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Vegetarian and Vegan Options: the choices are in

Legumes, tuber roots, breadfruit, beans and grains were integral to the diet I grew up with.  My grandmother’s garden always had okra, tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, peppers, corn, zucchini, a pumpkin patch and herbs. An avocado tree had a prominent spot in the back yard, while plantain, bananas, citrus, papaya and mango trees filled the rest of the small enclosure. So, 32 years ago, when I decided to shift to a mostly vegetarian diet, the switch was not a difficult one. Much more challenging back in 1983 was finding vegetarian options in menus anywhere. But with the advent of the health benefits found on a plant based diet, restaurants the world over now have healthy vegetarian choices on their menus. And in Vieques, our accommodating Chefs are willing to turn a regular menu offering into a vegetarian pièce de résistance.

At the Forefront:

El Quenepo’s Chef Scott Cole has an exclusive vegetarian entrée on the menu and a number of appetizers, soups and salads that are vegetarian.  The specials include his signature Mofongo made from breadfruit and pumpkin. It can be prepared vegetarian by request. Other offerings such as the Masalla and the Carnitas are available as vegetarian dishes. Recently, I had an exceptional vegetarian special there: Polenta Crushed Squash Blossoms – a Mexican inspired recipe with fresh chanterelle mushrooms, local organic arugula, and a ricotta made Cavatelli drizzled with a home-made tomato basil vinaigrette. I hope it becomes a permanent menu item in the future.

Chef David Donovan has had a vegetarian section on the menu of TradeWinds Restaurant since I first set foot on Vieques. The section consisted mostly of pastas, but today TradeWinds boasts a tasty Quinoa vegetarian offering that is a must! Their Coconut Curry pasta with vegetables is also a great veggie choice.

Chef Xandra at Carambola gets her inspiration to create vegetarian dishes from the vegetables that are available in the kitchen at that very moment. I recently had her plantain Mofongo topped with a stir fry of fresh vegetables all cooked to perfection. Because the vegetables change from day-to-day, her creation is always new and different. Always thinking of new ways to incorporate more ethnic food into her menu offerings, Xandra is excited about Carambola’s new around the world tapas upstairs. The tapas will include vegetarian Thai and Indian choices. Also, Carambola’s pizza menu has several vegetarian options and for a healthy breakfast, their fruit and granola choices have no competition.

That Unique Pasta Twist:

In addition to the extraordinary brick-oven style pizza that Taverna is known for, Chef Joe has always had a few vegetarian tricks up his sleeve including pizzas without cheese for the strict vegan. For a pasta experience like no other try his signature Zucchini Noodles with homemade pesto. This macrobiotic/vegan pasta option is one of the best entrees I have ever tasted anywhere. Combine this entrée with a Greek salad and you have the makings of an unforgettable meal. Joe’s homemade marinara sauce used on the pasta (different from the tomato sauce used on the pizzas) is vegan and will satisfy even the most discriminating of Italian food connoisseurs. Taverna has excellent pasta options for vegetarians.

Burrito no meato:

Coqui Fire’s Kahuna Vegetarian Burrito easily commands a prominent place at the table of any vegetarian discussion. Chef Jimmy stuffs the Burrito with perfectly seasoned rice, beans and vegetables. The resulting Kahuna has the power to make a convert out of any carnivore.

The Magicians:

When alchemy and culinary artistry is called for, some of our chefs do not disappoint. Their magic touch is evident in every bite.

Eva Bolivar’s Vegetarian Gnocchi at Bilí is simply a religious experience. Perfectly cooked, the dish is creamy and rich with subtle flavors. Eva’s dressing (star fruit is a key ingredient) turns any salad into the highlight of a meal.

Chef Buddy at Next Course offers several vegetarian options that include a well thought out, inventive and delicious Herbed Goat Cheese Quinoa with a stuffed Portobello mushroom, grilled cauliflower and asparagus. But his Beet Salad with herbed goat cheese, and spiced walnuts is a masterpiece. Try it and be in on a great secret.

Chef Rebecca at Conuco offers a classic Mofongo that comes vegetarian upon request. It is then served with either a garlic-butter or a Creole sauce. This Mofongo tastes similar to those found deep in the mountains of Puerto Rico. Rebecca’s magic lies in combining simple ingredients and herbs such as garlic and cilantro for that robust criollo taste. Keep in mind that Conuco’s lunch menu has some great and tasty vegetarian options.

The Big Surprises:

Breadless Pizza sounds like an oxymoron, but it is in fact one of the many exquisite culinary surprises found in Erica’s kitchen at Arenamar Café, the restaurant inside Sunbay. The crust is an exquisite mixture of cauliflower, almonds, eggs and spices. Upon request, she can turn some of the menu items into local vegetarian dishes. Her lunch option Burrito is a must!

Who would ever think there’d be great vegetarian options at a BBQ/rib joint? For those craving vegetarian Sushi, a visit to TinBox will provide a number of satisfying rolls. Also, all the organic greens in their fresh and tasty salad are from the garden in the back of the restaurant.

And while at Mar Azul watching a spectacular sunset, take a look at their bar menu. You’ll find some great veggie bites. On taco nights their generous taco bar spread has enough vegetarian choices to keep anyone coming back for more.

A veggie burger is now a regular item at restaurants like Bananas, Duffy’s and Belly Buttons. Often their specials have vegetarian dishes, and you’ll find their chefs are game to come up with vegetarian options on the fly.

Buen Provecho has the best hummus on the island, and their sandwich bar has some good and healthy veggie options.

Being a vegetarian in Vieques hasn’t always been easy, but the health benefits of the diet outweigh the ongoing struggles of finding the right foods and/or nutritional balance. Luckily our island’s culinary expansion has brought endless choices even for those of us who are vegetarians.

Rule of Thumb

While none of our restaurants have an exclusive menu for strict vegetarians, or those with food allergies or restrictions, the offerings on our island have increased considerably.  Raw, macrobiotic, vegan and other delicious food choices are abundant and capable of satisfying the dietary needs of an ever-growing group of diners.  My rule of thumb?  Always ask!  It’s the best way to discover the possibilities available as well as assure yourself the food is truly meat-free, from preparation to cooking to presentation.

Heads Up

Highly allergic to poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak? Then you should avoid eating our mangos and cashew fruit:  they are members of the same plant family – the Anacardiaceae – and posses the same toxic phytochemicals only in lesser amounts. You may develop overt symptoms upon  eating them: temporary and painless  disfiguration of the face and lips. Not a good thing on vacation.  Or ever.

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