"Another new crafty beer type place just opened, Cottonwood. And if this is not the 15th of these types of craft beer-meet-upscale food, but with a casual vibe, places to open up in Houston that serves nothing vegetarian," a colleague here at the Houston Press recently complained. "The food of these places is all very high-end, despite their want of a laid-back patronage, but with nothing vegetarian-friendly," she continued. "It's so odd, and a trend in a weird direction."
Even as an omnivore who considers herself pretty sensitive to the needs of my vegetarian friends, this isn't an issue that had honestly ever occurred to me. I'm firmly of the opinion that people who choose a restrictive diet are also choosing to have their options narrowed when dining (or drinking) out, so complaints I field about such-and-such restaurant not offering, say, vegan quinoa usually fall on deaf ears.
The statistics bear out what seems to be a small -- if very vocal -- minority: Only 5 percent of Americans identify themselves as vegetarians, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. That number is down slightly from the 6 percent who identified as vegetarians in 2001 and 1999. An even smaller number identify as vegan: only 2 percent.
Despite this, the two minorities -- craft beer fans and vegetarians -- often find themselves overlapping, as both groups tend to be more mindful and supportive of small, local or "artisanal" food and beverage producers. But craft beer bars aren't necessarily the best place for a vegetarian to eat, drink and be merry all at the same time.
"I think the trend in menus at beer bars is to offer food that is basically 'bad' for you and manly," says Mike Sammons, owner of Mongoose versus Cobra as well as its wine bar counterpart, 13 Celsius. And -- as most vegetarians are well aware -- vegetable-based diets are rarely considered "manly." What's a man without his meat and potatoes?
"Decadent melted cheese and summer sausage is great, but occasionally even I like to eat vegetables," says Sammons, who has plans to make Mongoose's menu more green-friendly -- something that can be tough to find in other craft beer bars around town.
Unless you're a pescatarian or you really love salads, your options are limited at Cottonwood. The menu offers three basic salads and sides like french fries, coleslaw and kale. Not really enough to make a meal on. (Note: Thanks to one of our eagle-eyed readers for pointing out that Cottonwood does carry a caprese panini.)
The Hay Merchant fares somewhat better with its menu, although it's still quite meat-heavy. You can get a pretzel to snack on or some Parisian gnocchi for dinner (hey, it's enough for an entrée), and the desserts are divine -- but even the salads here have bacon in them.
Vaguely hippie-ish craft beer mecca Petrol Station is better still: Among its many burger offerings (beef, lamb, etc.) there is one with a veggie patty -- appropriately called The Hippie. You can get hummus with vegetables to snack on over beer or a creamy, delicious spinach-artichoke dip that's made in-house.
And although the bar snacks at Mongoose versus Cobra are less substantial than a burger or a plate of gnocchi, they're more diverse and very interesting. In fact, some of my favorite dishes here are vegetarian: eggs pickled in-house with beets and spices, the warm pretzel that's the size of Lichtenstein, and a plate of cheeses from around the world served with fresh-baked black bread. There are also smaller portions of roasted hazelnuts and spicy roasted pepitas to enjoy, but -- again -- these aren't enough to make a meal.
On the other hand, Down House has inspired vegetarian options at breakfast as well as lunch and dinner. Check out the pickled local vegetable plate, the kale salad with pickled onions and Grafton Cheddar, the mushrooms on toast with chevre and a poached egg or the butternut squash and piave risotto with a mustard green salad. For something truly substantial, crunch into some chicken-fried portobello mushrooms with mashed potatoes and a spinach salad.
And at another craft beer bar/restaurant mash-up, Shepherd Park Draught House, the options are more limited but also more low-key: crispy goat cheese ravioli, hummus blended with roasted red peppers and roasted garlic and a three-cheese grilled cheese sandwich served with a tomato bisque.
This trend of introducing small amounts of low-key vegetarian dishes to menus at craft beer establishments may be slow to gain momentum, but it could be on the rise. Only two years ago, Portland -- that capital of all things trendy in the food world -- was complaining that its brewpubs weren't more vegan-friendly. Now there are two all-vegan craft beer bars, with nearly 25 additional vegan-friendly bars on top of that.
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And true to his word, Sammons says he's serious about offering healthier menu items at Mongoose versus Cobra -- starting very soon.
"Mongoose is adding house-made kale chips and a veggie option for our hot sandwich for our winter menu."