8 Tips for Finding the Best Vegan Food When Eating Out

iStock
iStock

In the not too distant past, vegan dining at most restaurants was limited mainly to a side salad. Today, options for vegan food can mean anything from a fried "chicken" sandwich with mashed potatoes, mayo, and gravy to spicy baked "scallops," which are torched tableside. With so many options, how are you supposed to know where to find the best vegan food?

Since Tim Moore—better known as Instagram foodie star “VeganFatKid”—samples more new vegan food than just about anyone, Mental Floss spoke with him to get his advice. We also spoke with restaurateur Ravi DeRossi, who owns some of New York City's most successful high-end vegan restaurants, including Avant Garden, Mother of Pearl, and Ladybird, to get his perspective on what makes a great vegan restaurant. Here are their tips.

1. DOWNLOAD THE HAPPY COW APP.

Happy Cow, which was founded in 1999, is like Yelp for vegan food, with both a website and mobile app. Users rate vegan restaurants, as well as restaurants with vegan and vegetarian options, and can select different filters depending on what you’re looking for. It’s never a bad idea to cross-check a restaurant on Happy Cow with Yelp, since a place that may have a high rating on one site might prove lackluster on another (though they usually match up pretty well). It's an especially useful tool for when you're traveling, too.

2. ASK LOCAL VEGANS.

It might seem like common sense, but some people overlook one great resource that's right in front of them: other vegans. DeRossi says it's always a smart idea to ask any local vegans to share their favorite spots. Even if you’re just visiting a city, you’re likely to find a passionate vegan community on Facebook or another online forum that will be eager to tell you where to eat.

“A good bet would be to ask a vegan who has lived the lifestyle for many years," DeRossi tells Mental Floss. "They have probably experienced it all and can provide you with some guidance." Follow some vegan foodies on Instagram in your area. Chances are, if you're seeing the same restaurant show up in your social media feed again and again, there’s a good reason people are posting about it.

3. THINK BEYOND AMERICAN CUISINE.

iStock

That tofu vegetable Panang curry and chana masala you’re already ordering on Seamless? Chances are they’re already vegan. By far some of the best vegan food you’ll find might not be at a vegan restaurant at all—it will be so-called “ethnic cuisine.” In general, East and South Asian cuisines offer a wide range of vegan options, since those culinary cultures are historically mostly plant-based anyway. Ethiopian food is also easy to eat vegan, and if you live in a neighborhood with Caribbean food, Ital cuisine is usually entirely vegan.

At East Asian restaurants, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean eateries, you will need to ask whether a seemingly veg dish includes fish sauce or egg. At South Asian restaurants, including Indian spots, just make sure there’s no ghee or paneer in your dish. 

4. KNOW WHETHER YOU'D LIKE YOUR MEAL TO MIMIC CARNIVORE FOOD.

For some vegans, dishes that mimic classic comfort foods are a great sign. For others, not so much. “Many new vegans find comfort in meat alternatives, since they are similar in taste and texture to the meat products they've been used to,” DeRossi says. “For some vegans, naming certain dishes after the original meat dish may be a turn off. It's all up to personal preference at the end of the day.”

Moore loves veganized dishes like jackfruit "carnitas," macadamia nut cheese pizza, and buttery vegan croissants. “Eating is a very emotional activity for so many of us, so if a restaurant can tap into that connection and cruelty-free our comfort foods, then that really gets me excited,” he says.

These plant-based alternatives tend to be just as rich, salty, and sweet as their non-vegan counterparts, so if you’re looking for healthier foods, remember that “vegan” does not always mean “healthy.” If you want super-healthy vegan food, look for cuisines like Buddhist, raw, and macrobiotic.

5. GIVE EXTRA POINTS TO RESTAURANTS WITH HOUSEMADE SUBSTITUTES.

If you’re going out for vegan pizza, for example, prioritize a place that makes its own nut cheese, rather than a restaurant that uses a store-bought vegan cheese. Same goes for any processed substitutes: though they can still be tasty, they aren’t as fresh and don’t taste quite as good (restaurants should always be able to tell you what vegan substitutes consist of, and whether they are made in-house).

“If your restaurant is too reliant on store-bought products such as faux meats, sauces, and bought cheeses, then I'm going to be less inclined to eat there," Moore says. "Sure, you don't need to bake your own bread or anything (cooler if you did), but I want to get a sense of your individual passion and personality through your own handcrafted food."

6. CUTTING INGREDIENTS DOES NOT COUNT AS A GOOD "VEGAN" OPTION.

iStock

If a restaurant’s solution to “having a vegan option” is simply a Cobb salad without the cheese, bacon, and egg, that's a bad sign. A good restaurant—even a non-vegan restaurant—should have vegan options that stand alone and look filling and creative, not like a sad consolation prize. 

“I want to see more than sides, bowls, and vegetable platters,” Moore says. “I'm looking for creative choices designed to showcase the many unrestricted ways in which we can enjoy a plant-based diet. It's not about what you ‘lose’ going vegan, it's all about what you gain.”

That means the marker of a great vegan restaurant—or a restaurant with great vegan options—is creativity. “So you wrap your vegan Big Mac inside a cheesy Quesadilla? OK, I'm in," Moore says. "If the restaurant is grabbing my imagination as well as my taste buds, then chances are they're getting my business (and probably an Instagram post or two).”

7. IF YOU SPLURGE, MAKE SURE IT'S ON A PLACE THAT KEEPS IT SEASONAL.

If a vegan restaurant is on the pricier side, that plant-based meal better be using some quality produce.

“For a nicer night out, I'm looking for a complete dining experience before I drop some serious coin. Atmosphere and service all play a part, but again, I look for housemade ingredients on the menu,” Moore says. “I don't want a $25 entree to have store-bought faux meats, and at that price point, I'm expecting organic and locally-sourced produce.”

DeRossi agrees—and he should know, since he specializes in high-end vegan cuisine. “If you plan on splurging on a night out, I would suggest checking the quality of ingredients they use. If you have the luxury of eating natural, organic, and sustainable food, that is well worth the price tag, in my opinion.” A high-end vegan restaurant should prioritize their vegetables, always; that means seasonal menus that rotate and local, organic produce.

8. LOOK FOR RISK-TAKERS. 

iStock

A great vegan restaurant is going to take risks—and not apologize for it.

“Whether it's your Grandma's famous chipotle dressing or the way you add Sriracha to a donut or the fact that you lit the dish on fire at my table, making memorable dishes should be the goal,” Moore says. “There's nothing worse to me than a boring dish and hearing someone at the table utter the dreaded phrase ‘I could've made this at home.’ A good restaurant will fill your stomach, a great one will also fill your mind.”

When considering a menu, ask yourself if you could make most of the dishes yourself; if the answer is yes, you're probably better off trying somewhere more adventurous. Dining out is all about having fun—any good restaurant, vegan or otherwise, should have a sense of whimsy and joy about it.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Tips for Avoiding Germs on Flights

Masakatsu Ukon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Masakatsu Ukon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The continued spread of the coronavirus pandemic raises valid concerns for domestic and international travel. As the number of cases keeps increasing in some parts of the world, travel restrictions won’t be relaxed anytime soon. Airlines are postponing and canceling flights globally, but for many individuals, travel remains an essential function.

Some people have already put their plans on hold to reduce the risk of infection, but if you absolutely need to travel by air, here are several helpful tips to avoid germs at the airport and inside the airplane.

1. Use the online check-in before arriving at the airport.

Skip the line at the airport counter and avoid unnecessary contact by checking in to your flight online. Many airlines allow passengers to check in up to 24 hours before their flight’s departure. It’s the safest and most comfortable option, and you’ll also steer clear of the germs on self-service check-in kiosks.

2. Choose a window seat on the plane.

When reserving your seat during the ticket-buying or check-in process, the one you choose makes a difference in your potential exposure to germs. Some airlines have chosen to leave the middle seats empty, leaving you with two other options in a typical medium-sized plane. Passengers in window seats are exposed to the fewest people during an average flight, so that’s your best bet. Avoid booking the aisle seats, which pose the highest risk of contact with multiple people.

3. Wear a face mask.

Properly wearing face masks and cloth face coverings are essential to reducing the spread of the coronavirus and other pathogens. It protects you and everyone else, too. Several airlines are making face coverings mandatory because social distancing measures are much more difficult to maintain inside the aircraft.

“It’s important to remember that all of the new guidance we’ve got used to over the past few months, like social distancing and hygiene measures, still apply when you travel,” travel expert and 5 Star Villa Holidays founder John Paul Donnelly tells Mental Floss.

4. Keep items stored inside your bag at security checkpoints.

The plastic bins for personal belongings are also used by other travelers, increasing your potential exposure to germs. Instead of emptying the contents of your pockets into the bins, it’s better if you keep your phone, wallet, and other loose belongings inside your bag. You’ll also avoid a pat-down by having removed anything that will set off the alarms.

5. Bring enough disinfectant wipes and alcohol-based sanitizer.

At least the chairs are socially distanced at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.Daryl DeHart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Anticipate all your travel needs beforehand. Donnelly says that sanitizing wipes, disinfecting alcohol and sanitizers, and face masks are now as essential to travel as passports and luggage, so pack these necessary items in your carry-on bag (just make sure that each container of gel or liquid is less than 3 ounces to pass U.S. security screening). Ensure that you have enough to disinfect your hands, cellphone, and immediate environment when you board the plane.

6. Refrain from touching your face.

A small behavioral observation study in 2015 revealed that people touch their faces an average of 23 times per hour. Face-touching is very instinctive—people often don’t realize they’re doing it. But during this pandemic, you need to avoid it as much as possible to reduce the spread of germs. Even if you haven’t touched any public surfaces, just don’t do it.

7. Take advantage of cashless transactions.

Some airport stores allow electronic payments from digital wallets. This kind of transaction, along with recent technological innovations such as virtual boarding passes and online check-ins, reduces unnecessary contact while traveling. Even though there’s a low probability [PDF] of virus transmission through money, it’s still overloaded with germs that you wouldn’t want to hold on to. According to Donnelly, eliminating the chances of contact is vital for the travel industry as it adapts to the pandemic.

8. Stay away from crowds.

This may be easier said than done, but there are a few ways you can keep a safe distance between yourself and others. Maintain a six-foot physical distance when lining up for security checkpoints or offloading luggage. Donnelly suggests minimizing your movement around the airport, so stay put as much as you can. While waiting to board the plane, choose a seat in the waiting area at least six feet away from anyone else—or stand apart from a crowded seating arrangement. Try to board last so you can avoid queuing in narrow walkways along with the other passengers.

9. Disinfect high-touch surfaces at your seat on the plane.

Although airlines are enhancing their cleaning routines, you should still sanitize your immediate environment on your own. Disinfect the high-touch surfaces like the armrest, tray table, seatbelt buckle, headrest, and seat and screen controls. Research has shown that the novel coronavirus may last two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, so clean everything that previous passengers could have possibly touched before you sat down.

10. Turn on the overhead air vent.

The frequent passenger turnaround can be a concern in enclosed environments such as airplanes, but as Donnelly says, “most large airplanes have sophisticated filtration systems [PDF] in place, which means the air is likely to be cleaner than in other confined spaces.” For extra protection from viruses and germs remaining in the air, turn on the overhead vent. It creates an air barrier around your seat that can disperse potentially harmful particles into the plane’s filtration system, where they will be neutralized.

Wherever you’re going, remember to exercise caution every step of the way. A little more attention to detail will keep you from compromising your health.