pains in the neck, it's kind to accommodate them occasionally.
So, carrying a carnivorous chip on my shoulder, I recently embarked on a grand tour of every known vegetarian restaurant in the region. For the purposes of this exercise, I ruled out places that served any meat or poultry, though I left in restaurants that had seafood on the menu, since people who avoid meat for health reasons often include fish in their diets. I expected to find primitive food stalls run by tofu-crazed gurus - and I did. But I also found some decent places where I didn't miss the meat.
What I did miss was a cold beer. None of these restaurants serve alcohol. Many do ban smoking, or at least provide a decent non-smoking section. I also discovered that many don't take reservations (or credit cards), and tend to be cheaper than their flesh-serving competitors.
CHERRY STREET CHINESE VEGETARIAN. In the film My Favorite Year, Mark Linn- Baker says, "Jews know two things: Suffering and good Chinese food." The certification by Rabbi Moshe Saks that Cherry Street's food is kosher therefore stands as an imprimatur beyond religious stricture. Cherry Street is indeed the best of Chinatown's three vegetarian restaurants, with imaginative, flavorful dishes served inexpensively in a pleasant, shoe-box-shaped dining room.
The must-have item on the menu is the five-mushroom chow fun, served with generous helpings of golden needle mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, straw mushrooms and ordinary American mushrooms. Each mushroom has its own distinctive taste - something that might have been lost if it had been served with meat. Cherry Street welcomes all comers, with a macrobiotic menu and a menu for diners on the Pritikin diet. And, perhaps as a tribute to Rabbi Saks, the restaurant serves blintzes for dessert.
1010 Cherry St; 215-923-3663. Lunch, dinner. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible.
HARMONY CHINESE. Harmony is ground zero for Philadelphia's vegetarians, especially those who like gluten. Made entirely of washed wheat flour, gluten is a meat substitute that can be seasoned, dyed, sauteed, molded, immersed in batter and drowned in sauce so thoroughly that you can almost forget what you're eating, or not eating.
For lunch I ordered the spicy Tai Chai "chicken," which comes in thick brown gravy with cauliflower, pepper, corn, cabbage and zucchini. It's a flavorful dish, but as you chew each imitation chicken morsel and swallow the gravy it comes in, you're left with a piece of gluten in your mouth. You can't say it's tasteless - it's beyond tastelessness, beyond substance, beyond materiality. Gluten is less a food than a mathematical construct, a sort of
Some vegetarians are glutens for punishment. They love the stuff, and they love Harmony, a dim, hushed restaurant with all the razzmatazz of a Buddhist lamasery. The place also has a list of standard vegetable dishes, such as
stir-fried broccoli, that don't include the imitation meat.
135 N. Ninth St. (between Race and Cherry); 215-627-4520. Lunch, dinner. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible.
SINGAPORE CHINESE VEGETARIAN. There is even more gluten on the menu at Singapore, some of it undisguised. There is, for example, the "Double Gluten with Green," consisting of seitan and soya gluten and seasonal vegetables. I passed on that, erring toward the Chinese Black Mushrooms With Bamboo Shoots, a dish with no more than four or five mushrooms in garlic sauce. A vegetarian friend's fried stuffed tofu was tasteless - she had to take some Peking sauce
from another friend's dish to make it palatable.
The friend's dish was called Golden Lion Head, though in fact it was three balls of tofu - two kinds of tofu mixed with chopped carrots, water chestnuts and shiitake mushrooms. It's a dish that suggests meat substitutes work best when they're not trying to act meaty. With a bright, high-ceilinged dining room swimming in pastel blue, Singapore is a chic, citified cousin to the typical suburban Chinese restaurant.
1029 Race St.; 215-922-3288. Lunch, dinner. Reservations recommended.
RAJBHOG RESTAURANT & SWEETS. According to Gunvant Mody, a Bombay native who opened Rajbhog last summer, his restaurant's name means "a feast for royalty" in Hindi. While Adams Avenue in the Northeast may be out of the way for most rajahs, it's worth the trip. Set in a nondescript shopping center, Rajbhog offers a wide variety of Indian food, in an atmospherically dim dining room, surrounded by Indian tapestries and taped sitar music.
I started off with a khaman dhokla, a spicy spongecake made from chickpeas, flour and yogurt, with some chutney dip. It was followed by a Rajbhog Special Thali: a sampling of five dishes on a silver serving tray. It included Indian cheese cooked with green peas (called mateer paneer), and a channa masala, a combination of chickpeas, tomatoes and onions in a thick, spicy sauce. As in many Indian restaurants, the single best item on the platter was the yogurt raita, which is mixed with tomatoes and onions.
Adams & Tabor Shopping Center, 738 Adams Ave., Northeast Philadelphia; 215-537-1937. Lunch, dinner; closed Mondays. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible.
MARY'S. When you step through Mary's front door, you are greeted by the aroma of cooking and, in the foyer, a placard manifesto that reads in part, ''Macrobiotics amounts to finding our limitations and trying to live with them." Uh-oh. Can't I just eat now and look for my limitations when I get home?
Fortunately, owner Mary McCabe is back in the kitchen, in a white hat, making dinner, and doesn't have time to find my limitations. The small restaurant is placed in the living room of a corner rowhouse, with big bay
windows covered by lace curtains. Victorian-style decorative plates grace the wall, and everything is splashed in pink. It's both feminist and feminine, what my wife calls "goddess decor."
McCabe grinds her own flour and doesn't use dairy products, eggs or sugar. This makes for some perfectly tasteless warm fresh bread, served while you're waiting for your meal. Her vegetarian entrees include barbecued tofu and tempeh and a "peasant supper" of brown rice, vegetables and beans. There's also seafood and pasta. My choice was grilled mixed vegetables, including broccoli, mushrooms and green beans, topped off with excellent soybean sausages - I must admit, even better than the real thing.
400 Roxborough Ave. (at Pechin Street), Roxborough; 215-487-2249. Dinner;
closed Mondays (and Sundays through August). Reservations recommended.
PATTERSON'S PARADISE. Goldie Patterson's recipes begin with a line from Genesis: "And God said, 'See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, in which there is life. I have given every green herb for food.' " And from that we get soy burgers, Philly Cheese Steakettes and Fishette Whoopers, all from Patterson's kitchen. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Patterson opened her first place on Broad Street 22 years ago, then moved to 10th Street, and has been in new digs on Fourth Street since March. It's a large, softly lit diner, with a mural of a tropical beach scene opposite the lunch counter.
She offers a simple menu, with fresh fish and mostly soy-based meat substitutes, plenty of fresh vegetables and desserts baked on the premises. Patterson uses neither table salt nor refined sugar and doesn't fry her foods, yet constant experimentation has produced good-tasting, wholesome meals.
Because of Patterson's religious observance, she's closed Fridays after 5 p.m. until dusk Saturdays.
538 N. Fourth St. (at Spring Garden); 215-925-8355. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Reservations recommended for lunch.
THE JUMPING COW COFFEE HOUSE. About 160 regional rail stations are operated by SEPTA, and every one of them should be home to a Jumping Cow. They needn't all be vegetarian, but they should all be attractive, well-lit, homey restaurants with periodic poetry readings (first Saturday of the month at 8 p.m.; cover charge is $1) and folk concerts (other Saturdays at 8 p.m.; cover is usually $4), which is the Cow's bill of fare, along with its vegetarian sandwiches and great coffee.
Opened by Robin Lasersohn and Terry Rumsey in February, the Cow operates at the Swarthmore train station, where a SEPTA agent sells tickets during the morning rush hours. Tables draped with cow motif tablecloths are set among the commuter benches. In the evening, the benches are occupied by students and other Swarthmore hangers-on, some of them playing chess.
I ordered a vegetarian turkey hoagie. With generous amounts of provolone, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles on a multigrain hoagie roll, I hardly noticed that the turkey was soy. A friend's Eden Sandwich combined cheddar, muenster and mozzarella with tomato, lettuce, avocado and honey mustard.
Swarthmore train station on the R3 line, Route 320 in the center of town; 610-543-8805. Breakfast, lunch, dinner; closed Saturday mornings and Sundays. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible.
UHURA'S PLACE. When you call Uhura's, Amka Uhura answers the phone ''Jamba!" - the Swahili word for hello. When you enter Uhura's, you immerse yourself in a warm, spice-laden atmosphere redolent of comfort food. It's a modest family diner, with snapshots of the Uhura family tacked on the molding above the lunch counter, along with photographs of African American leaders. Political fliers for Third World causes are stacked on the lunch counter. Uhura, by the way, is the Swahili word for freedom.
Uhura's wife, Yahimba, does much of the cooking, getting help from her six children and her sister Anna Hall. Her soy burger is seasoned with sage and garlic and stuffed in a pita with plenty of salad fixings. Uhura's has been in business six years and plans to resume its Sunday jazz brunches by the fall, serving such items as brown rice pancakes and tofu french toast accompanied by live music.
4900 Chestnut St., West Philadelphia; 215-476-5745. Lunch and dinner;
closed Sundays and Mondays. Wheelchair accessible.
IN HEALTH FOOD STORES
ESSENE CAFE. This is the best vegetarian restaurant in Philadelphia, and one of the city's best new restaurants of any persuasion. In March, owner Howard Waxman expanded the natural foods grocery that has become a fixture in the Queen Village neighborhood. A large open kitchen now stands in the center of his stylish dining room. Wait staff serve at tables and at the mirrored juice bar. On the counter sits a basket of organically grown carrots. The day I was there, Waxman was working the juicer, feeding it carrots, beets, celery, oranges, grapefruits and apples. I started my lunch with a shot of wheat grass, a bright green liquid that tasted like . . . grass. It's a strong taste, and wakes up your taste buds like a good aperitif.
For starters I had a dish of lo mein noodles, with sesame sauce, cucumbers, bean sprouts and sesame seeds, topped off with a few sprinkles of gomaisio (sesame salt). I also tried a summer roll, a chewy vegetarian takeoff on the spring roll of mixed vegetables and serrano chilies, served with - get this - pistachio maple syrup. For a main dish, I ordered the grilled tempeh burger, smothered with sauteed onions and mushrooms. It was great, but then again, smothered with sauteed onions and mushrooms, Mahatma Gandhi's left ear would taste good.
719 S. Fourth St. (entrance on Monroe Street); 215-928-3722. Lunch, dinner;
closed Tuesdays. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible.
RICHARD'S NATURAL FOODS. The decor of the restaurant in the back of Richard Wessel's health food store in Voorhees is just serviceable, with vinyl tablecloths and bad art, realistic and sentimental, for sale on the walls. Some of the intriguing items on the menu include Richie's Choice, sauteed vegetables with cashews, water chestnuts and tofu served over artichoke linguine, and a seitan-and-tofu cheesesteak. Fish on the menu include Alaskan salmon, mahi-mahi and orange roughy.
I ordered the macrobiotic lunch special - navy beans, carrots, onions and stewed collard greens, with organic short-grain rice - but it only reminded me of my limitations. The one great thing on the plate was the fresh corn on the cob, slathered with umeboshi, a pickled plum paste that enhanced the corn's flavor even better than butter does.
10 White Horse Rd. (off White Horse Pike), Voorhees; 609-627-5057. Lunch, dinner; closed Mondays for dinner. Wheelchair accessible.
THE CARROT BUNCH. In the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center, at the rear of the generically named Health Food store, beyond two forbidding aisles of vitamin supplements, herbal tinctures and holistic remedies, lies a bright, friendly vegetarian restaurant, owned and operated by Leonard Titayevsky, a young man who emigrated from the former Soviet Union as a child. His attractive, non- dogmatic menu includes Greek salad, fruit salad, baba ghanouj and hummus. I ordered a rich, insides-warming eggplant stew, made with eggplants, carrots, onions, tomatoes, tofu, herbs and spices. More recent Russian immigrants work in the restaurant, all chattering away in Russian, which, combined with the unavailability of meat, gives the place a warm East European feel.
51 E. City Line Ave. (in the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center), Bala Cynwyd;
215-664-5231. Open 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; closed Sundays. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible.
NATURAL GOODNESS MARKET & CAFE. Not far from Rittenhouse Square, Natural Goodness offers tasty garden burgers made from processed grains and vegetables, and sun burgers made from soy. Try the lentil loaf sandwich. It has all the qualities you'd find in a perfect meatloaf: nuttiness, heft and a moist but not crumbly texture. Remove the loaf from the two slices of seven- grain bread - a bread not resilient enough for sandwich duty, despite its rampant use - and eat it with a knife and fork. The menu is weighted toward the grains, as at other vegetarian restaurants, suggesting that vegetarians don't really like vegetables.
2000 Walnut St.; 215-977-7749. Lunch, dinner.
HAINESPORT HEALTH HAVEN. Trudy Spinner and Donna Moore do clever things with basic vegetarian ingredients. Their tempeh cheeseburger is broiled with lemon; the resulting sandwich is surprisingly tart. It comes with a health salad that's deliciously proteined-up with peanuts, cashews, brazils, sesame sticks and other nuts. The cafe is set in a typically crunchy-granola health food store, located opposite Dunleavy's Restaurant in suburban Burlington County. It has an extensive menu, including pilafs.
Route 38 and Lumberton Road, Hainesport; 609-267-7744. Lunch; closed Sundays.
HORIZONS CAFE. Horizons recently opened within Nature's Harvest, renting space in the front of the health food store in Willow Grove. It's a chaotic cohabitation. On my arrival, the lunch counter around the stove and cooking area was scattered with the debris of previous meals. My lunch, one part veggie sausage and peppers and five parts multigrain roll, served with a few broken corn chips on a paper plate, was passed to me without even a napkin as an accessory. While the cafe management serves the food, the store management is responsible for the beverages and smoothies - this, they explained, was why I never received the freshly squeezed carrot-beet-and-celery juice I ordered. C'mon guys, let's overcome those limitations we've been trying to live with!
At Nature's Harvest, Moreland Plaza, 101 E. Moreland Rd. (at Route 611), Willow Grove; 215-659-7705. Lunch, early dinner. Wheelchair accessible.
CENTER FOODS. It's easy, and perhaps even advisable, to miss the health food store at the corner of Broad and Pine Streets, hard by the University of the Arts. The store's windows and door are obscured by posters, advertisements and directions on how to open the door. Behind the grocery aisles, there's a yellow Formica counter with five stools, on which meals are indifferently served on paper plates. I ordered the Azuki Bean Special, which was served with carrots and old, yellowed broccoli. Azukis are dark maroon and, mixed in with chestnuts, celery and onions, they had a slightly sweet, appealing taste. I'd recommend them, in different surroundings.
337 S. Broad St. (at Pine); 215-735-5673. Lunch; closed Sundays.
A-FREE-YA NATURAL FOODS. With Afriyie Kwatamani's popular restaurant in Germantown now closed, the only place to taste one of her creatively seasoned, African-style fresh raw vegetable dishes is at her outpost in the clean and bright Bellevue Food Court. This makes it a popular place come lunchtime; who would have thought you could do so much with raw vegetables?
I ordered the Kush Hi Platter, which includes tofu, shredded carrots and beets, mushrooms and green peppers on a bed of orange-brown kush, a cracked- wheat concoction that appears to be heavily seasoned couscous, though the staff insists that it's not couscous. The seasonings are also a company-held secret, but later that day people in my general vicinity identified one of them as raw garlic. Other dishes make full use of avocados, marinated mushrooms and nori seaweed. It's easy to catch the enthusiasm of Kwatamani's staff for the food they're serving.
Downstairs at the Bellevue, Broad and Walnut Streets; 215-735-7669. Lunch, dinner; closed Sundays.
THE BASIC 4 VEGETARIAN SNACK BAR. Surrounded by Franks A-Lot and Godshall's Poultry in the Reading Terminal Market, the Basic 4 is a hardy redoubt of vegetarianism. Alfoncie Austin has been occupying her stall for 13 years, serving her own specialties made from tofu, soybeans and vegetables. I had the vege-loaf and lasagna platter, each plausibly concocted from tofu. Austin serves the meals with a health salad and brown rolls she's baked herself. Other items on the menu include hoagies made from soy meat and a Mediterranean stew of squash, Bermuda onions, tomatoes and eggplant. The stall doesn't have a counter or stools, so you'll have to take your lunch into the free-for-all of the common seating area - with the meat-eaters. Good luck.
Reading Terminal Market, 12th and Arch Streets; 215-440-0991. Lunch; closed Sundays. Wheelchair accessible.