Vegetarian/Vegan in Orlando

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    It's not like throwing tofu in stir-fries or over noodles is exactly ground-breaking in these parts. Asian restaurants abound in soy offerings, and one of the tastiest tofu dishes in town comes from the long-standing Anh Hong, at the crossroads of Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive. (Parking is around back, so don't be thrown off by the busy intersection.) Just say, "No. 146," to jump into "fried tofu stir fried with lemongrass and chili" ($7.95). The peppery batter flavors up the curd and makes for a satisfying bite once you spear a chunk amidst the lemongrass, red chilis, celery, onions and snow peas, all mixed in a sesame-oil-tinged sauce.

    The thing that'll take the longest is making your way through the eight-panel takeout menu, which offers the subheadings "squid" and "family dishes." Good news for vegetarians: There are 21 choices under "vegetables" ($7.95-$9.95) making use of noodles, vegetables, rice cakes, rice crepes and eggs.

    Subs ($2.50-$5.50) are another cheap staple, with crisp cucumbers, carrots and cilantro added to Vietnamese deli-style meats (bologna and ham), beef stew, grilled pork, beef, chicken or tofu loaded on "French sub" bread. My recent snacking on a bologna sub found the meat to be a bit of a mystery but OK when crunched along with the greenery and the fresh roll.

    Smoothies ($3) are another sure bet at Anh Hong. Mango, strawberry and banana are familiar flavors, along with the more exotic jackfruit, sour sop, sapota and durian (the super-stinky tropical fruit). Experiment if you feel daring, but some fruits, like durian, are an acquired (blech) taste. Add an order of summer rolls (two for $2.50) for a fast takeout lunch.

    The real mystery is what's in the refrigerator case. Neon-colorful cups of gelatins mixed with unrecognizable fruits mingle with strange plastic-wrapped sandwiches and rice blobs; the baffling descriptions on the labels render the contents lost in translation – sample if you dare.

    If you love buffets, there's nothing better than table after table laden with massive and sometimes bizarre combinations of food. But if you dislike or distrust the concept of groaning boards, you'd probably be inclined to avoid Boma - Flavors of Africa, the buffet-style African restaurant at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. You do so at the risk of missing some unusual and very tasty dishes.

    "Boma" is a fenced space in the Maasai bushland, surrounded by thatch huts and usually home to a chief and his family. The Boma at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge is designed as wonderfully as the rest of the building (the massive thatch cathedral ceiling in the lobby still makes me teary-eyed), with pillars like stacks of huge ceramic pots, a massive copper hood over the hot tables, and hanging lights made of orange, yellow, and green glass gourds. The 270-seat restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner, with a half-dozen "cooking stations" offering serve-yourself salads, soups, meats, seafood, veggies and desserts.

    The servers, all from various African countries, seat more than 1,000 people a day, and dinner will set you back $21.99 (breakfast $14.99). But that price opens the gate to a world of very different (and sometimes unrecognizable) foods, from salmon baked in banana leaves to "zebra mousse."

    Some dishes change by availability, but you'll usually find a thick and creamy carrot soup spiced with ginger, along with curried coconut soup and mulligatawny that show the Indian influence on South African food. The puzzling flavors in the different dishes come from unusual combinations of tamarind, cumin and cinnamon, along with hot chilis, cilantro and papaya. For a mouthful, try the cucumber chutney with the grilled spiced chicken.

    Prime rib and ham (and mac 'n' cheese for the kids) are by far the most unimaginative of the offerings and not really African at all. Better to check out the seafood stews or a wonderful mix of white potatoes and sweet potatoes spiked with cinnamon and pepper. "Pap," a white corn mash almost identical to grits, is served as porridge for breakfast, but made thicker – and sometimes grilled – at dinner. Wines are strictly South African and equal to vintages anywhere; the coffee is Kenyan.

    Boma is an unusual take on the buffet. But it's best to call ahead for priority seating – it could save 45 minutes of agonizing wait time.

    For many years, Woodlands restaurant on Orange Blossom Trail monopolized South Indian cuisine in this city. Not that their domination was a bad thing ' Woodlands' kitchen has always been consistent and their peppery all-veg fare gratifying. But in recent years, others have come to challenge Woodlands' supremacy; namely, Udipi Cafe in Longwood, and now Bombay Café, housed inside the Laxmi Plaza directly across the street from Woodlands. Go inside and traipse to the back of the building past the Indian grocery, fashion boutique and video store and there, on the right, a pleasant and pungent sanctuary awaits.

    The ordering system isn't complicated: peruse a menu and order at the counter, take a number, have a seat and the food will be brought out to you. Thing is, the menu is somewhat daunting, so diners tend to seat themselves, then examine the menu, then head back to the counter, place their order, get a number and take their seats again (assuming they weren't taken by another party). The place really calls for table service, but it's a small hassle given the rewarding dishes the kitchen churns out.

    Several chaat dishes offer a texturally diverse start to the meal: peanuts and puffed rice lend a marvelous crunch to gut-burning bhel puri ($3.95); creamy aloo tikki's ($3.95) potato base is punctuated with chickpeas and sweet and spicy chutneys; and the Bombay special ($4.95) offers the works ' fried lentil beans, chickpeas, sev, cilantro, tomato, onions and yogurt atop potato fritters. I wasn't all too impressed with diminutive potato vada ($3.50) dumplings (I'm partial to Woodlands' ample potato bonda), though midsize samosas ($2) were seasoned to satisfaction. Dosas are synonymous with South Indian fare, and traditional masala dosa ($5.99), with a potato and onion filling, is a crepe of comfort.

    For me, pooris and baturas (fried poofy breads resembling blimps) offer the ultimate comfort. Sample the poori bhaji ($6.45), with seasoned potatoes, or the chole bathura ($7.45), a chickpea curry, and you'll concur. A friend of mine is hooked on garlic naan ($1.99), more of a Northern Indian delicacy, which she enjoys with saffron-tinged biryani mixed with paneer, peas, bell peppers and cauliflower.

    The heady vegetable makes another appearance in sweet and hot gobi Manchurian ($7.99), only here the cauliflower is battered and lightly fried, served with an optional soy-based sauce. I prefer it with the sauce, though you can always get it on the side. Cheese cubes are tandoori-marinated in the thick paneer tikka ($9), a dish similar in taste to chicken tikka masala. My favorite curry, however, is the infernal dum aloo chettinad ($8.95). The neck-sweat'inducing dark potato gravy is redolent with cumin seeds, green chilies, tomato and ginger slivers, and best enjoyed with whole wheat chapati ($2.45).

    With the blaze of spices, seasonings and chilies circulating through your bloodstream, there are, thankfully, plenty of coolants to help temper the heat. The mango or mixed-berry milkshake ($3.95) soothes while you eat; sweet, milky payasam ($2.50) with raisins, almonds and cashews effectively puts out the fire. (Use any leftover poori to scoop it up.)

    A quote by Gandhi ' 'Be the change you want to see in the worldâ?� ' hangs on the wall behind the counter. It's a fitting maxim given Bombay Café's resolve in initiating a change of the guard.

     

    UCF-area café-deli caters to a diverse clientele, many of whom come for the all-halal menu and cut-rate prices. Don’t pass up the amazing hummus. Spit-fired shawarmas and gyros keep the college set content, and meaty platters offer more bang for your buck. End with Turkish coffee and baklava fragrant with orange-blossom water. Closed Sundays. 


    Teaser: UCF-area café-deli caters to a diverse clientele, many of whom come for the all-halal menu and cut-rate prices. Don't pass up the amazing hummus, though fat kibbeh make worthy starters too. Spit-fired shawarmas and gyros keep the college set content, and meaty platters offer more bang for your buck. End with Turkish coffee and baklava fragrant with orange-blossom water. Closed Sundays.

    Health-food market that includes a bakery and cafe with a hot lunch bar that is vegetarian heaven. Also try their fresh juices, smoothies and sandwiches.

    Health-food market that includes a bakery and cafe with a hot lunch bar that is vegetarian heaven. Also try their fresh juices, smoothies and sandwiches.

    More than 30 organic loose-leaf teas are offered at this socially conscious teahouse that's become a gathering ground for nonconformists, neo-cons and everyone in between. A predominantly vegan menu of wraps, salads and an outstandingly hearty chili will satisfy even the most ravenous of carnivores. Start with hummus with hemp seeds, and finish with the fluffernutter sandwich - a sweet proposition.


    Teaser: More than 30 organic loose-leaf teas are offered at this socially conscious teahouse that's become a gathering ground for nonconformists, neo-cons and everyone in between. A predominantly vegan menu of wraps, salads and an outstandingly hearty chili will satisfy even the most ravenous of carnivores. Start with hummus with hemp seeds, and finish with the fluffernutter sandwich ' a sweet proposition.

    Last week it was the Ravenous Pig; this week it’s the Drunken Monkey. In coming weeks, expect reviews on the Lecherous Hedgehog and the Fetid Squirrel. Seriously, attention-grabbing appellations can give a newly opened restaurant some much-needed buzz but, thanks to their very own coffee-bean roaster, Drunken Monkey does a pretty good job generating its own.

    And the inspiration for naming the café after a poggled primate? BAM! None other than Emeril Lagasse or, rather, Emeril Lagasse’s “Drunken Monkey” ice cream – a blend of white chocolate, bananas and rum. Co-owner Maureen Hawthorne says the name stuck during her stint at the portly superchef’s restaurant at Universal’s CityWalk. Plus, seeing that the other co-owner, Larry Hardin, is a proponent of Chinese martial arts (of which the Drunken Monkey form of kung fu is a part), endorsing the coffee house’s bibulous designation proved a cinch.

    Inside, a miscellany of découpaged tables, office chairs and vintage sofas make for a stylistic clash, and the same could be said about the menu. You’ll find everything from quiche and paella to soups and burritos, but unlike the building’s previous tenant (Conway’s BBQ), meat takes a backseat to a healthy offering of vegan and vegetarian fare. A wedge of jalapeño-streaked Southwest quiche ($5.95 with a cup of soup) was a perfectly portioned starter, only it was served partially warm and needed to be sent back, after which it was re-served too hot. French onion soup was superbly satisfying; no real surprise considering it was made by John Batcho, whose Soupçon Soups were a main draw at the College Park and Downtown Farmers Markets. His liquid gold is now sold exclusively at Drunken Monkey.

    The irony in the café’s proximity to Beefy King isn’t lost, though meat does make its appearance in some offerings. Shrimp, chicken and sausage are optional ingredients in paella ($6.95), but I made a conscious effort to eschew the wrath of these urban herbivores by ordering the meat-free version. Granted, it wasn’t served in a pan, and the aromatic splendor of saffron was absent, but the hodgepodge of veggies – onions, celery, peas, artichokes, olives, green beans and chickpeas – offered an interesting twist on this classic Spanish dish.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Baja Dann ($4.50), a burrito stuffed with huevos, tomatoes, queso, caramelized onions and peppers and a black-bean spread, but a dunk in the pureed salsa really kicked it up a notch (pardon the Emeril-ism). A soy patty wedged between ciabatta bread comprised the veggie burger ($5.99), but I found the sandwich bland and unsatisfying, like other meatless burgers I’ve sampled.

    Desserts are small in stature, but large in flavor. Dense banana bread with chocolate chips ($2) partnered well with specialty coffee drinks like the Mojo Jojo ($3), a Vietnamese-style beverage with sweetened condensed milk, cinnamon and vanilla flavoring. Triple-chocolate organic cookies ($1 for three) begged for a dip in the cappuccino ($3.10), and don’t overlook their fresh-squeezed juices, particularly the pleasurably tart limeade ($2).

    What I like about this coffeehouse is its inclusive, across-the-board vibe. As laid-back as it is eco-conscious, Drunken Monkey caters to Dandelion’s drum-circle set without alienating java junkies and meat-lovers. Service needs a little tweaking, but in a place like this, you get the sense that these folks won’t mind monkeying with the monkey.

    A garden of leafy delights awaits at Eden’s, a clean, spacious green house on North Orange sandwiched between Winnie’s Oriental Garden and the Ravenous Pig. The focus here is on the body (healthy food), spirit (a place for quiet reflection and artistic expression) and mind (free Wi-Fi), though their wraps and salads really take center stage. The blues and greens of the interior reflect the colors of the sky, plants and water, but are also reminiscent of an Aegean café, which may have induced me to order the Athena ($4.80). The mélange of greens, kalamata olives, tomatoes, cukes, peppers, snow peas and feta can be stuffed in a wrap or enjoyed as a traditional bowl of salad. I opted for the former (in a tomato-basil wrap) and had some lemon-pepper chicken thrown in for an additional $2. The flavors were rightfully tangy, if a tad salty. I really liked the Daisy ($4.80), a refreshingly sweet and delightfully nutty salad that I enjoyed sans wrap. Mandarin oranges and strawberries provided the pop, almonds and sunflower seeds the crunch and raspberry vinaigrette the invigorating splash.

    There are 11 different salads from which to choose, and if none tickles your fancy, create your own from Eden’s 37 available “tossings” and 12 dressings. Counter service can slow considerably during the lunch rush, but that’ll give you a chance to peruse the original artwork and sayings on the walls. Oh, and if you’re looking for a little quiet reflection, the consistent chatter and piped-in music could foil any meditative urges. It should be noted that the items above, though ordered “small,” were enormous portions, but really – eating too much salad is like taking too many naps; how bad for you could it possibly be?

    It’s no secret that Americans are a meat-eating bunch, and that the only time vegetables make it on the plate is when they’re in the form of french fries or iceberg lettuce. Recent studies have shown Americans forgoing vegetables in increasing numbers, with just a small percentage meeting the recommended daily value, but why? One plausible reason could be the manner in which vegetables are commonly prepared at home and at many restaurants – mushy, soggy, overcooked and bland. If more meat-eaters were exposed to properly prepared carrots, broccoli, peas and spinach, perhaps they wouldn’t react so negatively at the prospect of dining at a vegetarian or (gasp!) a vegan restaurant.

    Ethos Vegan Kitchen takes a valiant stab at showing condescending carnivores what herbivores already know – that meatless fare can be creative, satisfying and not just a side item to steak. That said, for those of you going vegan for the first time, more often it’s not the meat you’ll miss, but rather the items you’ve grown accustomed to at other restaurants: butter on bread, milk in coffee, cheese on pasta and whipped cream on dessert. However, even for a non-vegan and self-professed fromage-head like myself, the plate of macaroni & cheese ($4.95) proved gratifyingly gooey despite the use of cheese made from rice milk and soy cream mixed with, presumably, eggless pasta. Vegetable soup ($3.95), a hearty blend of potato chunks, carrots, broccoli, yellow squash and celery, met the minimum flavor requirement, but the broth could’ve been invigorated some with the addition of Scotch bonnet peppers, fire-roasted vegetables or a liberal sifting of paprika or cayenne.

    Similarly, sheep’s pie ($9.95) could’ve used a seasoned kick, but any pub in the U.K. would be hard-pressed to outmatch the casserole’s generous heaping of fluffy mashed potatoes. Even the pungent vegetable brown sauce enveloping a sauté of peas, onions, carrots and broccoli had beefy notes to it. I would’ve preferred the two ample slices of pecan-crusted eggplant ($12.95) to be cooked just a little more, but the slight caramelization of the pecans really gave the dish a pleasant bittersweetness. A thick mound of mashed potatoes and gravy was simply outstanding, while sautéed broccoli never tasted better. Though accompanying slices of bread were lovely, this was one place where I missed butter. A suggestion: Garlicky, herbaceous dipping oil would make a worthy substitute.

     

    Desserts whisked away any thoughts of butter and eggs, and the lack of such essential baking ingredients wasn’t to the detriment of the comforting warm apple galette ($2.25) with a wonderfully flaky crust and cinnamon-spiced sweet apples. The dense slab of chocolate cake ($1.50) wasn’t as moist as I’d hoped, but it wasn’t dry either. Double chocolate chip cookies ($1.25) were a pinch better than regular chocolate chip cookies, though, admittedly, I dunked them at home in a glass of milk (I know, I’m bad).

    The restaurant is situated on some prime property at the foot of Antique Row and truly exudes a chillax vibe, not surprising considering the same space once housed the Lava Lounge. Sleepy-eyed vegetarians opt for the candlelit tables in the cozy outdoor courtyard, with its Big Easy feel and bucolic view of giant oaks

    There's an abundance of painfully obvious jokes to be endured when you invite a bunch of wise-asses to lunch at a hospital cafeteria. But the superspread at Florida Hospital Orlando had them eating their words and more.

    It's no secret on the health-food circuit that vegetarian and generally healthy food can be found here, thanks to the dietary observances of the founding Seventh Day Adventists. But faux-meat dishes, real chocolate brownies and coffee with caffeine (refills encouraged) can also be found in the dizzying spread that starts with a pizza/pasta station.

    It's no secret on the health-food circuit that vegetarian and generally healthy food can be found here, thanks to the dietary observances of the founding Seventh Day Adventists. But faux-meat dishes, real chocolate brownies and coffee with caffeine (refills encouraged) can also be found in the dizzying spread that starts with a pizza/pasta station.

    At the wok station, a steaming medley of green beans, mushrooms, yellow squash and onions ($1.40) tasted as good as it looked. Seasonings are predictably mild, even in the "vegetarian-chicken" chimichanga ($1.40). And the mauve-colored mystery meat(less) in the Reuben made for good conversation.

    Weighing more on the healthy than the vegetarian side, Green Day is nevertheless quite veggie-friendly. Patrons can opt to global-warm chicken, turkey, tuna or veg wraps on a grill, or make them green by leaving out the sauce and cheese. A side of broccoli crunch, flecked with sunflower seeds and subtly sweetened with raisins, nearly upstages the wraps.
    Weighing more on the healthy than the vegetarian side, Green Day is nevertheless quite veggie-friendly. Patrons can opt to global-warm chicken, turkey, tuna or veg wraps on a grill, or make them green by leaving out the sauce and cheese. A side of broccoli crunch, flecked with sunflower seeds and subtly sweetened with raisins, nearly upstages the wraps.

    Sitting at Infusion Tea on Edgewater Drive, sipping Assam black tea ($2) and munching on delicious vegetarian hummus ($6), I reflect on what this place has in common with my favorite hot dog counter in the East Village: They are both what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls "Third Places." Naturally the First Place is home; the second is work (damn). Third Places are the gems, providing us the precious community we so often lack in our lives.

    I went to Infusion for the third time in four days last night. I met up with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, and we closed ourselves off to the outside world to concern ourselves only with conversation and the vast menu of tea before us. Suddenly the choice of black, oolong, white, green or herbal seemed the most important thing in the world. Jasmine pearls? Or monkey-picked oolong?

    Some places can just sweep you off your overworked and/or bored-at-home feet, and Infusion has the charm to do it. The quaint corner spot in a little retro building on Edgewater begs you to bike over and stay for hours. Owner Christina Cowherd is interesting and kind, and has created a special atmosphere where visiting and lingering reign over efficiency and the bottom line. She and her husband, Brad, got the idea to open Infusion Tea while in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, and moved back to College Park to be near their families and down the street from their alma mater, Edgewater High School. Incorporating into their business many of the lifestyle changes they learned in Guatemala, they are avid recyclers, conscientious organic-food buyers and dedicated composters. Among their fantastic food choices are banana bread ($1.75) and gazpacho ($5) – recipes that Christina created with her Guatemalan students – and delightful organic tea-time bites such as scones ($1.75) with fresh cream and jam (add 75 cents).

    I couldn't help but ask about their goal in opening the tea shop. "This may sound hokey," Christina said, "but I read this book called Great Good Places by Ray Oldenburg …"

    "The one about Third Places?" I asked.

    "That was my primary goal," she said.

    Doesn't sound hokey to me at all. In fact, I'm happy to switch my affection from all-beef kosher dogs to Assam tea when it provides me with something nourishing that I crave: community.

    Chief among my Orlando restaurant crushes has been Woodlands, the vegetarian Indian restaurant on South OBT. It was the only alternative I knew to fighting the tourist hordes down on I-Drive when I need a masala fix. The atmosphere falls somewhere between fancy and casual ' no need to dress up, but you won't be chasing your chickpeas around the plate with a plastic fork, either. The fact that Woodlands is purely vegetarian is a big plus, too: I'm not, but my usual dining partner is, and restaurants that serve meat sometimes get slapdash with the veggie dishes. Little did I know that there's been a gem twinkling away just around the corner from Woodlands all along.

    In fact, Khasiyat has been open longer than Woodlands, according to owner Bhanu Chavda. Hidden away on Lancaster Road, a few blocks west of Orange Blossom Trail, Khasiyat is stuck between a Mexican market and an Indian music/DVD store. If you didn't know it was there, you'd never run across it. Bigger cities than ours don't have two excellent vegetarian Indian restaurants to choose from ' we should consider ourselves incredibly lucky.

    Khasiyat is decidedly casual. Food is served on styrofoam dishes and eaten with plastic cutlery; you order and pay at the counter. The room is spacious but very plain, dominated by an enormous flat-screen TV. Satellite service supplies Bollywood musicals in a steady, mesmerizing stream. (Even with the sound turned down ' or perhaps because the sound was turned down ' we were enthralled.) They offer an inexpensive buffet of Northern Indian specialties and three different Southern Indian thalis (sampler plates), but the real strength of the menu is the vast assortment of snacks. Fully two-thirds of the menu is devoted to appetizers and 'bites.â?�

    Khasiyat is decidedly casual. Food is served on styrofoam dishes and eaten with plastic cutlery; you order and pay at the counter. The room is spacious but very plain, dominated by an enormous flat-screen TV. Satellite service supplies Bollywood musicals in a steady, mesmerizing stream. (Even with the sound turned down ' or perhaps because the sound was turned down ' we were enthralled.) They offer an inexpensive buffet of Northern Indian specialties and three different Southern Indian thalis (sampler plates), but the real strength of the menu is the vast assortment of snacks. Fully two-thirds of the menu is devoted to appetizers and 'bites.â?�

    I vaguely remembered OW's resident expert on all things Indian, Jason Ferguson, waxing rhapsodic over a street food called bhel puri. I spotted it on the 'bitesâ?� section of the menu, surrounded by several other similar nibbles, and we decided to give it a try ($3.99). After a brief misunderstanding ' we almost got a poori (puffed flatbread) instead ' a bowl of what looked like broken ramen noodles and Kix cereal was placed in front of us. One bite, though, and we were hooked. The mixture of puffed wheat, sev (Indian noodles) and tiny diced potatoes and onions, brightened up with fresh cilantro leaves and a hint of chili, was a perfect balance of crunchy, soft, salty and spicy. Absorbed as we were in trying to untangle the plot of the muted musical, if they had put a bathtub full of this stuff in front of us, we probably would have finished it.

    I vaguely remembered OW's resident expert on all things Indian, Jason Ferguson, waxing rhapsodic over a street food called bhel puri. I spotted it on the 'bitesâ?� section of the menu, surrounded by several other similar nibbles, and we decided to give it a try ($3.99). After a brief misunderstanding ' we almost got a poori (puffed flatbread) instead ' a bowl of what looked like broken ramen noodles and Kix cereal was placed in front of us. One bite, though, and we were hooked. The mixture of puffed wheat, sev (Indian noodles) and tiny diced potatoes and onions, brightened up with fresh cilantro leaves and a hint of chili, was a perfect balance of crunchy, soft, salty and spicy. Absorbed as we were in trying to untangle the plot of the muted musical, if they had put a bathtub full of this stuff in front of us, we probably would have finished it.

    The other big hit was the dosa we ordered. Dosai, if you haven't tried them, are huge, paper-thin savory pancakes, sometimes filled. And when I say huge, I mean huge ' our masala dosa ($4.49) was at least 18 inches across, and we ordered the regular, not the 'largeâ?� ($5.99) or the 'oversizedâ?� ($6.99). Because they're fried on the grill, sometimes dosai are greasy ' in the most delicious way, of course ' but this was crisp, not at all oily. The potato-and-onion filling squished pleasingly under the crackly wrapper, accompanied by heavenly coconut chutney.

    I went in knowing that I had to try the buffet ($5.99), because I felt obligated to try the most commonly ordered dishes. The spread satisfied: rice, dal, four curries (the sag paneer was especially good, with bursting kernels of fresh corn) and several sweets. But, tasty as it was, I'll stick to the dosai and 'bitesâ?� next time. I think I have a new Sunday-afternoon ritual: bhel puri and Bollywood.

    For decades, the cafeteria at Florida Hospital Orlando has been a secret arsenal for vegetarians, vegans, the healthy-minded and the broke. The operation is wrapped in the traditions of the hospital system's founding Seventh-day Adventist Church ' a diet free of meat and caffeine being one of those traditions ' but the cafeteria is loaded with meaty and meatless options, most at cheap prices.

    What's always been missing is atmosphere ' the room is pleasant but nothing fancy, though mounted TV screens and fresh tabletop flowers soften the institutional vibe. Still, the panoramic view at the hospital's new Lakeside Café blows away the competition. Sitting at an outdoor table on the terrace, looking out to the east across Lake Estelle, you can see the tree-filled back side of Loch Haven Park and bustling Mills Avenue off in the distance. There's plenty of climate-controlled space inside, as well.

    Inside the café itself, there are a handful of stations where food is ordered and prepared before visitors head for the cashier. The smoothies (blended from scratch, not a mix) were worth the visit alone; my refreshing carrot concoction with ginger root and banana was not too sweet and served slightly chilled ($4.99). At the colorful salad station, the crunchy Thai version with peanut sauce (and more ginger) burst with flavor; a full plate ($4.99) could be a whole meal and the half-plate ($2.99) of any variety (Greek, house, make-your-own) is a steal.

    Paninis ($4.99) seem to be favorites at the sandwich station, which had ample contemporary selections but didn't forget to include a simple chicken salad on an oatmeal bun ($3.99). There are more gourmet options at the flatbread station, and they cooked my choice of cheese and roasted garlic ($5.99) in minutes. Pesto, roasted red pepper and marinara sauces were stocked at the cooked-to-order pasta station. The chocolate cake ($1.89) at the bakery was a little dry, and though I wanted a latte, I passed on the Starbucks in canisters. But the small raspberry sherbet gelato ($2), one of a dozen or so flavors, was berry- rich in taste.

    'Be veg. Go green. Save the planet.â?� These words appear everywhere you turn at the Loving Hut, the tiny temple of veganism that recently materialized on Colonial Drive. The smiling Hut-dwellers have transformed the dark, cave-like spot that formerly housed Tay Do into a serene space lined with mirrors and flat-screen TVs and filled to overflowing with bright white modern tables and chairs.

    Every visit ' even for takeout ' begins with a complimentary bowl of delicate clear miso soup. While sipping, contemplate the frustratingly uninformative menu and try to decide between Jolly Rice and Saintly Stir-fry. Fear not; it's all delicious, especially to those already versed in the chewy delights of TVP. Noble Rice, a generous timbale topped with black sesame seeds, is served with a toothsome curry-sauced cutlet. Seven Sea Delight is a pile of seaweed-spiked ravioli-like items, crisp outside and tender inside. Heavenly Salad has the perfect sweet-sour tang for summer refreshing; pho and bun hue are serviceable interpretations. Western favorites are convincing as well: The club sandwich is a tall, messy 'mayoâ?�-and-pickle'laden treat.

    About those flat-screens â?¦ they're tuned at all times to 'Supreme Master TV,â?� the international outreach channel of a certain Supreme Master Ching Hai. Her picture is everywhere, too, on books, bumper stickers and fridge magnets. It's a little eerie, but the message is so benevolent that it's hard to be too weirded out by it: vegetarianism, animal rights, saving the polar ice caps ' wait, they also espouse eliminating alcohol. Now that is dangerous thinking.

    ' Jessica Bryce Young

    When I lived in Atlanta in the early 1990s, I was one broke-ass sucker. Before I began my illustrious career in alternative journalism, I was sleeping on a friend's floor, working various jobs, avoiding responsibility and managing to drink most of my paycheck. Therefore, despite all the wonderful dining options around town, my stomach had to endure the standard bohemian rations of cheap ramen and 99-cent fast-food menus.

    Occasionally, though, minor financial windfalls would come my way, and whatever wasn't spent in pursuit of entertainment was splurged on one of two meals: fried chicken at the Silver Grill (the best fried chicken on the planet) or pizza at Mellow Mushroom. And Mellow Mushroom was the first place I ever encountered a tofu anything that tasted good. Yeah, tofu on your pizza. Weird, right? But the, um, mellow vibe at the Mushroom helped keep the hippie leanings of its pizza menu from turning the joint into some sort of granola factory. The mood was communal, the beer was cheap and the pizza – with meat or without – was always excellent.

    Not surprisingly, the restaurant was successful to the point of being an institution. The first Mellow Mushroom opened in the '70s near Georgia Tech; there are now more than 50 locations throughout the Southeast. So when construction began on a Mellow Mushroom outpost – near my house even! – I was eager for a chance to see what happens when a restaurant whose identity is intertwined with its city of origin branches out into foreign territory. Would the atmosphere be as convivial? Would they have good beer? Would this charming and wonderful part of my own personal history have been turned into an Olive Garden-style commodity? Most importantly, would they have good pizza?

    Answers: Yes, but with effort. Hell, yes. Yes, but not in a bad way. Absolutely.

    As with any new restaurant in Winter Park, interest in Mellow Mushroom's opening was high. We went just a few days after it opened and were greeted by a polite hostess who informed us there was a 15-minute wait, which was surprising, but would have been fine if there had actually been a place to wait. The restaurant is squeezed into a tiny plot of land in the Publix shopping plaza on Aloma Avenue, and there's precious little room for parking near the restaurant (unless you count the plaza's huge parking lot nearby). With no real waiting area, this means the parking lot also functions as an ersatz holding pen for those on the list.

    That's the only thing I found wrong with the new Mellow Mushroom.

    Though it shone with a sparkly freshness that was a little off-putting, the classic-rock soundtrack and quasi-psychedelic artwork (right down to the "plasticine porter" bathroom-door markers) were all hallmarks of the relaxed, counter-culture Mushroom environment. A reassuringly long line of beer taps at the bar was a great sight; the fact that they all poured excellent Shipyard products made me giddy.

    Our waitress was one of those sit-at-the-table types, which is usually annoying, but when she served our food, it could have been brought to us by Dick Cheney and we would have left a good tip. Huge chunks of fresh, moist mozzarella and tomato slices topped a massive bed of fresh field greens in the Capri salad ($7). The teriyaki-marinated tofu in our half-hoagie ($3.75) was accented by grilled onions, peppers and sprouts and slathered with mayonnaise. The pretzels ($3.70) were made with superfresh dough and baked on a pizza stone.

    Oh yeah, the pizza. The 10-inch "Magical Mystery Tour" ($10.75) pie – spinach, feta, mozzarella, portobello mushrooms on a pesto (rather than marinara) base – was simply astounding, with copious toppings and a buttery, Parmesan-topped crust. Despite the other excellent offerings on the menu, the pizza's what it's all about here, and I'm pleased to report that expansion has done nothing to diminish the quality.

    Sure, the slick new surroundings don't have the same scrappy appeal as the original shops, but the pizza's still great and, hey, I don't have the same scrappy appeal I had a decade ago either. I guess that's a fair trade.

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