tangy barbecue sauce and served on a ciabatta roll, it makes an excellent vegan substitute for pulled pork. The barbecued jackfruit sandwich is topped with sliced dill pickles and creamy cabbage slaw. It's spicy, sour, sweet, chewy and crunchy all in one. The side salad is a little bland, so go with kale crisps as your side. They're fun to eat and loaded with vitamins.
Thai vegetable fajitas, Eldorado Grill
Watch other patrons' heads turn in envy as your server delivers this smoking-hot skillet of perfectly cooked vegetables to your table. Eldorado's Thai vegetable fajitas include a generous mound of crisp-tender carrots, broccoli, bok choy, red onion, red cabbage and bell pepper seasoned with lime, garlic and ginger and topped with roasted peanuts. The Asian flavors work surprisingly well with the Tex-Mex tastes of pico de gallo, red rice and black beans. The fajitas are served with warm corn tortillas, which are on the small side and can sometimes break apart when stuffed with the vegetables. Using two tortillas at once solves this problem for me, and makes for a more enjoyable fajita experience.
Hungry Hippie burrito, Burrito Drive
Not for the carb- or calorie-conscious, this behemoth burrito is stuffed with basmati rice, guacamole, Mexican slaw, pickled red onion, and - a stroke of genius - Tater Tots. The hot, crisp potato nuggets taste divine against the cool, creamy guacamole. The slaw is tangy but not overpowering, and the rice is generously seasoned with fresh cilantro. All of this is wrapped in a gigantic, lard-free flour tortilla. I wouldn't mind the addition of some beans, but the Hungry Hippie still makes my list as is. An added bonus, Burrito Drive is open until 3 a.m., perfect for late-night cravings.
Cheryl Breuer is a Madison writer and vegan. She blogs at peculiar-girl.com.