On the six month anniversary of my becoming The Virgin Vegan I decided to compile a list of Vegan-friendly restaurants in my neighborhood. When I say “The Lower East Side” I mean anywhere in that area you can reach in 15 minutes or less on foot.

Review Lights
I will rate each Vegan hangout based on food, atmosphere and value for the price. Each place will be evaluated on the standard system of one to five Go Inside Magazine Review Lights. Five green GO lights are best while all red STOP lights are the worst. I’ll place a text tag under the Review Lights so you’ll know the colors of the lights in case you choose to print out this review on a black and white printer that doesn’t have great greyscale ability. I will update this article as new places to eat Vegan are discovered.

Angelica Kitchen
12th Street Betwixt First & Second Avenue

With a guarantee of over 95% of their food being organic, you can’t beat Angelica Kitchen for a sublime experience if you’re eating in or taking out. The marinated tofu sandwich is a daily staple along with their sea vegetables, mashed potatoes with brown rice gravy and the Wee Dragon Bargain. Their sweet muffins are a heavy, heavenly delight. Their salads are to die for. Every other Vegan joint in town bows down to Angelica Kitchen as they rightly should. Angelica is expensive, though. You’ll pay around $35 for a good dinner for two. The atmosphere is relaxed and homey. They blessedly deliver to most of the Lower East Side.

(all GREEN)

Burritoville
Second Avenue Betwixt St. Marks & 9th

For under six bucks, the Mega-Soy Burrito comes in a bright green spinach skin filled with beans, brown rice, guacamole, veggies and tofu sour cream and cheese! What a taste delight! We ordered the Mega-Soy once and got a chicken burrito, but the next 20 times we ordered it, we got what we ordered. Just be sure to look before you bite! Several other burritos and salads on the menu are Vegan and you can always swap out regular cheese and sour cream for the tofu variety for a small charge. If you eat in the store you can get free nachos along with very loud music. The Mega-Soy burrito will cost around $13 for two of them, but you’ll feel full after. They deliver to most of the Lower East Side.

(four GREEN, one RED)

Cafe Rakka
St. Mark’s & 8th

Good food, cheap! You can get a hummus falafel for under two bucks. The French Fries are tasty and filling. The atmosphere is that of a hole in the wall, but you’re not paying for candlelight and table service. The folks are always friendly. Dinner for two comes in under $8. Sidle up, order, pay, and run!

(three GREEN, two RED)

Commodities
First Avenue Betwixt 10th & 11th

If you’re looking for good organic fast food, look no further than Commodities. Namely a produce and staples store, they also have a wide-ranging choice of refrigerated Vegan options: Sandwiches, Udon noodles, and wheat-gluten chicken nuggets (with dipping sauce) if you’re in a hungry hurry. Prices for a quick lunch for two can be $5 to $10 depending on your hungry meter. Commodities is clean and bright.

(three GREEN, two RED)

Crazy Carrot
Second Avenue at 21st Street

The Southwestern tofu scramble was delicious and struck a good balance between spiciness and serving an even palate experience. Their grain coffee was exceptional. The carrot juice was snazzy and cool. Ordering their pizza (ask for no cheese) proved to be a gentle surprise! The crust was hearty but not hurtful to chew. The sauce tasted like fresh tomatoes and not stale spaghetti sauce. The toppings were perfectly cooked onions, mushrooms, black olives and green peppers. The environment is winning, the wait staff friendly, but the prices aren’t cheap. Expect to pay around $30 for a small meal for two without dessert or juice or drinks included.

(I’m sorry to report that it appears this restaurant has gone dark.)

(three GREEN, two RED)

Kate’s Joint
Avenue B & 4th

Kate’s Joint is not only a dive, but the food is deepest, dead-worst I’ve ever tasted. Their “fake tofu steak” was thin and rubbery. The gravy was cold. The mashed potatoes were hard and pellety. The squash was dry and over-cooked. The tofu pizza wasn’t much better: no sauce, overly mashed tofu to the point of liquid separation, stale carrots, too many onions and an over-indulgence of spices. The hardtack “pizza crust” was inedible and a tooth-breaker. The tables were filthy and the prices were high. The service was tattooed, multi-pierced and surly. We paid $25 for dinner for two and it was worth less than a quarter of that. Avoid Kate’s Joint at all costs unless you’re in a sadomasochist mood.

(all RED)

Life Cafe
Avenue B & 10th

Life Cafe was an enjoyable experience. The Vegan nachos were outstanding: Tasty, delicate, oven-baked. The Vegan special was a mixture of greens, broth, shaved carrots, short grain brown rice, garbanzo beans and mushrooms. The Vegan Sauté was also quite good with shredded seitan mixed in with the greens, broth and rice. The atmosphere is kinky fun. You’ll pay around $25 for a small dinner for two. To get filled up and not go home hungry, expect to pile on some appetizers and side veggies and pony up $40 when you leave. They deliver to most of the Lower East Side after 6 pm.

(four GREEN, one RED)

Lucky’s Juice Joint
Second Avenue at 11th

Lucky’s is a great place to eat but there are only counters and no tables. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed but not cheap. A large soup is around $8 (it’s usually cold, so make them warm it up for you if you go early) and if you want a sandwich (hummus or avocado or veggie patty…) to go along with that, expect to pay another $6 or so. The Vegan carob chip cookies by Bean Bag are worth the trip alone, but each giant cookie will drain $2.50 from your pocket. Make sure you get the Carob cookie! Sometimes they have only the chocolate chip variety. The Carob cookie tastes better and sweeter than the chocolate chip version. We eat there a lot, but can never seem to leave without handing over at least $30 first. They deliver to most of the Lower East Side.

(four GREEN, one RED)

McDonald’s
3rd Avenue Betwixt St. Mark’s & 9th
Broadway and 8th

Believe it or not, you CAN get a Vegan dinner at McDonalds! You can read my review of the McDonald’s McVeggie here. McDonald’s are at least trying to serve a healthier menu in limited cities, and I support their effort entirely. The atmosphere is clean and warm and two McVeggie Combos will run you around $10. Not bad for a good, quick, cheap, Vegan meal in the Big Apple!

(four GREEN, one RED)

Prana
First Avenue & 4th

Prana wants to be Commodities, but their selection and pricing and quality of atmosphere and product are not up to the task. Getting a quick meal here isn’t easy since Prana appears to concentrate mostly on providing bulk grains and nuts. Prices are more expensive than Whole Foods and Commodities, so the advantage to shopping here are beyond me. The atmosphere is dingy, drab and smelly.

(all RED)

Sassy’s Sliders
First Avenue & 10th

A slider is kind of like a White Castle burger. Sassy’s provides a tiny, greasy, vegetarian slider make of zucchini, carrots and soy and they don’t taste bad if they’re not burned. Out of 20 sliders we’ve eaten recently, over 70% of them were burned black on one side. Make sure they hold the cheese and the honey mustard to make your Veggie Slider Vegan. A combo of four Veggie sliders, garlic or yam fries and a diet drink will cost under $10 for two. That’s a great value. The atmosphere is a wacky 50’s theme and it works! The place is immaculately clean and tables abound. Beware they don’t open until noon even though their advertising states they open at 11 am… if you walk in at 11:55 am, they’ll toss you out for five minutes. I tried twice to get into the restaurant at 12:15 pm one day and 12:21 another day and they weren’t open (though there were workers inside preparing to open the store). Play it safe and don’t head over there until 1:00 pm or so. They deliver to most of the Lower East Side.

(I’m sorry to report that it appears this restaurant has gone dark though the shop on 3rd Avenue in the 70’s or so seems to be alive and kicking.)

(two GREEN, three RED)

Subway
14th Street near the Southeast corner of First Avenue

You can get a great Vegan sandwich at Subway if you’re careful. You’ll have to go against your Vegan instinct and order the WHITE roll instead of the WHEAT one. The wheat bread isn’t Vegan since honey is added to it. Order the Veggie Delight and choose from a plethora of fresh vegetables to pile high on your giant white bun. Make sure they hold the mayonnaise and cheese, though. We like to add all the vegetables and then have the oil held. At home I add Flax Seed Oil, Nutritional Yeast (for that cheesy taste) and hearty dollops of Veganaise (eggless and dairy free “mayonnaise”). Talk about a Vegan Heaven taste sensation! Subway is clean and two footlong Veggie Delights will cost you under $5.00! Beware of the veggie burger at Subway, though, since it changes from store to store and not all of them offer Vegan veggie burgers (some have egg, some whey, some other unfriendly ingredients). Subway is usually clean and the workers appear to live to please you.

(three GREEN, two RED)

Taco Bell
Third Avenue Betwixt 10th & 11th

The refried beans are no longer made with lard! The rice is no longer cooked in chicken broth! If you need some fast energy, popping into the ever-clean Taco Bell and loading up on salsa, beans and rice will run you under $7.00 for two. Beware that the tortillas (casein) are not Vegan and neither is the red sauce (clam sauce).

(two GREEN, three RED)

Uno’s
Third Avenue Betwixt 10th & 11th

You can get a Vegan meal at Uno’s if you are persistent, unbending and canny. My wife and I have ordered their fettuccini (eggless) with marinara sauce WITHOUT CHEESE frequently enough that the “without cheese” option is now in their cash register computer as an order option! We won that war by sending back every plate we got served with grated cheese after we expressly asked not to have cheese. You’ll also have to fight them to get rid of the standard garlic bread. The kitchen will claim they can’t substitute, but tell your waiter you can’t have cheese of any and that you want a toasted hamburger bun (yes, they’re Vegan!) instead. The kitchen will warble and threaten to charge you 50 cents for the hamburger bun. Tell your waiter you’re happy to pay the extra money for the hamburger bun if the kitchen will also — to be fair — deduct the price of the grated cheese and garlic bread you’re not using! You’ll end up saving money on that deal, because even the kitchen at Uno’s knows cheese and garlic bread cost a lot more than a plain hamburger bun! Your waiter must be your advocate and if you help your waiter with ways to fight the jerks in kitchen, you can have a lovely Vegan dinner at Uno’s (if you don’t mind the tsouris of getting what you want). One time the kitchen refused to do ANYTHING but charge us 50 cents for the hamburger buns. Our waiter said the kitchen was being ridiculous and refused to charge us for the substitution. We gave the extra dollar we saved back to our waiter for his kindness, understanding and support. Another thing you’ll have to fight at Uno’s is THEIR demand to substitute FOR you! Several times they served us garlic bread without the cheese but WITH THE BUTTER. When we explained we couldn’t have any dairy at all, in any form, the kitchen got indignant. Make your stand clear up front. Vote with your pocketbook! Uno’s will always have a hamburger bun available, so don’t buy the kitchen’s song and dance that they’ll substitute “whatever’s available.” Dinner for two will run you around $20 and the atmosphere is Midwestern friendly.

(three GREEN, two RED)

Vegan Bakery
8th Street Betwixt First and Avenue A

If you want bread, desert and other fine entertainment for your palette, then the Vegan bakery is made for you! Everything there is Vegan and made without added sugar: Carob brownies, strawberry/apple turnovers, apple/raisin/oat granola bars, poppy seed loaf and strawberry cobbler are but a few of the staples we tasted one day. They also serve muffins, cookies, Vegan lasagna, bread and Vegan pizza! The atmosphere is lacking since it’s really a hole-in-the-wall and the prices are expensive. A brownie that tastes like sand runs you around $2.50.

(three GREEN, two RED)

VP2 (Vegetarian’s Paradise 2)
West 4th Street Near 6th Avenue

Vegetarian’s Paradise 2 is a tasty Vegan delight in a basement near NYU. You might miss the VP2 sign as you stroll towards 6th Avenue on West 4th Street if you’re not looking South and down. The tables are small. The air is humid. The food is incredible! The clay pots come packed with vegetables, tofu, rice and vital wheat gluten. The Vegan pumpkin pie is delicious. The non-dairy ice cream is memorable. It would take you a month of lunches and dinners to try each unique Vegan taste delight featured on the menu. The baked soy buns with Hoison sauce are a fantastic appetizer. The chicken with pineapple is lovely. The mung bean thing shaped into a square bordered with leaves (it’s on menu in the the Favorites area) is unforgettably unique. They’ll also cook to order for you. If you want steamed tofu with garlic and spinach, they’ll whip that up or anything else you desire. Speak it and they’ll serve it! While VP2 isn’t cheap at around $40 for dinner for two, the price is negligible due to the amount of joy you’ll bring home riding in your stomach.

(all GREEN)

Zen Palate (UPDATED! 4/29/06)
16th & Union Square East

Zen Palate is a classy place to eat. The atmosphere is elegant. The food is sublime (though they do use a lot of oil). Nearly everything on the menu is Vegan (some of the deserts have milk in them) and the preparation and presentation is simply lovely and delicious. Eating downstairs in the cafe gets you quick service: We liked the yam fries, steamed vegetable dumplings, the Sheppard’s pie croquettes and ham-like dinners. The veggie burger is also quite good. The upstairs dining room is a lesson in comfort and class. We enjoyed their appetizer plate for two along with Zen ravioli. For dinner we especially liked the Sizzling Seitan plate and Golden Pond potato dinners. Service was attentive and outstanding. Zen Palate uses a lot of oil and flavoring, so this is a good place to take friends of yours stuck on the Standard American Diet (SAD). If you’re a health nut and seek only organic food and appropriate calories, I’d skip Zen and head to Angelica. Prices were reasonable for the entire dining package. Dinner for two in the cafe will run around $14 or so and dinner for two upstairs will cost around $25.

A GO INSIDE Magazine reader who claims to work at Zen Palate sent me the following corrective email I want to share with you now:

I came across your web page and I while I find it informative and very helpful, I feel compelled to let you know about some errors that you may find surprising. I am an employee of the Zen Palate. While it is a strictly Vegetarian restaurant, not all the dishes are Vegan. Of the dishes you mentioned I am sad to say that four of them are not Vegan. The Yam Fries have egg white in the batter, the Sheppard’s Pie Croquets also contain egg products as does the Veggie Ham. In addition the soy dairy in the Zen Ravioli contains casein. I have made it a point to find out for sure what is in each dish so that when confronted with Vegan diners I can confidently tell them which dishes to avoid. Unfortunately not every Vegan is vocal enough to ask if each dish they order is Vegan or not and I (nor any of my fellow employees) is a mind reader. Although some of the items you mentioned are “no-no’s” the vast majority of the items are Vegan, so it is appropriate that you mention Zen Palate on your list.

You can imagine my dismay! I’d been told by the Union Square wait staff that the aforementioned items I’d eaten at Zen Palate were Vegan! Now I get this insider information! I asked for further detail:

I am sorry for the misinformation you received at the Union Square location, I’m sure it was not malicious in nature and probably due to either a language barrier or poor training. However, I have made a point of researching the menu items so that I can inform my Vegan diners of what items to avoid, unfortunately I cannot volunteer the information to each table without being asked if the items are Vegan or without prior knowledge of the dietary habits of the diner. This stems from a problem prior to my employment of Vegan waiters making diners uncomfortable by acting inappropriately when a customer ordered non-Vegan items. Off the top of my head the menu items that are not Vegan are as follows:

Zen Wonton Soup (the wrappers may or may not contain sodium sterol lactate, the packaged wrappers do not have the ingredients listed however similar products contain this ingredient so I would avoid it)

Spinach Linguini Salad (noodles contain egg)

Zen Ravioli (casein in the soy dairy)

Zen Rolls (egg in the veggie ham)

Veggie Burger with Yam Fries (contains egg) please note that there is also a Zen Veggie Burger offered which is completely Vegan

Sheppard’s pie croquets (contain egg)

Moo Shu Fantasia (the dish itself is Vegan, however the crepes contain sodium sterol lactate)

Orange Sensation (egg in the batter)

Sunset Meditation (casein in the soy dairy)

Jewel of Happiness (egg in the tempura batter)

Red Mist (egg in veggie ham)

Banana Pie (listed as non-dairy however contains casein)

I will be more than happy to provide you with any further information you need. Please also keep in mind that the vast majority of items on the menu are totally Vegan, and never be afraid to ask, and ask again, or make sure that the waiter checks with the kitchen on any item you may find questionable.

I was crushed! I felt lied to by the wait staff of Zen Palate. The Union Square Zen Palate waitresses are darling blondes so communication was no problem. They must simply be uninformed. Drat! The staff at the Zen Palate at Broadway and 76-ish along with the Zen Palate staff near Times Square do pose communication problems. You basically have to point at what you want on the menu since a language barrier exists for any in-depth back and forth question and answer session concerning what’s Vegan and what is not. I asked my Zen Insider for some positive light! What’s good on the Zen Palate menu that is, indeed, Vegan? I also asked if it would be possible to put a small “V” on the menu items that are Vegan so no further confusion will reign at Zen Palate for Vegan diners. Here is the reply:

As far as a Vegan symbol on the menu, I highly doubt that will occur. I wouldn’t exactly categorize this practice as non-disclosure because the information is available and each member of the waitstaff really should be informed as to the contents of the dishes, due to the number of customers with special dietary habits and allergies.

Some recommendations on Vegan items:

Soup:
Hot and Sour Vegetable Soup – delicious and contains tofu and soy protein

Appetizers:
Autumn Rolls (everyone’s favorite)
Steamed Seasonal Vegetable Dumplings (Yum!)

Prix Fix:
Shredded Heaven (Really is heaven, soy protein, seitan,
sprouts, peppers and chives)

A la carte:
Celestial Tofu (my personal favorite)
Tapestry Embrace (mushroom ‘steak’)

Dessert:
Pear pie
Tofu Almond Pie

Also of note, some dishes contain refined sugar in the sauces, now that the information regarding sugar processing is being made public, the kitchen is looking into non-processed sugar. In addition, the menus at the different restaurants are similar, though there are items that are only at some or one location.

Now you know what I know! It’s a tough test every day to eat Vegan. I’m not hurt or angry that I was misled by the Zen Palate staff and ate non-Vegan food. If I had that attitude I’d be furious and upset every day of my life. Living a Vegan lifestyle means doing the best you can with the information you have each and every day and when you get a loving and informative email with insider insight that changes the way you live and eat and interact at a certain restaurant, you welcome and embrace the correction because information is identity. Identity and information are the hallmarks of the Vegan effort. I’ve re-re-adjusted my rating of Zen Palate to reflect my informed disappointment. I have email from other Veganites who, after reading this update, have also have been lied to by the Zen Palate waitstaff about meals being Vegan when they are not. I find that behaviour a terrible trend and blatantly inexcusable. Zen Palate now gets a lonesome green GO INSIDE Magazine Review Light instead of five.

(one GREEN, four RED)

UPDATE: April 29, 2006 —

We received the folloing email on April 14, 2006 from Zen Palate:

Dear Mr. Boles,

I am writing in response to your article from 1999 on goinside.com about Zen Palate which included a “corrective” email from one of our employees from that time. Unfortunately much of the information that this person gave was incorrect even at the time that the article was published. I will admit that there were instances in which the information was correct but in these cases we have long since remedied the situation by either removing that item from our menu completely, changing the ingredients, or by marking it on our menu as containing dairy or egg. At the present time our menu is almost entirely vegan except in the very few cases in which it is marked on the menu.

The only reason that I am responding to an article that is so outdated is that in this age of the internet we are finding that many of our customers (or potential customers) still reference this material and therefore believe it to be accurate and up-to-date. Zen Palate is very proud to support and promote the vegan/vegetarian cause and we are continually striving to improve the quality of our menu, service, and staff training. In the past year alone we have made so many improvements in these areas that the Zen Palate today is markedly different from the Zen Palate of 2000.

I hope that in the public’s interest you can update the information on your site so that there is no more confusion about Zen Palates ingredients or our mission towards social responsibility. If you have any further questions about Zen Palate or our ingredients you are welcome to contact me directly and I will be more than happy to get the answers for you.

Yours in health,

Chad Carpenter
Director of Corporate Communications
Zen Palate Group

If that updated informatin goes against your experience, please contact us via the email link found on our homepage and tell us who you are and what you know and we’ll check into it for you.

Conclusion
It’s easy to eat Vegan on the Lower East side. I will continue to update this review as I discover new and exciting places to eat in The Lower East Side. I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. If you have any places I should review for this list, please touch my hotlinked name at the head of this article and let me know!