Mango curry can come with tofu for a pretty, spicy, vegan meal at Bandung.
Asian restaurants are often go-to spots for vegans because of the easy availability of tofu and the possibility of customizing ingredients. Still, vegans sometimes encounter problems there -- avoiding fish sauce, for instance. But at Madison Asian restaurants, there are many more options than just tofu.
Narrowing the list to my five favorite vegan dishes wasn't easy. I focused on locally owned Asian restaurants and favored those that clearly indicate which menu items are vegan or can be made vegan. Here are the five winners.
K Peppers, 1901 Cayuga St., Middleton
Bibimbap is a staple Korean dish of rice, sautÃ©ed vegetables and chili pepper paste, often topped with an egg or sliced meat. K Peppers' vegan version (a yellow smiley face denotes vegan options) has tofu and no egg, and it is fantastic. Ours was served in a sizzling hot stone bowl, adding a bit of drama to the evening. The idea is to mix the contents at the table, blending the flavors.
Dinner also includes a cup of savory and comforting potato and onion soup, and five small side dishes for the table to share: spicy marinated eggplant, a mixture of nuts and croutons, Korean sweet potato fries, tiny corn pancakes, and vegan cucumber kimchi (the traditional version is made with fish sauce). In addition to delicious food, K Peppers has a peaceful, inviting interior, friendly service and comfortable seating.
Bandung, 600 Williamson St.
Bandung has several excellent vegan dishes on its menu. The mango curry (with tofu) is a real standout. Our server said customers have been known to lick the serving bowl, and I won't say we weren't tempted.
Large chunks of fresh mango, red and green bell pepper, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, onions and strips of tofu mingle in a creamy, sweet yet subtly spicy curry sauce flavored with coconut milk and star anise. The mango curry is served over white sticky rice. After dinner, in case you haven't gotten your fill of mango, order the spicy mango sorbet for dessert. It's dusted with chili powder for a bit of heat.
Red Sushi, 106 King St.
My experiences with vegetarian and vegan sushi have not been good, so I was hesitant when we arrived at Red Sushi. But our server, Jimmy, knew the menu inside-out and spoke highly of the restaurant's vegan options. All the vegetarian rolls are also vegan, except the tempura (the batter is made with egg).
The vegan roll is larger and heartier than the other veggie rolls, and features an assortment of exceptionally fresh vegetables such as marinated squash, avocado and wild carrot, nestled in a bed of rice, artfully wrapped in seaweed. The vegan roll is topped with eel sauce, which Jimmy assured me contains no actual eels. I had my vegan roll prepared with Chinese black rice, which has a slightly sweet flavor and is high in antioxidants, for $2 extra.
Sesame Noodle Kick
Dumpling Haus, 702 N. Midvale Blvd.
The Dumpling Haus is a small, bustling, order-at-the counter eatery tucked inside the Hilldale Mall on Madison's west side. Vegetarian items are noted with pink asterisks on the large chalkboard menu. With a few quick questions, I was able to confirm that most of the vegetarian items are also vegan, including the veggie wontons and most of the noodle bowls.
Sesame Noodle Kick is my favorite of everything I tasted: a large bowl of firm soba noodles tossed with sesame seeds, fresh cilantro, scallions and red pepper flakes in a garlicky soy sauce. Consider the veggie wontons, too. They're filled with seasoned spinach and served with soy sauce for dipping. If this isn't Asian comfort food, I don't know what is.
Pra lak daen dong (31C) with tofu
Bahn Thai, 944 Williamson St.
Bahn Thai has a handy vegan menu guide, which lists by number what items on the regular menu are vegan or can be made vegan. 31C with tofu is a spicy stir-fry of tender-crisp snow peas, sliced green onions, firm tofu triangles and browned peanuts. Mine was a little on the salty side but still very tasty. The vegan sauce is made with soy sauce, chili garlic paste and sesame oil. The non-vegan version adds fish sauce and oyster sauce. We were served a generous bowl of white sticky rice with our meal. Kang galie gai (26), the yellow curry with potatoes and onions, is also good and can be made vegan.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that Bahn Thai has redecorated since the last time I visited. The '80s-era pink tablecloths are gone, and the stark white walls are now painted an inviting shade of orange, accented with framed photos of scenic Thailand.