Wednesday, July 1, 2009

L.A. vegan restaurants fail ingredients test

Easily one of the biggest problems with trying to run a vegetarian-friendly restaurant is knowing what's in your ingredients. Mr. Meaner at Los Angeles food blog quarrygirl had the food from 17 L.A. vegan restaurants tested and seven of them failed due to the presence of casein and other prohibited substances.

No one takes their food more seriously than vegans and few "foodies" are more unforgiving in their criticism of restaurants. For most diners a bad meal is not the end of the world. For vegans, even a good meal can trigger unpleasant comments if they believe they were fed ingredients they find unacceptable. What should a restaurant owner do?

If you say you are a vegan restaurant, you are committing yourself to very strict standards. Keeping kosher is easy by comparison. Let me be very clear about this: True Thai is neither vegan or kosher! We have only one set of plates, and we use commercial ingredients over which we have no control but which we trust to be wholesome. We keep our prices low by keeping things simple, and running a vegan kitchen in a restaurant that serves meat, fish and eggs is next to impossible.

But I have been thinking about this challenge for a long time now. I would love to partner with some serious vegetarians to review True Thai's ingredients so we can offer a vegetarian menu that offers honest options to people who care deeply about their diet. In doing so I would hope to educate vegetarians about the realities of restaurant kitchens even as they educate me on the ways meat, fish and eggs sneak into other foods.

Many people think that Buddhists are all vegetarians, and that Buddhist countries like Thailand are havens for non-meat eaters. That is not true. Lord Buddha never commanded his followers to be vegetarians, and many forms of Buddhism allow monks to eat meat and/or fish. Even the Dalai Lama eats meat on occasion, although he teaches that vegetarianism is to be aspired to.

Americans, however, are nothing if not passionate. I know many Thai vegetarians and for them avoiding meat is either a duty or a goal, but either way the important thing is the effort.

True Thai has received complaints about our food from vegetarians. In some cases the criticism was warranted. Our biggest problem is in communication. We try but fail to make sure all our servers understand the issues involved, but for many of them there is simply too much involved in keeping track of all the different rules for all the different kinds of vegetarians. A special menu would help and I invite serious vegetarians with knowledge of food ingredients to email me to see if we can work together to solve the challenge of making True Thai more vegetarian friendly.

If you visit True Thai at night or on the weekends, and if you're not sure about what's in one of our dishes, please ask for me and I'll be glad to help you as best I can.

My friend Brenda Langton takes vegetarianism very seriously and loves True Thai as much as I love her restaurant, Café Brenda.