Tortas Frontera, Chicago O’Hare Airport Terminal B

I decided to try Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera after just about everyone suggested it. I had said O’Hare was a food wasteland and they all replied that it was amazing. It’s not amazing but it’s pretty good. I’ll be back!

It’s very small and unassuming. I walked past it dozens of times and never thought to go in. Really it’s just an airport storefront with five tables four bar seats, and a few high chairs overlooking the taxiway between terminals B and C. The take-out is extremely popular. They serve breakfast as well.

At the suggestion of the fantastic waiter, I tried the chipotle chicken Tortas done vegetarian style with mushrooms. I also got the (vegetarian) corn chowder. It’s so nice to have a few vegetarian options instead of just one: there’s also a mushroom Tortas and an open cheese sandwich.

"Aguas frescas" and corn chowder

“Aguas frescas” and corn chowder

The raspberry and prickly pear aguas frescas arrived first. It was obnoxiously sweet and sour. Almost undrinkable until the ice melted. Not a good start and nothing like the real aguas frescas at authentic Mexican restaurants.

The soup was excellent. Once I stirred up the mushrooms and peppers and corn from the bottom it really was worth getting. I’ll remember it!

Chipolte chicken torts done vegetarian style with mushrooms

Chipolte chicken torts done vegetarian style with mushrooms

The Tortas was good but overly spicy. I’m no American wimp but the flavor was simply overpowering. Maybe this has to do with the mushroom substitution: drier chicken might absorb the sauce better. But the bread was excellent.

I can see why people love this place. It’s definitely the best food in O’Hare and better than most airport fare. But it’s not worth the adoration it gets. Tortas Frontera is good but not great.

Morton’s the Steakhouse

Morton’s is not suitable for vegetarians.

Now, this might sound silly, it’s a steakhouse after all, but bear with me.

Most steakhouses have excellent sides and other good options. But Morton’s is seriously deficient in this respect. Their veggie plate is just that: A plate of veggies. And not well cooked or seasoned veggies. Just bland, crunchy greens. It’s what non-vegetarians think vegetarians eat, not what vegetarians actually eat.

And Morton’s is especially non-subtle since everything on the menu has meat. You must specifically request vegetarian items, and your diet will become the topic of conversation. Since this is a business meeting destination, this is a serious issue.

Making matters worse, the desserts and drinks aren’t that great. So you can’t just skip dinner and be happy.

In short, do not go to Morton’s if you’re a vegetarian.

Varsity Grill, DFW Terminal E

Finding vegetarian food at the airport is tough, and doubly so in Texas. The Varsity Grill in DFW Terminal E (by E31) is almost all-meat, even the salads.

But they do serve a portobello and cheese sandwich. It’s reasonably priced, comes with spicy fries, and typical food service quality: Moist and vinegar flavored but edible. Oddly it’s sliced half through into a grid of cubes, perhaps to aid cooking.

But it’s nice to have something subtle on the menu, reducing the “without the chicken” discussions.

The Varsity is sports-themed, with hanging televisions and a mediocre beer selection. No Shiner Bock here, a Texas tragedy!

TGI Fridays Gets Out The Veg

One of my first posts on this blog applauded TGI Friday’s for not only adding a vegetarian entree but naming it something subtle: The Tuscan Portobello Melt was a nice grilled cheese sandwich with mushrooms and came with a vegetarian red pepper soup. It was really nice to have an option at a mainstream restaurant other than “the chicken pasta without the chicken”.

But alas, the Tuscan is no more. TGI Friday’s has removed it from the menu, and the restaurant I found myself at this week couldn’t make it anymore. There are no vegetarian items on the TGI Friday’s menu any longer.

I am so frustrated with this. I’m not picky – I just want one option. Would that kill them? Instead I had to pay $13 for a mediocre bowl of Bruschetta Pasta without the chicken. No more Friday’s for me!

Taco Bell Adds More Veg

Taco Bell just added three new vegetarian entrees to their menu:

  • The cheese roll-up is a tubular quesadilla
  • The triple-layer nachos have beans, red sauce, and nacho sauce
  • The caramel apple empanadas are McDonald’s apple pies in disguise
No, it’s not healthy. But it’s veg. And now there’s a major fast food chain with enough vegetarian options to actually give us a choice of what to eat. I think that’s worth applauding, even if it’s all junk!

United Airlines’ Vegetarian Snackbox

United Smartpack Snackbox

I won’t complain when the world doesn’t cater to my dietary choices, but I’m always happy when a new option appears. And it especially galls me when I have to pay for meat I won’t eat – the old $11.95 pasta with chicken without the chicken issue.

Although I still think it’s ridiculous to have to pay for in-flight snacks, I am pleased that United Airlines now offers a vegetarian “snackbox” on their flights. Called “Smartpack”, the orange box contains a nice variety of healthy snacks, including pears, bagel chips, and granola and lacks the jerky, sausage, or tuna included with the other choices. Most of the items are even vegan, with the obvious exception of the Copper Cowbell cheese spread and Cashew Roca candy.

I’m not quite as happy as United’s umbrella-toting cartoon mascot (see below), who brings color to a drab world in an in-flight ad, however. My flight out of San Francisco was delayed by over an hour, and I thought I would miss my connection and be stranded overnight in Chicago. Luckily, I got home.

Signature Dishes: Pad Thai

Vegetarian pad thai and green tea smoothie with tapiocaI’ve got a signature dish that I order at most restaurants – something that really shows off the abilities of the kitchen. I usually pick something that is somewhat subtle – anyone can make a firey Arrabiata, but only a great restaurant can make a great Pomodoro!

My Thai signature dish is Pad Thai, but this one can be tricky for vegetarians (and vegans). Ask whether they use fish sauce (nam pla), other seafood ingredients, or egg. Many Thai restaurants will happily modify their ingredients since this dish is always prepared to order, but they may scratch their heads about the nam pla since it’s such a staple of local cuisine!

The excellent pictured Pad Thai was the creation of Pacific Thai, located on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, CA. It exhibited just what I’m looking for in a great Pad Thai:

  • Light and delicate but still somewhat sticky sauce
  • Al dente (but not chewy) noodles and veggies
  • Good firm tofu with light seasoning
  • No overpowering ingredients – the flavor of the peanuts, sauce, veggies, noodles, tofu and sprouts were all evident, and none overpowered a quick squeeze of fresh lime

I ordered this with a smoothie made of green tea ice cream and tapioca pearls. This was delicious, too – I became a fan of green tea ice cream after trying some at Steve’s (now Herrell’s) in Northampton, MA years ago. I first encountered tapioca pearls as a drink ingredient in a Taiwanese pearl milk tea I was fond of at EO Noodle in Framingham, MA. Combining the two was a pleasure!

We were fortunate to have a Thai au pair join our family for a year, and I was surprised to learn that the Pad Thai she was used to was quite different from my (Americanized?) concept. Hers was much more noodle-centric, with very little sauciness, no veggies, and a stronger flavor. Not to mention much spicier, as was everything she cooked!

But comparing it to my American ideal, Pacific Thai’s Pad Thai is an excellent dish. Not quite as good as the old Thai Coconut in Marlborough, MA, but nothing else has been!

Pacific Thai Santa Cruz
1319 Pacific Ave
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Trader Joe’s and The Cheesecake Factory

Frank, over at A Vegan’s Life in Southern California did a little Subtle Vegetarian-style snooping about veggie foods at Trader Joe’s and The Cheesecake Factory, and I wanted to point to his site for the info…

As expected, Trader Joe’s has lots of great vegetarian and vegan foods, and all of their cosmetic products are free of animal testing!  I love that place, but we found it hard to do all of our family shopping there.  Plus, they’re sparse here in Ohio…

As for The Cheesecake Factory, they’ve got a few veggie choices to trumpet, as well as excellent customer service from the staff and kitchen.  I love their portobello sandwich – have been getting it for years!  It’s most certainly not vegan, but the lettuce wraps (sans chicken) are a great vegan choice, too.  Watch out for the strong Long Island Iced Teas!