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Guide for sophisticated vegetarian dining

Category Archives: Boulder, CO

I love small, independent restaurants, ideally with someone eccentric (like the Swedish Chef from Sesame Street) in the kitchen.

But, if we’re going to feed the planet’s seven billion a sustainable diet, we need order, efficiency, and scale. So it’s great that California’s Native Foods Cafe has opened a new outpost in Boulder. (You can also find them in Portland and Chicago.)

Their Boulder cafe is not near Frasca, Salt, and other upscale restaurants on Pearl Street, but in a strip mall along with Pei Wei, Panera, and Chipotle. Native Foods is fast, casual, reasonably priced – and vegan.

(On a related note, check out this Wired story on Lyfe, a new chain with sustainable fast food.)

Native Foods brags that it makes most things in-house, including “chicken” and “bacon.”

The menu is a mix of indulgent treats (nachos, bacon cheeseburger, meatball pizza), healthful options (crunchy kale salad, curry bowl) and points in between.

I wanted to try one of the Native Meats, so I started with a cup of chili:

The Native Meat (tasted like tempeh) added a meaty texture to the white bean chili. The accompanying cornbread was pretty moist, which can be hard to achieve with vegan baking.

The Native Cheese, a housemade blend of cashews, sunflower seeds, and other nuts, added creaminess but didn’t really have the umami of dairy cheese. Once I added some hot sauce, this was a tasty and protein-packed dish. I’m sure they season lightly to appeal to a wide audience.

Next up: the Bangkok Curry Bowl. This is a dish you find on a lot of fast casual menus. Native Food’s version stood out for the variety of vegetables: kale, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, and carrots.

The tofu steak had a nice sear on it. The coconut milk curry was tasty but, like the chili, lacked heat and required a liberal dose of hot sauce. Next time, I’ll ask for the curry on the side to avoid the brown rice on the bottom of the bowl soaking up the liquid.

Apps at Native Food Cafe run about $6- 7, while entrees are $9-10. These are not McDonald’s prices, but they’re very reasonable for the quality of what you get.

I hope Native Foods continues to expand its footprint  – this is a chain I can happily get behind.


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If you’re vegetarian, you’ve probably, at least once in your life, been taken to a place (say a steakhouse in the Midwest) where you don’t want/can’t eat/won’t eat a thing on the menu. Where even the salads have bacon in them.

When I’m picking a place to eat, it’s tempting to aim for revenge. But I take the high road and try to pick places that will make everyone happy.

Riffs is about perfect for a mixed group, which in our case included a vegetarian, a pescatarian, and a determined carnivore.

Describing itself as a “foodbar,” Riffs is run by the chef of Q’s, a fine dining restaurant in the Hotel Boulderado. Riffs is more casual and affordable than Q’s, but there’s a definite focus on quality ingredients and interesting flavors.

In addition to vegetarian salads and pastas, the small plates section of the menu on the night I visited had three veg protein options: bread with white bean puree, green pea hummus, and miso glazed tofu.

I started with the green pea hummus:It came with a jalapeno sofrito, or oil-based sauce. The hummus itself was chunky, more suitable for peas, than chickpea hummus, and the sofrito had a bit of heat.

Since I didn’t want a plate of pasta, I ordered the miso glazed tofu in ginger carrot broth as my entree:

The pickled beech mushrooms and seaweed salad added sourness and astringency – you need big flavors like that when you’re serving tofu, which is so bland on its own. The tofu had been seared and had a nice crust on it.

I also had a side of lemony, garlicky greens.

Even the carnivore at the table agreed that the greens were delicious.

If you want a large plate with vegetarian protein, Leaf or The Kitchen in Boulder might be better bets. But, for small plates with veggies and plenty of veg protein, Riffs is great.

(Also, they card everyone. So you can feel good about that moisturizer you remembered to use a week ago.)

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It’s tough out there. You know what would fix you right up? An elixir. Or maybe a potion. Good thing Shine in Boulder offers both. (They also have alcoholic drinks, if elixirs and potions made with roots/herbs aren’t your thing.)

I ordered a firewater potion shooter. It came in a tiny cup and was extremely gingery. No watering down of potent ingredients here:

A dining area, a bar, a lounge, and a performance space fill Shine’s cavernous space. There was lots going on the night I visited. The space is dominated by a huge graphic of a tree – modern hippie chic.

The menu comes in a binder complete with dividers. If you need more than elixirs/potions/wine/cocktails, there’s food. While not vegetarian, Shine has  many vegetarian and vegan plates, including beet hummus, coconut kitchari (an Indian lentil/rice dish), and jack fruit soft tacos with quinoa and black beans. The dishes are nutrient-rich, which I appreciate. There are also gluten-free options.

First up for me, the probiotic slaw sampler, made by a local company:

The sampler had kim chi, sauerkraut with caraway seed, and beet and citrus ginger slaws. All were delicious. The garlicky kim chi was easily the most complex.

Next, the Colorado Winter Squash soup:

The soup was sweet with coconut milk, and the kale chips on top added a slight bitter note and some crunch. It was a tasty, hearty winter dish.

In the menu, Shine’s owners state that their goal is to offer good food at an affordable price. The entrees range from $11-17 a plate, and the salads and starters are of course less. This is a chill spot.

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A few years ago, I was lucky enough to travel in Tibet. I was unlucky that it was December and miserably cold. I remember looking enviously at the yaks, who looked perfectly comfortable in the cold, and wondering how many cups of yak butter tea it would take to get an insulating layer of fat going.

(Glad I made the trip — I haven’t been near that part of the world with time to travel since then.)

Dushanbe Teahouse reminds me of some of the beautiful buildings I saw on that trip to the world’s high plains – and of the romance of travel.

The structure was built by the people of Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Boulder’s sister city), taken apart, and shipped to Colorado. Boulder in turn sent Dushanbe a cyber cafe.

The intricate Tajik woodwork is enhanced by Persian carved plaster panels, colorful textiles and paintings, and an indoor pond with plants and fish.  The overall effect is lovely and calm.

The menu is literally all over the map: Italian pasta and polenta, Asian noodles, and Indian items, including masala dosa and saag paneer (highly recommended on Yelp). Lots of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options. The menu has only one Tajik option, a dish called plov made with seared beef.

I ordered the Persian Chickpea Kufteh:

That’s a plate of chickpea balls with Persian tomato sauce, pomegranate molasses reduction, spinach, and a soft cooked egg. I liked the chewiness of the chickpeas and the contrast between the tart sauce and the lightly sauteed spinach.

I liked the extra protein, but the chickpeas would have been fine without the egg. The Tuscan wine recommended with the dish was fruity and complemented the rich flavors.

The menu has an extensive tea section with lovingly written descriptions, and a beautiful tea bar.

Dushanbe Teahouse made me feel like I was delightfully far from home, if only for a couple of hours.






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Why do some restaurants make you feel good while others don’t? It isn’t money — expensive restaurants can feel stiff and awkward, while some taco places feel perfect. There’s an X factor that makes some places work.

Whatever it is, Frasca has it. Eating pasta at the Frasca bar while watching the snow fall — I could not have been happier. Kind of weird that I like it so much, because Frasca doesn’t have many vegetarian options.

The space itself is elegant and beautifully lit. I love sitting at the bar, since I’m generally only there for a quick bite on a work night.

They serve wine by the half glass (tajuk is the term in Friuli, the Italian region Frasca draws inspiration from), so you can drink just a little or sample different wines. The cocktails look terrific, too.

On my last visit, I had the vellutata, a cauliflower soup with montasio cheese and pickled beet.

The natural creaminess of the cauliflower, and (let’s be honest) the butter and cream made it rich and delicious. I loved the tartness of the pickled beet at the bottom of the bowl.

Next up: fresh made stradette, which are strips of cornmeal pasta. Frasca served them with  leeks and parmigiana.

The cornmeal in the pasta gave it a chewy texture, and the pureed leeks with cheese were rich and delicious. Pasta has to be really great to be served naked like this, not covered in a ton of sauce or butter.

Frasca doesn’t have vegetarian main courses, but they did have a couple of pasta and risotto options when I ate there. I wish they had more vegetarian options, but it’s hard to complain when every single plate I’ve had there is great. And when they have Mose Tolliver paintings on the restroom doors:




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Leaf is a great little vegetarian restaurant. It has raw food, pasta dishes made with cheese and eggs, and lots of meatless dishes in between those two points.

I’ve eaten here many times. There are some dishes that I love, like the raw wrap with rainbow chard and cashew cheese. Their three-course prix fixe ($24) is a great deal. I love that they’ll let you pick a starter, a salad, and an entree instead of dessert. (They’d probably let you order three desserts too — Leaf is  run by really nice people.)

On my last trip, I started with the daily soup, which was described as a gumbo with black eyed peas and okra.

It was good and nicely flavored, though it could have been thicker (it was more soup than gumbo).

Faced with too many choices for my entree, I gave up and ordered what my waitress recommended: peanut noodles with tofu and an egg on top. I generally love an egg on top. But this dish, with the peanut sauce and the egg, was just too rich. It was delicious, and I probably would have enjoyed it more on a day when I was hungrier or craving fatty goodness.

But it’s nice (as a vegetarian) to have choices, even if I make the wrong one every once in a while. Can’t wait to try Leaf again.

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I really want to love Salt. First, because it’s called Salt, a substance I sprinkle liberally on everything short of coffee. And second because the restaurant does all the right things: buy from local farmers, use organic produce, tell you all about it on the menu. What’s not to love?

The menu is divided into Appetizers, Salads, Small Plates, and Entrees. There are veggie options in all sections. I had the Local Organic Vegetable Tasting, an entree.

I have to reproduce the description in its entirety. Even if I cooked with everything in my fridge after grocery shopping, it wouldn’t look like this:

Polenta with sweet corn and cavolo nero, ratatouille, quinoa fritters, green bean and creme fraiche salad, eggplant roulade with ricotta, spicy tomato passata and buffalo mozzarella.

Lots going on.  The polenta was addictive, the slight bitterness of the cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) contrasting with the creamy, buttery goodness of the polenta. The green bean and crème fraiche salad was a nice riff on one of those Midwestern salads with mayonnaise as the dressing – creative use of crème fraiche. The ratatouille was spicy but not overwhelming.

Nothing was bad. But did it all go together? Does anyone really need that much food? Wouldn’t it be more elegant to offer two quinoa cakes, some green beans with crème fraiche, and a small mound of polenta? Isn’t pairing crunchy with soft, salty with creamy what chefs do?

Salt deserves credit for trying so hard. Judging by the crowds on a Wednesday night, they’re doing just fine. But I wish Salt would look in the mirror and take just one accessory off before leaving home.

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