29 Days an Orlando Vegan.

Call it a chemistry experiment. A rattling of the cage. My metaphors for Orlando Eats’ month-long journey into plant-based eating. My colleagues? A descent into culinary madness. Cruel and unusual punishment. Let’s just say their reaction wasn’t rah-rah-rah excitement. Despite this, we all had fun, came through unscathed, and – in my humble estimation – better off for the experience. Let’s break down the why’s, where’s and what’s.

Why did we do it?

We eat and drink a lot. A lot. A bit of abstinence would surely help flush the accumulated crud so we could accumulate more crud. Granted, we like food so it wasn’t a daunting proposition. Broccoli, tofu and brown rice is absolutely on par with steak frites at Orlando Eats. We also hoped it would bestow a sense of mellowness and interconnectedness (it didn’t – we remain angry and anxious).

Where (and what) did we eat?

Initially, we marveled at the ease of dining out in Orlando – the lion’s share of our better restaurants either have a genuinely tasty vegan option or will happily accommodate you. Then laziness set in. We found ourselves heading to restaurants that didn’t force us to peck around, to ask silly questions – to think. Several eateries (see below) benefited from our lazy veganism.

We also cooked and cooked and cooked. We cook all the time, but half the time of all the time we just throw an animal protein on a bed of greens so we can quickly get back to drooling in front of the TV. In our newly stocked vegan kitchen, we had to be concerned with getting full proteins, supplementing with B12 and combining all manner of fresh and dried ingredients to achieve a balance that cheesy meaty normally covers.

local florida produce
100% Florida produce – hooray

Between farmers markets and what appears to be a new focus on local produce at Publix and Whole Foods (despite there still being a grossly inexcusable amount of imported stuff), we were able to stock up on all variety of sorta-local fruits and veg – from soursop to lions mane mushrooms. Vegan cooking requires a lot of prep and creativity so turning our spoils into something tasty see-sawed between being a chore and a delight.

Let’s start with what we ate at home and segue into what we ate at restaurants.

Vegan at the House

Roasted Eggplant with Fake Feta

A very satisfying dish that’s also super simple. The eggplant is bled of bitter and simply roasted. We topped it with a quick, bright tomato sauce, creamy fake feta and paired with salty citrus kale. As a side note, we worked our way through a lot of faux dairy (which along with almond milk became an essential source of B12) and found Violife’s Feta the most tasty and flexible in terms of usage. If we leveraged affiliate marketing, we’d link you to it. What the hell – we’ll link you anyway – we like this stuff and will continue to keep it in the fridge.

vegan roasted eggplant

Roasted Cauliflower with Quinoa and Romesco Sauce

Everyone loves roasted cauliflower. It always seems to come to the rescue of those in pursuit of a meatless bite of meaty. In our kitchen, the cruciferous crusader was browned and paired with the protein punch of quinoa and romesco (a Spanish sauce buoyed by roasted red pepper, almond, garlic and vinegar).

roasted cauliflower and quinoa

Sichuan Tofu and Greens over Soba Noodles with Veggie Pho Broth

We’ve had up and down results with a newly gifted air fryer, but tofu tends to benefit from its suck-the-moisture-out-of-everything gimmickiness. We tossed cubes in a little oil and roasted ground Sichuan pepper and air-fried away. For the uninitiated, soba noodles are buckwheat noodles and buckwheat isn’t wheat – it’s related to rhubarb. But – and stay with me here – sometimes soba noodles do have wheat as they’re not 100% buckwheat. Check the package, but Eden brand does a 100% good one. Regardless, buckwheat is gluten-free and a complete protein so when paired with tofu, you’re getting a double whammy.

sichuan tofu and soba noodles

Spaghetti Squash with Kale, Tomato and Fake Feta with Olive Vinaigrette

A dish we’ll make again, meat or no. The squash is roasted and shredded with a fork before tossing with the kale, tomato and fake feta that had been marinating in a very simple olive vinaigrette.

roasted spaghetti squash

Romanesco and Sweet Potato over Quinoa and Brown Rice with Walnut Kale Pesto

Sounds far better than it ate. This dish needed some tweaking in terms of veggie prep and execution, but the pesto grain mixture was fantastic.

romanesco and sweet potato with walnut kale pesto

Chickpea Stew with Rose Harissa and Charred Chard

Charred chard. Giggle. This is a beauty of a straighforward dish that we stumbled across on the Guardian. If you’re vegan, do yourself a favor and follow Meera Sodha’s New Vegan column here. We fell in love with harissa, the North African spice paste, while living in the UK and, in particular, rose harissa which includes rose petals. Belazu is a reliable brand but has to be ordered from Amazon (here). Most of the store-bought harissa we’ve found in the States is dumbed down or off base flavor wise. The heart of this stew is onion and red pepper mixed with garlic, tomato paste and harissa. Chard (ours from Frog Song Organics) is seared in a skillet and hit with salt and lemon before dropping atop. A great dish – I’m actually cooking a variation with roasted eggplant as I type this.

harissa chickpea stew with chard

Vegan on the Town

Proper and Wild

Winter Park’s darling of a resto was low hanging fruit. We’re fairly close by, we’d already fawned over it in an earlier review (here), and they have good booze. Almost exclusively vegan with a dairy option or two thrown in for good measure. Always excellent.

lattes at Proper and Wild in Winter Park Florida
Ginger Turmeric and Red Velvet Lattes with Hemp Milk
heartcake benedict at Proper and Wild in Orlando
Heartcake Benedict on multigrain toast with chickpea egg, chives and cashew hollandaise
vegan breakfast burger at Proper and Wild in Orlando
Breakfast Burger with chickpea egg, tempeh bacun, tomato jam, arugula and scrummy potatoes
curry noodles at Proper and Wild restaurant in Winter Park florida
Red Curry Ramen with peanut coconut curry broth, lemongrass, miso tofu, rice noodles, seasonal veg and dulse

The Sanctum

Part of the Proper & Wild family and equally tasty to its sistren. As far as we’re concerned there is very little argument against The Sanctum and Proper & Wild being the cashew cream of the crop when it comes to Orlando vegan restaurants. Everyone else is competing for second place.

vegan sushi bowl at The Sanctum in Orlando
Vegan Sushi Bowl with sweet potato, edamame, carrot, cucumber, avocado, pickled radish, seaweed, tofu, brown rice or quinoa, greens, ginger miso, wasabi aioli and sesame
Lemon pesto pasta The Sanctum vegan restaurant in Orlando
Lemon Pesto with rice noodles. brussels, cauliflower, kale and crispy oyster mushrooms
vegan queso dip at The Sanctum in Orlando
Spicy faux queso dip

Hungry Pants

Charming and friendly SoDo newcomer with solid vegan options even if a gaggle of dirty Yelpers descended on the eatery just before our visit to clean them out of targeted Cauli-Tots.

turmeric tahini noodle bowl at Hungry Pants in Orlando
Turmeric tahini noodles with kale, sweet peppers, purple cabbage, carrots and grilled tofu
veggie burger at hungry pants
Black bean burger with pickled red onion, cilantro aioli and arugula
brussel sprouts at Hungry Pants restaurant
Roasted brussels sprouts with sweet and spicy chili sauce
roasted beets at Hungry Pants in Orlando
Roasted beets and oranges with an orange vinaigrette and cashew crumble

Pho Cali

Asian restaurants in Orlando are fertile ground for vegans, but this East Aloma strip maller has one of the more genuinely thoughtful vegan/vegetarian menu sections we’ve come across.

vegan spring rolls at Pho Cali vietnamese restaurant in Orlando
Vegan summer rolls with crispy tofu and fried shallots
vegan bun rieu at Pho Cali
Vegan bun rieu
vegan menu at Pho Cali vietnamese restaurant in orlando

Hunger Street Tacos

Hunger Street makes it hard to stay away. Sure, we worship its rib taco, but you can eat well at the Winter Park standout without having a bite of flesh. As a side note, the bane of our vegan existence became tortilla chips. We quickly learned that chips, guacamole and salsa were 100% fair game and they seemed always close at hand (see zero weight loss below)

hibiscus and guacamole taco at Hunger Street Tacos in Orlando
Hibiscus and guacamole taco
vegan mushroom sope at Hunger Street Tacos in Orlando
Heirloom masa cake with black beans, mushrooms, salsa roja, avocado salsa verde, red onion and cilantro

Dandelion Communitea Café

This Mills 50 lifer is straight-up hippie boho – in its old home digs, it reminded us of former haunts in midtown Atlanta. There is a lot of faux here and even though we loved the place, I can’t say the grub was blow you away good. Great iced tea, lovely atmosphere, lots of options. Fun stuff, but apart from a very tasty broccoli soup, not overly impressive.

vegan eggplant pastrami reuben at Dandelion in Orlando
Reuben on Old Hearth rye with eggplant pastrami, “swiss,” sauerkraut, and sriracha 1000 island
broccoli soup at Dandelion Communitea Cafe in Orlando
Broccoli soup
falafel at Dandelion Communitea Cafe in Orlando
Falafel lettuce wraps with green goddess dressing

What did we learn?

Quite a bit. First, Orlando is very vegan friendly. Also, there’s a lot of vegan junk food – highly processed garbage that no one should be eating. We did our best to stick with whole foods, diving into the junk here and there. Physically? If you’re looking to veganism for weight loss, look elsewhere. Of the three of us that went meat and dairy free, only one lost a few pounds. In order to get the stuff your body needs you tend to eat more grains and nuts. Our carb intake went way up. However – in terms of feeling good, there were very real results. We slept better, had more energy and found ourselves exercising more. The downside? A gnawing hunger that had to be fed all the fucking time. Finally – if moral and ethical certitude is what you seek, you’re on your own. Detached relativism (or, if you prefer, apathy) is kind of our thing.

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