January 30, 2013

Carnivores Venture Into the Unknown: Ithaca’s Most Innovative Vegan Creations

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If hipsters were sandwiches, they would be the bánh mì. Obscure, cross-cultural and visually appealing, this French-Vietnamese fusion food is both tasty and cool. As Hipster Kitchen, I’m sort of obligated to be into it; thankfully, it’s hard not to love.

A crash course, for those of you not fortunate enough to have ever stumbled across this delicacy: Literally, bánh mì is the Vietnamese name for French bread. Here in the Occident it’s come to mean the sandwiches made with said bread, which often uses rice flour in place of wheat flour, resulting in a light, crispy baguette-style loaf. Meat — usually tender bits of pork, swathed in silky marinade — is the main ingredient, and more often than not, a thick smear of rich pâté lies atop one face of the cut baguette, providing a pleasant contrast to the crunch of quick-pickled vegetables and cilantro garnish. With the addition of mayonnaise and sriracha, it’s hard for me to imagine a more perfect sandwich for the decadent carnivore.

Thus, I was amazed to see a vegan version of bánh mì on the menu at Cafeo, the tucked-away Collegetown coffee shop notable for awesome espresso drinks with a subtle Vietnamese twist. I’ve had its regular, meat-inclusive bánh mì (at the Cornell Farmer’s Market) and loved it, but I have to admit that I was skeptical of a meatless variety. It’s hard enough to make something vegetarian; vegans take abstemiousness to the next level, where self-deprivation ranges from ritualistic to impossible. Let it be known that I’m totally down with a diet rich in vegetables, grains, fungi and fruit. However, when animal-product substitutions come into play, I’ve always found that vegan food falls flat. I couldn’t imagine that this sandwich would live up to my standards. So, naturally, I ordered it.

Cafeo has triumphed. Its vegan bánh mì is different from but no less delightful than their classic version (termed the “Special” on their menu). Tofu is used in place of pork, and though the texture is not even remotely meatlike, the marinade is identical. I’m usually pretty nonplussed by tofu, but this stuff was marvelous: succulent and balanced. Equally astonishing was the mushroom-nut pâté swapped in for the meat kind. Savory, mellow and rich, it’s one of the only nut pâtés I’ve ever tasted that wasn’t drastically over-salted. The pickled vegetables and cilantro required no modification, and I couldn’t detect the presence of any questionable vegan mayonnaise, which must mean that they’re using something good. I was dining with a friend and thus was able to taste the meat version and the vegan version at the same time. I couldn’t pick a favorite. This is, by far, the most innovative dish I’ve ever encountered and one of the best lunches available in Ithaca. Meat-eaters and herbivores alike ought to give it a try.

-Clare Dougan

For some reason, so much of my life has revolved around tacos. Growing up, tacos meant one of two things: Either that it was Tuesday or Mom didn’t know what else to make for dinner. Needless to say, I ate a lot of them (it’s ok, Mom). My first year at Cornell, I had a hole in my heart; I couldn’t for the life of me find a good taco in Ithaca. What’s a good taco, you ask? It’s simple: A good, hot tortilla (crucial), some kind of MEAT filling (so juicy that it drips down your forearms), freshly made salsa of whatever scoville heat unit, some variety of sharp white cheese (not cheddar) and some shredded iceberg lettuce serving no nutritional value, only texture. I remember going to Viva Taqueria the first time my freshman year and being appalled by the menu. Who in their right mind would put tofu in burritos (#IthacaProblems)? I gave up on filling the void that is until I had a moment of weakness at Agava and became vulnerable to tofu (scary, I know). The East Hill Vegan tacos at Agava are a definite must-have. Whether you are vegan or not, don’t let the title steer you away. These tacos should be enjoyed free of social and cultural boundaries. What makes them great? The fact that they meet and exceed my previous definition of a good taco. The hot tortillas (whether you choose flour or corn) are the perfect vehicle for the (juicy!) marinated and grilled local tofu, salsa verde (freshly made), tomato, sweet corn and cabbage slaw that adorn them. As much as the purist in me resists change to “trendy” spins on classics, it is innovative dishes like Agava’s East Hill Vegan tacos that open my mouth as well as my mind.

-Austin Buben

Original Author: Clare Dougan