Stumped for exciting vegetarian options? We've got you covered with these eight options that will take you on an exciting tour for your tastebuds inside the loop.
Eggplant from Maba Pan-Asian Diner: Those who hate eggplant should give it a second chance at Maba Pan-Asian Diner, where Japanese eggplant is sliced into squat rounds and cooked until fork-tender. Glazed with a faintly spicy sauce and topped with spring onion, fried shallots and cilantro, each round is a perfect bite. Also notable: our table also went nuts for the pho fries and seasoned edamame.
Japanesian Brussels at Ambrosia: Watch out Uchi, Ambrosia is coming for you with their "Japanesian brussels"—a flash fried version of brussels that now seems to be standard restaurant currency, but are still undeniably addictive. "Flash frying the brussels sprouts brings out the natural sweetness," explained our waiter. Then, to capitalize on the sweetness, there's a generous dousing of ponzu, for notes of citrus, and kecap manis, a thick and sweet soy sauce, and a sprinkle of parmesan. Also notable: the roasty Tom Yum Shishitos tossed in an addicting hot and sour sauce.
Saag Mac' n Cheese from Pondicheri: If Pondicheri was a high school girl, she'd be the one pulling exotic, foreign dishes out of her lunch bag who no one can hate because she's just so cool. While tempting options abound on the lunch menu downstairs, head upstairs to the Bake Lab for the saag mac 'n cheese, a ridiculous amalgamation of coriander rigatoni and slow cooked greens spiked with Dairymaids gruyere and topped with the beautiful crunch of fried shallots. It's gooey, crunchy, creamy and bursting with flavor.
Holy Shiitake at Mellow Mushroom: Maybe it was because we had biked a good 40 minutes to get to Mellow Mushroom, but by the time I sank my teeth into a slice of Mellow Mushroom's Holy Shiitake pizza, I was transported. The garlicky olive oil base is a neutral backdrop for the flavor bomb that ensues: caramelized onions, a wide medley of mushrooms and cheese topped with truffle oil and garlic aioli. The crust is golden and puffy—not as artisan as others in town, but sometimes a trashy-good, puffy slice is just required.
Tan Tan ramen from Agu Ramen: Recently, I visited ramen spots in both DC and NYC, but I'm still most captivated by the vegetarian ramen I've had in Houston. I think the Tan Tan ramen at Agu is particularly genius since the base incorporates sesame seed paste, which provides a rich umami depth to the broth. It's heavy for sure (forget everything you've heard about vegetarian meals not being filling!) and maybe not the ideal thing to eat in the thick of summer, but it's 100 percent worth it.
Fried yuca from Uchi: If you're not doing Uchi's happy hour or "sake social," as they call it, you're missing out. At a recent happy hour, I couldn't stop marveling at these perfect bites: crunchy on the outside with a steaming, starchy interior, these are basically upscale tater tots bathed in a creamy miso-laced mornay sauce. At $6 a plate, these are definitely worth a try.
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Pumpkin red curry from Rim Tanon: Before Rim Tanon, I had always belonged to Camp Green Curry. But this red curry has converted me: the sweet notes of the coconut milk-based curry go perfectly with chunks of starchy pumpkin and cubes of tofu. It's a perfectly rich and substantial dish—not the watery curries you'll find elsewhere. I order this dish mild, but if you rachet up the spice level a few notches, you may find yourself sweating.
Armenian grape leaves from Phoenicia: I've only ever eaten Greek dolmas before, which are typically stuffed with onion-laced rice and not much else. The Armenian grape leaves from Phoenicia were a revelation, brimming with nearly equal amounts of currants, pine nuts and herbs as rice. A few of these plus hummus and fresh pita is my new favorite lunch plan whenever I'm downtown.