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When I went vegan in 2003, I was living in Wisconsin, a state known for meaty, stick-to-your-ribs food slathered in cheese and gravy. Until a few trendy spots started serving tofu to a mostly collegiate clientele, finding even a mediocre veggie burger was a rare treat that I did not take for granted. To satisfy my craving for plant-based nosh, I began crisscrossing the country, making vegan friends everywhere, and compiling an ever-growing list of the best vegan food in the United States. Back then, word of mouth was everything.
Fast forward to 2022, and the options for meatless meals have gotten even more mouthwatering and varied—but still usually just within certain cities. You’re still not likely to find much more than a salad in many towns in the good ol’ US of A. While I’m not saying you shouldn’t travel to charming villages with all the views but not a single filling lentil and tahini farro bowl, a vegan friendly mecca may be nearer than you thought—and it’s always good to know what your nearest escape options are.
In some cases, the best food is found in fully vegan establishments, while in other cases, “omnivore” restaurants have the tastiest vegan options. If you find yourself traveling across the country in 2022, expect to find relief and a full belly in these—sometimes expected, sometimes surprising—cities, from east coast to west coast to no coast.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Just like the mountain state region, the Southwest isn’t especially well-known for its vegan cuisine. Albuquerque is the exception, with a quickly growing list of veg-friendly and fully-vegan establishments. What’s especially great about vegan fare in this city is that, not only can you find easy-to-veganize options at Thai, Chinese, and Indian restaurants (Annapurna’s has the most choices), but the capitol of hot air ballooning is the perfect place to find fully vegan versions of traditional Southwest cuisine.
New Mexico is famous for its chiles and you’ll probably see dishes prepared “Christmas style”, meaning you’ll get both red and green chile sauce. Start your chile-infused culinary adventure at Vegos ABQ, where you can choose from the red chile jackfruit burrito; the potato, pinto bean, and green chile-stuffed bosque burrito; or the generous enchilada plate, topped with your choice of chile sauce.
During your stay, check the veteran-owned Vegan Vato Instagram page to see where the food truck is scheduled to sling its tacos, tostadas, burritos, and sammies (chose from seitan asada, jackfruit carnitas, BBQ tempeh, and ground Impossible “meat”). The Acre has fun, homestyle food, and La Finca Bowls is where to score fresh quinoa, lentil, and vegan poké coconut rice bowls. Can’t decide what you want? Head to fully vegetarian Mata G, which serves a different style of cuisine every day of the week—shout out to their Tuesday Moroccan saffron cous cous and Friday Lebanese kibbe casserole.
Vegan food in the nation’s capital is just as diverse as its constituents. Think vegan Taiwanese fried mozzarella at Pow Pow or vegan soul food at NuVegan Café (do yourself a favor and order two portions of the mac and cheese, plus an extra lasagna to go). Swing by Middle Eastern street-food themed restaurant, Shouk, where your only challenge is trying to decide between mushroom shawarma, the eggplant burger, and their award-winning Shouk burger. Save room for dessert at long-time vegan bakery, Sticky Fingers, and newcomer, Donut Run, a vegan donut shop that doesn’t want anyone to know it’s vegan.
I’m not going to try to convince you that Boise has all of a sudden become a vegan mecca. It hasn’t. Sure, potatoes are vegan and they’re everywhere here, but tots and fries just aren’t a meal on their own, as much as we want them to be. None of the mountain states could be described as particularly plant-forward—but if you’re in this region (and you should be, because Idaho is a stunning Western state), Boise will pleasantly surprise you. While you won’t find a ton of fully plant-based-restaurants—the exceptions being High Note Café (try their brunch!) and The Void Vegan Food Truck in warmer weather (because of the snow, you know) —you’ll find great vegan options at omni restaurants like BBQ4LIFE and Wild Root Café.
It should go without saying that when in Boise, you have to try the potatoes so head to Boise Fry Company, where your vegan burger is accompanied by your choice of fried gold, purple, sweet, or Russet potato—also grab an order of their addictive, crispy fried Brussels sprouts. My personal favorite place to eat here is Tarbush Kitchen, a Middle Eastern restaurant run by Iraqi refugees that has great baba ganouj and the best falafel I’ve ever had stateside. The chefs are so gifted that, before relocating to Boise, one of the owners was recruited by the US Army to cook for troops in Baghdad. For dessert, head over to Guru Donuts, which has vegan options like sea salt chocolate, maple, and “hipsterberry.”
New York City, New York
It’s no surprise that the unofficial cultural capital of the country is going to have amazing vegan food. It’s also going to have a handful of vegan snobs that refuse to let go of the East Coast vs. West Coast (faux) beef. The snobs are definitely on both coasts.
What makes the plant-based food in New York City so amazing is that, unlike some cities, where the vegan restaurants are mostly limited to what I call “easy vegan” – you know, veggie burgers, pasta, rice bowls – the Big Apple has a large enough vegan population that entire restaurants are dedicated to veganism, across a spectrum of cuisines.. You’ll find Korean kimchi stew, Vietnamese pho, Mexican enchiladas, and Indian chana masala.
The best, most elevated vegan food in the city is a tie between everything at Avant Garden and the vegan tasting menu at Dirt Candy. Long-time, beloved West Village vegan hot spot, Red Bamboo, is the go-to for vegan soul and comfort food. While down in Chinatown, Buddha Bodai dishes up over 50 vegan dim sum dishes plus another 200+ vegan menu items. And across the city, NYC-original Beyond Sushi offers seaweed caviar, smoked mushroom, and pickled veggie creativity wrapped up in black rice sushi rolls. Screamers in Brooklyn has the best pizza you’ll find anywhere in the city (the buffalo cauliflower is over the top), and the borough has not one, but two vegan Ethiopian restaurants you need to try—Ras Plant Based and Buna Café (with a killer weekend brunch).
We know, we know, Wisconsin is the Dairy State and Milwaukee is mostly just known as Beer City, USA—why would it be included on a list of the best vegan cities in the country? Because long-time vegan locals (such as myself) know that creative vegan chefs have been crafting delectable dishes for well over a decade.
Palomino bar and restaurant in the trendy Bay View neighborhood was one of the first restaurants in the city to boast a full vegan menu (think buffalo tofu wings and fried pickles), while more recent additions like Beerline Café (best for breakfast) and On The Bus (acai bowls, burgers, and sandwiches) round it out when you want a non-fried meal. My personal favorite restaurant in the city is Alem Ethiopian, which isn’t fully veg, but has one of the most generous and interesting vegan sampler platters I’ve ever had. When the pandemic subsides a bit, I’m hoping they’ll resume their impossibly cheap, super delicious vegetarian lunch buffet.
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles (and Los Angelinos) have a bit of a reputation. You know what I’m talking about. Fit, bronzed celebrity-lookalikes, walking around sipping green juice and looking all beautiful, dining at raw foods restaurants, claiming to be full after eating what most of us would deem an appetizer. Well, I’m not going to say that never happens in LA, but I will say that’s far from the full story.
Sure, there’s no shortage of fresh juiceries and raw food restaurants, but LA is also brimming with vegan fast food (try VOWBurger), soul food (check out Souley Vegan), Mexican (Gracias Madre is where it’s at), and vegan bakeries (Just What I Kneaded is the only place in town where you’ll find chai poptarts and everything bagels topped with herbed schmear and smoked, marinated carrot lox). No visit to the City of Angels is complete without visiting its oldest vegan restaurant, Real Food Daily, (where you absolutely must try the cashew cheese alfredo pasta).
Asheville, North Carolina
What makes Asheville such a vegan-friendly city is not so much the number of vegan restaurants—the city only has 100,000 residents, after all—but rather its very active vegan community. (The city also has numerous animal sanctuaries in the area, and what vegan doesn’t love hanging out at the farm? Shout out to the Animal Haven of Asheville, which is just 15 minutes from downtown.) Vegan visitors should also consider joining the Asheville Herbivores Facebook group to learn about upcoming events like vegan BBQ and mac and cheese cook-offs. Vegan tour company, Veg Jaunts & Journeys, is based in Asheville, and while they don’t necessarily offer vegan city guides on a regular basis, you can reach out to book a private tour during your stay.
As for restaurant fare, Asheville is one of those cities with loads of vegan-friendly restaurants, but few full-on vegan establishments. Fully dedicated vegan eateries include Rosetta’s Kitchen for southern comfort food and the mostly raw-food-focused Pulp & Sprout. For creative, seasonal coffee and vegan scones, pies, and bagels with cream cheese, hit up the whole bean haven, Gallivant Coffee. For prepared takeout meals and vegan grocery items not even found in large stores in these parts, swing by the West Village Market.
The Midwest doesn’t get enough credit for the stellar vegan fare it’s been serving up since well before veganism became cool, and the Windy City has long had some of the best options. The Chicago Diner—with its adorable slogan: “Meat Free Since ‘83”—is the place for hearty Reubens stacked with house-made seitan and thick, creamy milkshakes made with locally-produced Temptation vegan ice cream.
Though not fully veg, Handlebar is an unpretentious, no-frills bar that’s popular with local vegetarians and vegans. Skip the soy and seitan-based options (which are good, but easy to find elsewhere), and order the cornmeal-crusted fried okra and the Nashville hot fried “chicken” made with hearty hen of the woods mushrooms.
San Francisco, California
Wait, California is the only state on the list to receive two entries? No fair! Well, get over it, because anyone that’s been to San Francisco knows that it is one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the country, and nearby Oakland comes in pinch hitting with a bunch more plant-based places like Lion Dance (vegan Singaporean), Ole Ole Burrito Express (not fully veg but has a ginormous vegan menu), and Black-owned Vegan Mob (BBQ and soul food).
In San Francisco proper, you’ll want to head to Baia, which is celebrity chef Matthew Kenney’s first Bay Area restaurant that specializes in upscale Italian dining. And if you don’t mind a bit of Vietnamese Supreme Master religious propaganda, head to longtime vegan darling, Golden Era, which has been serving up the faux meat Vietnamese, Chinese, and Pan-Asian noodle dishes since long before Beyond Burger was ever conceived (I’m usually that weirdo ordering multiple soups for my meal). For Japanese, head to Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar and Izakaya, which takes standard tofu and avocado rolls to the next level by topping them with tapioca-based imitation fish eggs. For Mexican and Latin Fusion, Om Sabor takes the (egg-free, dairy-free) cake with their king trumpet mushroom ceviche tostadas, hibiscus flour tacos, and jackfruit crab cakes.