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Thursday, December 7

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Feature Fri Feb 29 2008

Eating in Tahoe

It was around 2:30 p.m. in Lake Tahoe and I was hungry. I'd been up since 4:15 a.m. in Chicago, where it was now 4:30 p.m., and only eaten a peanut butter and jelly with tomato from the Potbelly's at Midway Airport, plus maybe some peanuts on the plane. (This reminds me of the hard time I had ordering peanut butter and jelly with lettuce and tomato at a different Potbelly's another time, when someone kept asking me if I was sure that's what I wanted. Yes, it's an odd combination, especially with the lettuce, but I assure you that the tomato contributes a friendly juiciness.)

A shuttle bus took me and a friend from the Reno airport, some 65 miles north, and dropped us in front of Horizon Casino Resort in Lake Tahoe. Inside, a kind lady working a Welcome Center suggested we go to Sprouts Natural Foods Cafe for vegetarian food. (I assumed that asking for a vegan suggestion might complicate my inquiry. Some might think this does a disservice to the vegan cause, and perhaps they're right.)

The cabbie she called told us to get the tempeh burger. One of the many young ladies working behind the counter greeted us, and then another called us over to the register to pick up menus. She asked us if we'd just pulled up in a taxi, followed by where we were from. I went with the cabbie's suggestion, made vegan. She told me the honey mustard had dairy, finishing with something sympathetic, using a word like stupid or messed up. She remembered my friend's name from his order, and made sure to confirm we were sitting together so they'd bring my order to the proper table. She was on top of it. Just like everyone else seemed to be here: up front, courteous, totally competent, and most of all, knowing quite well how to make a tasty sandwich served with good crunchy corn chips.

A nutty, creamy combination of tahini and hummus came instead of the honey mustard, which blended quite perfectly with the sandwich's shredded purple cabbage, carrot, red onion slivers, soft avocado wedges, and sprouts. The tempeh patty was as savory and hearty as I'd hoped for, something thick to give a bit of resistance to my teeth. My friend dug into his non-vegan version of the same (with cheese and the honey mustard) and told me that he could eat every meal here. His order came on bread, mine on a bagel. Maybe the loaf bread wasn't quite vegan. I didn't ask. They knew what they were doing.

I don't usually ask restaurants to verify ingredients for me on standard bread. I'm inclined to think that more often than not, you don't find milk or butter in breads until the recipes approach something of a pastry, like a croissant. Then, for pastries, I go with the odds in the opposite direction, not ordering unless. The last time I asked if the bread was vegan, the server at Wishbone brought out the bag.

Sprout's menu was loaded with options from nachos to oatmeal topped with muesli, and fresh juices with names like Walk in the Garden and the Funky Monkey my friend ordered. I laughed at the name of his drink, and the server who brought it smiled back as she walked away, the way someone does when they're thinking, that's a funny name, too. She came back to make sure the sandwiches were good, since, as she'd joked, we'd come from Chicago for them. My friend and I left behind our fellow snowboarding and skiing patrons, wearing snow pants, tube hats, and cable knit caps. We had our friends to meet up with, but not before groceries.

We carted our luggage down an icy sidewalk at the solid edge of Lake Tahoe and into a large, nearby Safeway grocery store. I pulled my roll-aboard suitcase through the aisles, not yet noticing that the frozen journey it'd just gone through had ripped one of the wheels nearly free. My friend took a shopping cart for his large duffle bag, the kind of bag that is much too large to carry on an airplane. After pushing the big bag aside in the cart, we had only made enough room to fold down the small shelf at the front, just enough to add my backpack, but absolutely no groceries. We would need to carry my beer in hand. An aisle-long open cooler of the alcohol stood across from a cooler of cheese and yogurt. I don't think I'd even seen this particular example of such convenience at a major chain grocery. When we finished our savage shopping, I called a taxi and we waited outside, at the foot of a large parking lot, with a grocery cart full of heavy, bulky luggage. A cart-runner told us the taxis came to the store's other entrance. There we waited again while observing a vending machine of Go Cola, Ditto, and Dr. Skipper. Why would a soda be called Ditto? My friend suggested something like, perhaps Sprite's got lemon lime, and Ditto's like, we got Ditto. The same cart-runner asked us how long we'd been waiting and offered to call for us. I had the number handy enough; our first driver had given it to me. The gal who answered told me, sweetie, it'll be just a little bit.

When our cab came, a stranger rushed for it, suddenly interrupting the great feeling of hospitality I'd been experiencing up until now. I felt like I too, needed to be kind. This person was no taxi thief. They'd called in for one, too, they told us in our pleasant exchange. They just hadn't waited as long as we had, so this one was ours. Into the trunk went our luggage before the opening lid bounced. Our driver told us of a time when two men got into a brawl over his cab. He slowly drove away, sticking it to both of them. They didn't notice; they were busy, our cabbie told us. He dropped us where we'd be staying, far into a wooded subdivision of townhouses nestled on hills that were no match for towering evergreens. We rang the wrong door, expecting our friends but instead found a stranger who nevertheless set us straight, telling us he'd rung the wrong door, too.

The next day, I took my first downhill ski lesson. Snowboarding had worked brilliantly for me on previous trips, and then suddenly it had given up on me. I was almost ready to quit lessons for lunch before I began. I was having fun, feeling like I was learning, but the bright sun had tricked me, and I hadn't dressed warmly enough for the cold mountain wind. I had heard that Kirkwood Mountain Resort's cafeteria had run out of veggie wraps and Asian rice bowls. Options narrowed to the shelves at the General Store and a sit down restaurant called Off The Wall, named after an expert run that's named The Wall. Bundled up skiers and snowboarders stoically took to frozen tables outside, just in front of the large, tall windows we sat warmly behind, next to a fireplace. Fun-goers slid down the mountain towards us, and then turned for the lift to do it all again. Our server made a mistake with our water glasses. When one of us thanked her for filling his, she absentmindedly took the glass. She returned it moments later and apologized.

We shared rounds of appetizers. Thick cucumber slices had wells dug to hold hummus, with their skin peeled in stripes, around a little salad of dark, crisp greens in the middle of the plate. Tender sun-dried tomatoes topped bruschetta, as did tomatoes nearly as sweet as cherries, and what seemed a thick, reduced balsamic. Our server seemed uncommonly honest, volunteering which item she wouldn't order, because the kitchen doesn't ladle it out hot, she told us. When we thanked her for telling us, she suggested that she's been working long enough to know that it's not worth disappointing tables.

By the time our friend and driver was ready to return us to the townhouse, an hour or two away, darkness had begun to fall quickly. The Sierras kicked up a blizzard that cast swirls of snow, which danced on the road in front of us, rising like stream from hot concrete. A wind gust turned our windshield white for long enough, on such a curvy road, to make me wonder if I would live another minute. Back at the townhouse, my brother opened up a package of vegan truffle chocolates he'd ordered from the UK. I was quick to sample the deep creamy flavors: champagne, espresso, and hazelnut crunch. We were soon off to Freshies, a Hawaiian style restaurant we'd long been anticipating. I remember their Temple of Tofu as a tall stack of tofu and vegetables in a savory sauce with seaweed, shredded purple cabbage, and sprouts. On a starter, Freshies showed us their skill at battering tofu with a super light tempura, crispy and light on the outside but soft inside. They were no strangers to peanut sauce either, nor vegetarian buffalo wings with a hot sauce thick enough to tightly cling to the tofu base, with a bowl of more hot sauce that made sure to leave my lips and tongue feeling a smooth, pleasant burn. Service came frequently and was quite accommodating with plenty of water refills. My entree, tofu encrusted with Cajun spices, came aside refreshing cauliflower, broccoli, and zucchini slices, and sliced carrots with a touch of brown sugar-like sweetness. Brown rice came tender and soft.

We left with a pre-ordered vegan pie in a re-usable pie carrier, marked FRESHIES with a smiley face. They told us they wanted the carrier back, but they didn't ask for a deposit. My brother suggested they trusted us. When I had called to pre-order the pie a week earlier, Melody answered. She seemed to know exactly who my brother was, as one who consistently orders a vegan pie. She put her husband Eric on the phone to take the order. Eric asked me for my number. "3 - 1 - 2 . . ." Where is that, he asked, then got excited that I was calling from Chicago. I explained that my brother and I grew up around Chicago, and that my brother and his gal love going to Tahoe to snowboard and ski. His tone told me that he was smiling. They sell pie by the slice, adding up all the pieces comes to $60, but he'd "whack that in half," plus a little, so it'd come to $35. The pie tasted smooth, with a soft silky tofu texture and a deep hint of peanut butter. The graham cracker crust provided a nice crumbly contrast that I wished for more of. I think a pie also topped with such a crust would be lovely, like a giant cookie you'd carefully cut slices from so the soft filling wouldn't squish out as you pushed down through the top crust. I ate slice after slice, as I watched thick, fluffy snow pour down outside. The blizzard turned into our windows by the force of winds that bent trees towering outside.

Day three, I was back at Sprouts for a short time, sipping a Flu Fighter juice combo, heavy on the celery. Then snow chains went on our tires to get us back to the townhouse where a cake awaited. Black China Bakery had baked us a vegan, slightly fudgy chocolate cake topped with a reddish-pink raspberry ganache. As my brother's gal told me, the raspberry seeds made the frosting. Chocolate flowers made of frosting topped it. One of our fabulous friends bought it from San Francisco's Rainbow Bakery, in the Mission District.

The next day we once again returned to Sprouts. Freshies seemed to have closed early, perhaps due to a storm that had already dumped a few feet of snow, and was not due to stop soon. Tomorrow's forecast included thundersnow, an apparently particularly rare phenomenon commonly in areas of extratropical cyclones. I related the great work that Sprouts had previously done veganizing my tempeh burger, telling my vegan brother, just as one of the staff passed our table. She interjected that they have Goddess dressing, too, and that it was vegan. I imagine she had to be speaking of the creamy and dreamy, savory dressing that is Annie's Goddess Dressing. The cashier suggested Goddess plus tahini (no it wouldn't be too much, just not hummus, too). That's how she gets it. Tubs of carrots and wheat grass stood on the shelves behind her.

Day five, we had somehow escaped the thundersnow and arrived Reno, leaving Lake Tahoe through a tunnel that opened up views of the lake's dark blue water, deep navy, and near black, further out. We winded down the mountains, foothills sprawling with snow-dusted and forever tall evergreens.

Before we could get lunch, one of us needed to check-in at the Reno airport. After a few minutes curbside, he was back in our rented minivan, still much full of snow gear. A few blocks from what looks like downtown Reno to me, someone who knows nothing of that city, we walked into a building and up a flight of stairs. Pneumatic Diner's entrance stood at the foot of a long hallway that reminded me of those from bleak hostels. We waited to be called, then stepped in and up, from a tile floor to a wood floor. From my seat, I looked through the windows. Low-rise sidewalk-facing walk-up buildings sprawled immediately in front of us, then gave way to the few towers I associated with downtown. The diner's kitchen took the middle of the room, a peninsula jutting into an arc of tables. Contiguous rows of shelves were the walls for this kitchen, some held by standard issue hardware store black pipe, with a break for an entrance. The shelves held plates, bowls, and equipment like two microwaves and, from the back, what looked like perhaps a large toaster oven. The atmosphere was casual. One worker performed a little dive and kneel to slip through the tight space between our table and the shelf-wall of this well-done makeshift kitchen.

It was time to order. I've sometimes been lovingly ridiculed for asking for vegan treats at the most unlikely of places; say vegan croissants at a traditional French bakery. Maybe that's a slight exaggeration. Sometimes, I admit, asking such a question at an almost certainly non-vegan venue seems a bit obscene. Other times, I'm glad I have inquired. Chicago's now defunct Half and Half surprised me, telling me their apple and cherry turnovers were vegan. Who would have known? I didn't see them marked such. Just to be sure I wasn't just being told what they thought I wanted to hear, I asked different people on several visits. If I recall correctly, they could even name the vendor who supplied the pastries. The crispy, flaky crust, with sugar tingling my mouth, only encouraged me to ask yet another place. And since, I've found at least one bake shop with perhaps half of their offerings vegan, but not identified as such, because they think that some customers wouldn't order them if they knew. Yes, vegan options can taste bad, but so can non-vegan options. Take this next example.

At Pneumatic in Reno, pecan waffles were available Sunday until noon. While I didn't see vegan waffles on their menu, they didn't seem strangers to such a request, considering that the garlic bread had a bean-like fake cheese. Compared to an order of non-vegan buttermilk waffles, the vegan non-buttermilk version held up better, looking crispier, even after taking on much syrup. A lady in a Sonic Youth T-shirt had made them in two waffle irons on a stainless steel top, supported by milk crates, standing between tables, an outpost outside of the ad hoc kitchen.

Our only mistake was over-ordering. It became quite clear that we did this when we saw the size of our nachos order, and when one of us put our plate of waffles on our lap to make room for it. My brother cancelled his shake in the interest of coming to terms with the quantity we had ordered. Nachos had firm but tender black beans, tomatoes, zucchini slices, the occasional jalapeño bit, plenty of crispy chips, and hummus-like cheese. The fake cheese was good, but I wouldn't call it cheese. Expect hummus and I think you'll be happy. Garlic bread had the sharp taste of plenty of garlic.

One friend's fake meatball sandwich was on its way, meatballs made of breadcrumbs, walnuts, onions, garlic, fennel and cheese, a recipe I'd love to give a go without the cheese. Our small table wasn't meant to hold this much food for four. What was left of the garlic bread moved to a nearby empty chair to make room for a breakfast burrito, which held a good combination of ingredients, rice, tofu, potatoes, but needed more salt - just as bland as the nachos were savory. Plates of ravaged waffles moved to the nearby chair to allow for incoming coffee cups and water. One server finally told us that he'd thought we had ordered a lot of food, but only after we remarked about it to him first, because as he said, he wasn't one to interfere.

I gazed at a painting on the wall, Decaf Zombies, and another depicting a nude woman washing dishes in a bathtub, labeled something like Triple Oppression. This was my second time enjoying Pneumatic Diner, a time I certainly won't forget soon, and one I'd like to repeat next time I come through Reno for Tahoe, having luggage with sturdier wheels, I hope.

In B-Terminal of the Las Vegas McCarran airport, I sat in a round modern room, dotted with seven gates, waiting for my connecting flight to take me home to Chicago. Floor-to-ceiling slender windows, all the way around, enclosed collections of steel-framed black waiting chairs, which bent together in arcs. In the center of the room, the chairs yielded to a walkway, which was in a ring around another arc of chairs, closer to the center. Silver and red slot machines, each topped with a light, only a few of them on or blinking, sat in the very middle of the room. In the center, a thick white pillar shot up from geometric blue and maroon-speckled carpeting, spreading out at a ceiling that radiated spokes of consecutive rectangular lights. A news and gift stand stood at a break in the windows, aside the only entrance to the room, where I came in, and where I was about to leave to seek out a sandwich. Flatbreadz had freshly baked, you guessed it, flatbread. Guacamole spread on both sides. I skipped the cheesy pesto. They piled on a giant handful of tender portobellos, a smaller handful of roasted red peppers, loads of arugula and tomato. I saved it for my flight, but a brief delay convinced me to eat it all at once from one of the comfortably supportive steel framed chairs.

For more on my vegan eating outside Chicago, read my A Chicago Vegan in Utah feature.

Article by Chris Brunn.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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