By Michael Wallen
Ever since the dawn of agriculture, meat had been a luxury, but now you seem to get charged a premium for not eating it.
Industrial capitalism has been an incredible engine of wealth generation. Goods that were once dear become plentiful; goods that once didn’t exist become necessities (think of your computer). Part of the magic is firms competing to maximize efficiency. However, I think what’s done to animals in factory farms for efficiency is horrific. Ergo, vegetarianism.
Too often, though, the vegetarian options at restaurants turn out to be meat dishes with the meat left out, or items like garden burgers that cost substantially more than hamburgers. How’s that work? It costs less to turn grain into cows than to shape it into patties? No, it’s the demand function of economics at work. There’s more going on, like subsidies, but let’s not get distracted.
Annoyed, I checked out Happy Cow’s list of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Eugene. Nearly half the entries were food carts. Those are done to death, warned a good journalistic authority. That left five interesting sites: Morning Glory, Holy Cow, Lotus Garden, Pizza Research Institute and Govinda’s Vegetarian Buffet. Three, including a breakfast place, were conveniently located near Willamette Street, making a day’s convenient expedition. The rest required driving to West Eugene.
Day One Breakfast
First up, Morning Glory Cafe at 450 Willamette Street. Walk in during peak breakfast hours and you feel like, if the University of Oregon is the city’s brain, this is its soul. You’ll find tables packed with hippies, hipsters and possibly other demographics that start with “hip.”
Look up from your table to the wall and you’ll see expressionist-influenced surrealist paintings of people in agony as they pull off their own heads or saw off their own arms, which are inexplicably tree branches. It’s like eating amidst Salvador Dali’s paintings of Dante’s “Inferno”.
If the walls are “Inferno”, the food is closer to “Paradiso”. Besides vegetarian, it’s mostly organic and local. I had the biscuits and “tantric mushroom” gravy. You don’t get gravy where the mushrooms ritually copulate. What you do get are two huge organic biscuits, halved and slathered in gravy from Eugene mushrooms.
The prices are reasonable. Breakfast ranges from $4.75 for “Buddha Belly” oatmeal (what, was the Buddha Scottish?) to $9 for a large order of French toast. Staff is friendly, though service is limited, with water and coffee being self-serve by the door.
Day One Lunch
Holy Cow Cafe has been a University of Oregon fixture since 1990. Their logo tells you what you’re in for, with cows dressed in Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, East Asian and skateboarder garb. The breadth of the menu is unbelievable, ranging from dhal to falafel to macaroni and cheese. The trade-off is authenticity. You can’t expect falafel served up cafeteria style to have the savor of Lebanon. On the other hand, everything is organic and local, enriching the taste of what might otherwise be Americanized ethnic takeout.
Holy Cow’s bread and butter is the campus cafe, but they’ve opened a restaurant at 2621 Willamette Street. It has the same breadth of cuisines, without the cafeteria atmosphere. That said, it doesn’t have much restaurant atmosphere either. The stark, primary color decor and fast food style tables won’t win any fans. All Holy Cow has to offer is the food.
I had a plate of saag paneer and coconut chickpeas on long-grain brown rice served with raita and two chutneys, with a “Big Pink” hibiscus iced tea, all for under $9. It wasn’t like anything I’ve enjoyed in India. But it had a complex medley of fresh flavors. Plus if you’re a vegetarian, spinach on brown rice is just the thing to get your iron and other vitamins.
Day One Dinner
Lotus Garden is just west of Willamette Street, at 810 Charnelton Street. I walked in at 7:50 p.m., not long from their 8:30 p.m. closing time. The staff was thoroughly friendly despite the hour. Turning in from the front door, you’re confronted by a large painting of Guan Yin, the Buddha of compassion, at the center rear of the dining room above an altar. Owners Van and Yin are Chinese Buddhists who opened Lotus Garden here in 2000. It’s Eugene’s only all-vegan Chinese restaurant.
Lotus Garden offers a variety of mock meat dishes, using tofu and wheat gluten to mimic the texture of most meats in a typical Chinese restaurant. This sort of thing being new to me, I tried the soy strips with lemon grass, for $9.50.
I felt mocked by the mock pork, with the texture of ham but flavorless except for soy sauce. The steamed broccoli was bereft of sauce, making it no better than plain steamed broccoli. The mushrooms, carrots, and lemon grass were flavorful, but could not save the main ingredients.
Burger at McMenamins
Disappointed by mock meat, I impulsively added McMenamins to my list. I had to have a Hammerhead garden burger. Made with mushrooms, cheese and their Hammerhead beer, it makes vegans unhappy. It should satisfy everyone else though, even meat-eaters. There’s no attempt to mimic a hamburger here. It’s just a good sandwich on a delicious toasted bun, with lettuce, tomato and your choice of basic spreads.
As a regional chain, spread out from Eugene to Seattle, McMenamins is a known quantity. Obviously they don’t advertise as vegetarian, since you can get thick dripping hamburgers, but the rest of their happy hour menu is meat-free. At least it is at the High Street site I frequent. Want a drink and a bite? Go with confidence.
Day Two Lunch
The next afternoon, I got a pizza to go at Pizza Research Institute. You’re not missing a key part of the experience by doing so, as the main dining area is limited to a few tables in a converted warehouse. PRI, at 530 Blair Boulevard, is literally a mom and pop operation. Co-owner Usha Boise (her husband, William Boise, is the other) took my order after texting her youngest son a happy 21st birthday. Turning her attention to me, she couldn’t avoid sharing her enthusiasm for the stencil machine behind me, which they use to brand their boxes.
That do-it-yourself charm characterizes PRI. The menu is hand-written on a blackboard above your head as you face the cash register. I got a medium number four special: feta, spinach, kalamata olives and artichoke hearts. Just about everything is organic, though not local.
While waiting, I noticed a wooden Ganesha head above the door leading to the dining area. You have to have your Indian images to run a vegetarian restaurant, it seems.
The hot pizza arrived in its hand-stenciled box and I drove off to share it with friends. The crust, from dough made fresh daily, was crispy and had hints of herbs. The sauce was just right. The veggies were flavorful.
Unless atmosphere is important to you, there’s nothing to dislike about the PRI experience. The food merits the cult following it’s developed. At $20.00 for a medium, though, people will differ on whether it’s worth it.
Day Two Dinner
Now here’s something different. Govinda’s Vegetarian Buffet, at 1030 River Road, is associated with Eugene’s Gaudiya Vaishnava community, better known as Hare Krishnas. While the menu at Morning Glory makes Indian religious allusions, these folks are the real deal: white people who converted to Hinduism.
As soon as you step in the door, you’re confronted with a hologram of Krishna on a swing with his lady (Radha, for whom the associated Radha Govinda Temple is named). “Govinda” is an epithet of Krishna himself, meaning “cow protector.” Look around the walls and there are many devotional paintings depicting Krishna’s childhood as a cowherd, before he went on to star in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata as an adult.
There were two highlights. One were the rice and lentil cakes (iddlis) with three tasty chutneys. The other wasn’t Indian at all, the vegan lasagna, filled with olives, corn and diced spinach, with tofu in lieu of cheese. The other dishes, namely brown rice, coconut curry, curried mixed vegetables and halavah, were rather bland. On the plus side, you do get all you can eat for $8.50, or $7.50 for students and seniors.
The highlights of this expedition were Morning Glory and Holy Cow. Each offers an organic, locally sourced vegetarian menu at prices competitive with omnivorous restaurants in their class. Morning Glory will take care of you for breakfast or a sit-down lunch. Holy Cow offers a variety of delicious dinners or items like burritos for a quick meal on the run. Vegetarian, organic, local, decent prices… sometimes you can have everything.