Vegan — almost — on the Road

We recently returned from an approximate one-month road trip; therefore the long silence since my last post. Our trip took us from our home in Mexico up to Texas, something we usually do once a year at about this time. This year we also took a side trip and hopped on a plane from Austin to San Francisco for about a week. This is the first serious travel I’ve done since changing my diet, and it was a challenge to deal with food in all the different areas and environments we visited.

My biggest allies while wandering were 1) an ice chest and 2) oriental restaurants. While within Mexico, I depended on fresh and dried fruits, cut veggies, seeds, and nuts that I carried with me, and sparse pickings for salads, guacamole and corn tortillas in restaurants. Tortillas can be a challenge in themselves, since many are made with at least some lard. A lot of people and places in northern Mexico don’t seem to “get” that cheese and other dairy products are animal-based foods, nor that salads can be made with lettuces that are green and crisp instead of white and wilted, not to mention a plethora of other fresh and live foods. Occasionally, you can find a pasta with tomato sauce and vegetables that will be passable fare, as long as no Parmesan or cream has been added during the preparation process. Virtually all beans, especially refried, will have lard or some kind of pork product in them, so steer clear.


A good road food I found that lives well in a cooler is hummus with whole wheat pita chips, baby carrots or cut celery, and green pepper spears for dipping. I had the roasted garlic variety whose redolence perfumed the whole car every time I opened the container for a snack. Nuts are a life-saver: Substantial enough to satisfy for several hours, basically non-perishable as long as they’re not left in a hot car in the sun, and very portable.

Eating out is a lot easier while traveling in the US than in Mexico. I favored Oriental restaurants (Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese) where I could get a great variety of veggies and tofu. These days, many restaurants offer MSG-free cooking, give the option of ordering brown rice instead of regular polished white rice, and will hold the eggs in their fried rice and other dishes if asked. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to worry about ingesting a bit of Thai fish sauce occasionally, or having a sliver or two of raw fish in sushi. I know some of the things I ate contained a daub of butter — I could taste it — but again I wasn’t going to make a production out of it. Not while on vacation.

I was dreading going to what before had been some of my favorite standby restaurants such as Threadgill’s in Texas, but I found that I could easily order their five-vegetables plate, accompanied by tasty hibiscus-mint caffeine-free tea, and feel totally satisfied. They had a selection of about a dozen different veggie sides to choose from and that were well identified as vegan on the menu. Vegetarian (with dairy) items were also clearly marked.

Another dilemma for me was posed by Katz’s Deli Bar and Art Gallery on Sixth Street in downtown Austin. Oy vey, what would I eat there when I could no longer order the mounds of corned beef or chopped liver on rye? Well, I could eat the pickles! In addition, I found Katz´s had a vegetarian Reuben on their menu, made with avocado and of course sauerkraut. It was simply a matter of ordering it without the melted Swiss Cheese. Their menu also features a Vegetarian Hero that is stuffed with vegetables; there again, though, you have to ask them to hold the cream cheese.

Most non-fast-food restaurants with regular fare usually have a decent enough salad (hold the boiled eggs, cheese and crumbled bacon) that can be dressed with oil and vinegar, or steamed vegetables and a plain baked potato with none of the regular trimmings other than a drizzle of olive oil. As far as the fast food outlets are concerned, the best policy in my opinion is always to skip them all, no matter who or where you are and what your diet is. A possible exception might be Subway if your in an absolute pinch, where you can at least get a salad or a totally vegan sub on whole wheat bread. My most challenging menu of all was at Chili’s, where virtually every salad and side dish consisted of more meat or chicken and eggs and cheese than fresh greens or vegetables. My only real choices there  were guacamole or corn on the cob. Fortunately, when I walked in that door I wasn’t very hungry, and after looking at the menu even the little bit of hunger I’d felt went away. That particular location was doubly interesting since it was where I saw the most over-weight people gathered in one spot on our whole trip .

Speaking of vegan food on the run, however, another cuisine a vegan should keep an eye peeled for is Middle Eastern. Vegetable couscous, tabouli salad, and falafels are all hearty meals that can easily be eaten on the road, and yet have little or nothing in common with what is commonly called “fast food” in North American society. The grains and beans and good oils there contained also help keep one’s personal plumbing functional while sometimes spending long hours sitting in a car.

One thing I have to admit. While traveling this year, I often caught myself simply looking out the window at the passing scenery, sometimes with the window open (to more easily snap photos of the countryside whizzing by), feeling a little like a big dog with its ears flapping in the wind, with a silly grin on my face and serendipity in my heart. There’s no doubt in my mind and body and no getting around it, this plant-based, vegan diet definitely makes me feel better than I have in many, many years.

brown rice