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Eating vegetarian in D.C. is becoming easier and more enjoyable as chefs are get creative with summer produce or experiment with new techniques. From a kibbeh naya that subs in tomatoes for raw lamb or vegan ramen that tastes creamy because of its almond milk base, the following 10 meat-free dishes are ones everyone should seek out before the season’s over.
Smoked Tomato Kibbeh Naya at Albi ($17)
1346 4th St. SE, (202) 921-9592, albidc.com
Albi in Navy Yard swaps smoked tomatoes in for raw minced lamb in a kibbeh naya. The vegetarian version of the Levantine mezze works, according to Chef Michael Rafidi, because he treats the tomatoes “like a piece of meat.” Since they’ll be finely minced in the final product, the restaurant sources “second tomatoes.” They’re too ugly for farmers to sell to shallow produce shoppers.
Rafidi smokes them over the hearth for about an hour and seasons them with kibbeh spices, pomegranate molasses, and harissa oil. Then he slides them into the oven to dehydrate, which concentrates their flavor and gives them a raisin-like quality. “We hand chop it like you would a steak tartare and mix it with bulgur and shallots,” Rafidi says. “It’s everything traditional, minus the lamb.”
The thin spread of umami-laden tomatoes comes with lettuce boats for scooping, toum, and an assortment of pickles. Once tomato season is over, Rafidi says he’ll introduce a new vegetarian kibbeh naya, like one made from a bouquet of different peppers. Try it Tuesdays through Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m.
Paneer Pesto Tikka at Daru ($16)
1451 Maryland Ave. NE, instagram.com/daru.dc
When Chef Suresh Sundas was drawing up the menu for Daru, he knew he wanted to feature paneer. He coats the cheese in an Italian-meets-Indian pesto he makes from basil, green chili, garlic, cilantro, and turmeric powder. Adding a little garam masala seasoning and yogurt to the pesto mixture helps it stick to the paneer while it marinates overnight. When dinner rolls around, the former Rasika West End cook skewers the paneer and cooks it over an open flame. He finishes the dish with a drizzle of cinnamon-scented rhubarb and honey sauce, crushed peanuts, and watermelon radish. Starting Wednesday, Sundas says he’s going to switch up the type of paneer he uses. Malai paneer, he explains, doesn’t harden as it cools. “It’s delicious, soft, and creamy,” he says. Try it Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5 to 10 p.m.
BBQ Tempeh Burger at Ellē ($16)
3221 Mount Pleasant St. NW, (202) 652-0040, eatatelle.com
House made tempeh is Chef Brad Deboy’s plaything at Ellē. He forms the fermented mixture made out of soy beans and red quinoa into burger patties that he hot smokes and marinates in garlic oil, tamari, and sweet pickling liquid. Then he slaps the patties on the binchotan grill before serving them with a mixture of shaved peppers and pickled onions, peach barbecue sauce, lemon vinaigrette, fresh herbs, and fermented mustard. The whole sandwich is vegan, including the potato roll.
Later Deboy might use his tempeh for supper plates like spaghetti with tempeh meatballs. “I truly enjoy using old world preservation methods to create a new technique,” he says. “Imagining the hundreds if not thousands of years some of these processes were used for necessity makes me respect every part of the process.”
Deboy got into fermentation and healthy eating in general after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome—a rare autoimmune disorder. His restaurant sometimes feels more like a lab because he makes challenging products from scratch. “When it’s fresh and made in house there’s a different vibe,” Deboy says. The tempeh burger is currently available for lunch daily from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays from 5 to 9 p.m. Pick-up is also an option.
Caruso’s Alfredo at Caruso’s Grocery ($21.25)
1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, (202) 661-0148, carusosgrocery.com
The alfredo pasta at Caruso’s Grocery flies first class. Chef and partner Matt Adler finishes the pasta bowl by folding in black truffle and porcini mushroom butter. “I can’t take credit for putting mushrooms, truffles, and cream together in a pasta,” he says. “It’s been done for many years. But, I’ve been working on a version of that dish for a long time.”
He builds upon the classic creamy sauce by adding cremini mushrooms he cooks down with shallots, garlic, and marsala wine. The mafaldine noodles, which look like skinny lasagna sheets with their ruffled edges, soak up the sauce. Adler’s been a whiz at marrying pasta shapes with pasta sauces dating back to his days at Osteria Morini. “Sometimes alfredo is heavy and one note once you get half way through the dish,” Adler says. “Even though it’s perfect in its classic form, it doesn’t translate to today.” Try it Wednesdays through Saturdays from 5 to 10 p.m. and Sundays from 5 to 9 p.m.
Deep-Fried Asian Pumpkin at Baan Siam ($8)
425 I St. NW, (202) 588-5889, baansiamdc.com
Baan Siam’s deep-fried Asian pumpkin works for an appetizer or dessert. The sweet flesh of kabocha, when battered and fried, ends up tasting similar to funnel cake at a fair. Chef Jeeraporn “P’Boom” Poksubthong adds a little chili paste and fresh kaffir lime leaves to the tempura flour before frying them and serves the orange half moons with a sweet chili dipping sauce. Try it for lunch or dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. Hours vary.
Smoked Mushroom Fajitas With Tofu at Republic Cantina ($22)
43 N St. NW, (202) 997-4340, republic-cantina.com
Capture the drama of a sizzling skillet at Truxton Circle’s Tex-Mex restaurant sans meat. The lone vegetarian fajita filling option contains smoked mushrooms, tofu, and an assortment of seasonal vegetables. Owner Chris Svetlik says they hickory smoke shiitake mushrooms on premises for about 10 minutes. “It’s a nice space for us to offer something lighter that doesn’t skimp on flavor and still references back to Texas with the smoke,” he says. You build your own fajitas using fresh flour tortillas and traditional accoutrements like salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. The best part is the melty cheese lining the pan under the mushroom mixture. Scrape some onto every bite. Try it daily from 4 to 9:30 p.m.
PB&J Fried Chick’n Sandwich at Bubbie’s Plant Burgers & Fizz ($11.99)
1829 M St. NW, (202) 758-2894, bubbiesplantburgers.com
New to the menu at Bubbie’s Plant Burgers & Fizz is a sandwich that screams back-to-school because it’s inspired by a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The secret ingredient is a grape glaze that coats the tofu-based faux chicken patty and caramelizes when it’s heated. Chef Margaux Riccio makes the “chick’n” in house as well as the plant-based pork belly bacon that she stacks onto the sweet-and-savory sandwich along with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and peanut butter sauce.
“I thought people would be resistant,” Riccio says. “People absolutely love it. It’s pure Sharkey.” Shaun Sharkey is her business and romantic partner. “It’s 100 percent his dream menu item. It’s Instagrammable and has big flavors—everything he loves.” Try it Mondays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Fridays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Fried Eggplant at Oyster Oyster (Part of a $75 tasting menu)
1440 8th St. NW, oysteroysterdc.com
The grand finale of the savory courses on Oyster Oyster’s current tasting menu is eggplant treated like schnitzel. Chef and partner Rob Rubba says he sources small Italian eggplants or graffiti eggplants that he slow roasts, marinates, and lightly smokes before breading and pan frying them to order. The squat little eggplants are served with roasted eggplant puree with a dollop of sweet red onion jam in the center and a zippy fennel and cabbage kraut. Rubba changes things up at this plant-based Shaw restaurant with the seasons, but the “Harvest” menu with the eggplant will be around through late September. Try it Tuesdays through Saturdays. The first seating is at 5:30 p.m. and the last seating is at 8:30 p.m.
Vegan Spicy Tantanmen Ramen at Menya Hosaki ($18)
845 Upshur St. NW, (202) 330-3977, menyahosakidc.com
The creaminess in Menya Hosaki’s two vegan ramen varieties comes from almond milk. It’s a move chef and owner Eric Yoo says was inspired by his mentor Keizo Shimamoto of Ramen Shack, which closed in Queens in 2019. You can try the broth in a more straightforward fashion with the “vegan classic” or spring for the spicy tantanmen variation. If you like the nuttiness and heat of dan dan noodles, you’ll lap up the soup boldly flavored with chili oil and sesame paste. Yoo tops his house made ramen noodles with wood ear mushrooms, spinach, scallions, bamboo shoots, and seaweed. Vegetarians can add a soft-boiled egg.
“It’s hard to do a vegan version of ramen since the original form is not vegetarian or vegan,” he says. “One thing for sure is you want to keep the ramen principles—tare, soup, noodles, and oil—when building the bowl.” Try it Wednesdays through Fridays from 4:30 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m.
Nashville Hot Eggplant Sandwich at Money Muscle BBQ ($10)
8630 Fenton St., Silver Spring, (301) 646-7006, moneymusclebbq.com
Chef Ed Reavis launched a barbecue ghost restaurant and food truck during the pandemic. Suddenly he was handling more meat than ever before and decided to cut back and encourage others to do so too with a special menu of vegan barbecue dishes that will debut on Aug. 31. His favorite sandwich is the Nashville hot eggplant with dill pickles, coleslaw, and ranch dressing. He coats the eggplant rounds in a panko batter that soaks up the sweet and spicy sauce with a kick from Sriracha and hot sauce. The only thing the chef and pitmaster doesn’t make is the vessel—a vegan pretzel roll from Pretzilla.
Note that Money Muscle BBQ operates out of All Set Restaurant & Bar in Silver Spring, which will serve an all vegan and vegetarian menu on Tuesdays only kicking off Aug. 31. Come then, you can try the sandwich Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 8 p.m. on site or for takeout.