Eating Your Way Through iFest, Vegetarian-Style

Anyone with dietary restrictions or health concerns knows that a festival can be a rocky road to travel. You don't want to feel excluded from partaking in the glorious bounty available. The worst part is the uncertainty about whether or not you should be brave and show up hungry or hit the local health food buffet beforehand. While we cannot vouch for all nutritional concerns, rest assured that as a vegetarian, you can eat quite heartily at the International Festival.

The main food court around the reflection pool and Center Stage area is a good place to start. We've already been warned to abstain from the delicious-sounding fried PB & J, so fair enough. Luckily, Fadi's Mediterranean Grill has erected an outpost in this area and is serving up some excellent falafel. Word of advice, though: Be sure they make the patties fresh, otherwise you could end up with some ice-cold chickpeas. The pita, tomatoes, tahini and pickles in our sandwich all served as a colorful backdrop of texture and flavor, making this sandwich delectable and filling.

There are also numerous snack options available for those of you nixing meat. Don't forget the ubiquitous corn on a cob. While it may seem daunting to eat a big, buttery tube of grain in front of thousands of your fellow Houstonians, many of the fine food servers will happily shuck it for you and put it in a cup so that you can eat daintily with a spoon. If you're looking for something a bit more exotic, several booths offer crispy vegetable samosas which were mildly spiced and inexpensive.

The Cuban booth in the Caribbean section is offering up some crispy golden cheese empanadas. These little pies were tempting during our visit, but we ended up getting a paper boat full of thinly sliced plantains (mariquitas) served with both a creamy cilantro sauce and a more traditional mojo (garlic and lime). The plantains were sliced just thin enough to be super crunchy while still maintaining their shape, and the dipping sauces added a wonderful kick of flavor to an otherwise mildly sweet fried banana. Make sure to add lots of salt.

Even if you're off the dairy and eggs too, you can still do fine with just a little more searching and asking for tweaks. Oh, and one more tip: Save a handful of tickets for the final half hour of the festival, because vendors are way more generous when it's closing time. We got the hook-up on two funnel cakes and three spiral potatoes for the ticket price of one corn dog. It might not always work, but it's definitely worth a shot.

For more photos from the iFest food stands, check out our slideshow.

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