Eating vegan on the road

Eric of Cuban Coffee Queen in downtown Key West hoists a fresh coconut for drinking, among the quirky coffee stop's beverage offerings. (Vance Lehmkuhl / Staff)

VEGAN road-tripping can be fun, or it can be a pain. Usually it winds up a mixture. On this summer's family road trip south I took notes, for once, on what worked and what didn't.

We drove from Philly through North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, on down to Key West. Stopping at a number of interesting spots, I learned lessons I hope other vegan travelers can apply elsewhere.

The first and foremost lesson: You cannot possibly plan ahead too much. Look at where you're going - and where you might go, with a slight detour, using your phone and Web connection while still at home. In one case, a phone call to a place in the boondocks (actually, the place was called the Boondocks) revealed an off-menu vegan Boca burger that made all the difference when we were casting about for a dinner spot.

As a planning aid, Happy Cow is the top online veggie guide, but other sites include other offbeat entries. I had occasional good results with Google Maps, zooming way in on the road, seeking out names of potential eat-out prospects.

That's how I found Thai Continental, in Roanoke, Va., with vegan options aplenty, including the seitan-peanut-cabbage dish and a thick coconut juice that was refreshingly delicious. (Wouldn't have thought to pair the terms "good vegan Thai food" and "Roanoke," but that's what makes it a learning experience.)

From there, we went down the mountains and over to Greensboro, N.C., stopping at Boba House, where nearly every menu item is or can be made vegan. I enjoyed a spicy "chicken" sandwich with avocado slices - I considered the veggie-chicken satay skewers cooked in coconut sauce, but figured, sure, maybe they know coconut in Roanoke, but Greensboro?

Boba promised the holy grail of vegan cakes, triple-chocolate with vegan chocolate mousse. Alas, they'd run out. This would be my roughest lesson of the trip.

In Elon, N.C., folksy small-town diner the Root offered a crispy house-made vegan burger (named as such on the menu, saving the inevitable Q&A session that "veggie burger" entails) and served it with a tasty house-made tofu mayonnaise. Lesson: Things are definitely changing.

Speaking of changing, the foliage soon switched from kudzu to swaying palm trees, and on our way down the coast of Florida we stopped at a Whole Foods in Jupiter to grab lunch from the extensive hot bar, along with a drink. Here, I learned that supermarkets in Florida have a hell of a lot more kinds of coconut drinks than in Pennsylvania.

Finally, we were driving down the Keys. About a dozen islands from the end is an oasis for traveling vegans - Good Food Conspiracy, a market that's stocked healthy veg, vegan, macro and related foodstuffs on Big Pine Key since 1982. Owner Marney Brown said eating vegan "has now become part of society," recalling that "around 10 years ago [the demand] started to gain steam." In addition to national brands like Tofutti, Silk, ABC and Vegenaise, there's fresh produce and local vegan baked goods made right there on Big Pine at an all-vegan bed & breakfast.

As for Key West itself, I can state, as a former resident, that back in 1982 there was precious little vegetarian or vegan commerce in Southernmost City. In the 1990s, the health-food store and juice bar Sugar Apple opened. Around the middle of last decade the Cafe - "A Mostly Vegetarian Place" - launched. The latter has recently expanded to serve more people and was hopping every time I was there, including our first and last nights in town. As implied, the place does serve some non-veg dishes, but it's stocked with vegan options: In addition to creative entrees we enjoyed animal-free desserts, including key-lime cheesecake, chocolate chip cookies and cakes of carrot and, again, coconut.

It's good to see that the Cafe has become a favorite for locals, vegan and non, as well as tourists - out of 360 restaurants in Key West, it's ranked No. 20 on TripAdvisor.

At the Key West Publix I saw more of the wide variety of coconut drinks and learned another new fact: Some supermarkets in Florida have affordable almond, cashew and hazelnut butters - made by Jif (I know! What the?), as well as an Earth Balance peanut butter blended with, yes, coconut.

A newer (2011) entry on Key West's veg scene is Help Yourself, which does the juice-bar/veggie-grocery thing in a smaller space than Sugar Apple, offering more cutting-edge vegan choices (for instance, plenty of coconut milk) but not the fuller selection of the older, larger market. There we picked up a delicious vegan mint chocolate chip cheesecake and a bag of Coco-Roons, vegan macaroons made with . . . well, you know.

A couple of blocks from Mile Marker 0, I finally took the hint and went whole-coconut at Cuban Coffee Queen, where I first tried coconut water in the shell years ago. Soon my straw was in and I was savoring the perfect tropical vacation treat.

It wasn't triple-chocolate cake, of course, but it was cool, fresh, sweet and seriously plant-based.


Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 12-year vegan."V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter: @V4Veg.