Dining out with a vegan is like a date with Mr. Bean, the Rowan Atkinson character for whom things rarely go right. In our group of friends, it's all about Mr. Green Bean, eschewer of meats and dairy products, chewer only of vegetables and grains and other edibles from sources that don't "blink, think or stink."
Try finding a restaurant with a menu that offers more than salad for the strict vegan. That's usually dry salad for Mr. Green Bean because he won't eat regular commercial dressings that might contain mayonnaise, eggs, cheese, milk proteins, animal fats or other non-vegan ingredients. He's super-vegan now, this guy, a convert after years of beer-and-burger abuse. Following six months of eating only raw foods, he's recently returned to limited amounts of veggies steamed and grilled. Have to say, hot food has warmed up his personality. During the raw food phase he lost enough weight to become Mr. String Bean, but he was no fun to be around. And nearly impossible to take out for a meal.
For a while the only two restaurants he'd go to were Mai's, the Vietnamese spot on Bryan Street that makes magic with tofu and curry, and Kalachandji's, the vegetarian-friendly Hare Krishna temple restaurant in East Dallas. We ventured off that path just once to a café near White Rock Lake and had what came to be known in our circle as the "veggie burger incident." Green Bean ran through all the important questions with the server and was assured that the burger patty was all-vegetable and that everything surrounding it—bread and condiments—harbored no elements derived from anything that had a face or a mother. One bite of the thing, however, revealed melted cheddar cheese and a heavy layer of mayo. You'd think he'd swallowed plutonium. Green Bean called the server over and, explaining the problem, politely requested a replacement sans contraband. A few minutes later the plate returned: Same burger (missing one bite) with the cheese and mayo sloppily but not completely scraped off. Management was consulted. "We can't do a whole new one for you," she said. We left hungry and made a run by the Whole Foods salad bar.
Spiral Diner broccoli $3.95
BBQ salad $7.75
Big taquito $7.95
The Mitch tofu club $7.95
Sketti and meatballs $8.50
Sweet potato pie $3.50
So it was a day to celebrate when the all-vegan all-the-time Spiral Diner & Bakery opened in Oak Cliff in February. It's the sister to the 6-year-old Spiral in Fort Worth—founded by Amy McNutt and in 2007 named vegetarian restaurant of the year by VegNews magazine. The new Spiral, owned by 25-year-old Sara Tomerlin, has only had a "soft opening," still such a work-in-progress they've had to remove a few tables temporarily to improve service to the droves of vegans and vegetarians who've been crowding the place since day one. Wait-staffers (young, heavily tattooed and elaborately pierced) are still in training and service can be a little balky, but as a meat-free zone, this already is Mecca for those starved for creatively flavored, carefully prepared vegan food.
At the crossroads of Zang Boulevard and Beckley Avenue, in a corner building that used to be a laundry, Spiral serves a mostly organic (or as organic as they can get) array of fresh juices, smoothies, creamy-sweet shakes (made with "I-Scream"), salads, hot and cold sandwiches, pastas, vegan chili, wraps, burritos and baked goods. Sky Soda and free-trade coffee are on tap at the beverage bar. Servings are generous and bargain-priced. Nothing on the menu is more than $10. Most items fall into the $5-$7 range. The Sunday brunch offers all-you-can-eat pancakes for $5.95.
Spiral gives off the old-fashioned, mid-century diner vibe, with roomy black vinyl booths, Formica-topped bar, chrome stools and black-and-white houndstooth-patterned tablecloths. The pale sprout-green walls reflect coolly in the silver stamped-tin ceiling. A vintage chandelier hangs over a larger booth at the back. The ambience is groovy-mellow. "We love each other," says a girl-waiter hugging a boy-waiter. The staff doubles up on cooking and serving here. (Being a vegan is not a requirement for employment, by the way.)
On our first visit we brought along the Bean for recommendations. He's had almost everything on the lineup and is partial to the "BBQ salad" and "sketti with meatballs." The former is a huge plate of chopped raw vegetables—lettuces, tomato, cucumber, purple cabbage, purple onion, carrot shreds, black olives, avocado, corn kernels and green peas—tossed with slices of grilled, almost blackened, seitan, a gluten product sometimes called "wheat meat." The barbecue flavor comes from the sauce on the seitan (pronounced say-tahn), which mixes nicely with the accompanying agave-mustard dressing, agave being the syrup-like nectar derived from a plant in the lily family.
The "sketti" is whole wheat or brown rice pasta (your choice) under a respectably thick marinara sauce. Plump rounds of soy "meatballs" pick up the flavors of the red gravy and almost, but not quite, masquerade successfully as the real thing. Mixed into the dish are toasted pine nuts and pesto. Hot garlic toast comes on the side.
As Spiral's pastas go, we were partial to the "spaghetti tropica." Tossed into the noodles and sauce are sliced black olives, chunks of pineapple and the toasted pine nuts and pesto, along with a couple of those soy balls. It might be the lightest, least guilt-inducing spaghetti dinner ever devised. There was so much of it on the plate, we brought home a takeout box of leftovers.
Sandwiches and wraps are probably the heaviest entrees on Spiral's menu. The "Mitch" is a hearty club-style sandwich featuring layers of grilled tofu (taking on the identity of white-meat chicken in this one), lettuce, tomato, chipotle dressing and "bacun bits," crunchy chunks of smoky-tasting fake bacon. In the "McNut patty melt" is a crunchy, burger-like round made of nuts, carrots, sunflower seeds, brown rice and spices sizzling under soy "cheez." The "big taquito" is a two-fisted monster filled with egg-like scrambled tofu, soy sausage, onions, red bell peppers, grilled potatoes and avocado, served with salsa on the side.
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With such light fare, the inclusion of lots of sides is a given. A bowl of steaming broccoli florets makes a virtuous starter dipped into the creamy agave-mustard. And if you've never had quinoa (keen-wa), Spiral's Mexican-inspired appetizer does wonders with the fluffy, nutty-flavored protein-rich seeds (from a relative of the chard family) in a bowl of dip full of the hot zing of cumin, garlic and dry salsa powder.
As longtime Spiral fans know (and McNutt says half of her customers are not vegetarians), the salads and hot plates are merely necessary preambles to the real reason to love this place: desserts. Without using any eggs, milk, butter or shortening in the recipes, the pastries, all made daily in the Spiral kitchen, somehow manage to have that rich, from-scratch, grandma's-oven flavor and texture. The secret, says McNutt, is adding extra baking powder and using soy milk and a soy-based margarine. They're totally vegan, sweetened not with white sugar but with organic evaporated cane juice.
Most days the slices of fresh layer cake in the case on the bar have dwindled to a precious few after the lunch rush. The vanilla cake with strawberry icing is a pink dream with or without a scoop of "I-Scream." Spiral's carrot cake with white icing comes in two tall, dark, dense layers full of chopped carrots and walnuts, the sweetness tempered with the gentle burn of nutmeg and allspice. Brownies, cookies, a chocolate-peanut butter cup—all great. But the fight-for-it item is McNutt's special sweet potato pie. Each sticky-sweet slice is a brilliantly orchestrated blend of baked sweet potato, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, molasses, cinnamon, almond and vanilla. Every bite tastes like homemade sin, but McNutt's recipe claims fewer than 200 calories a pop (and zero cholesterol). Order an extra wedge to take home for later, where you can cheat and plop some real whipped cream on it, if you dare.
1101 N. Beckley Ave., 214-948-4747. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. $