Over the past couple years, I've written about a number of Seattle's vegetarian restaurants. I have eaten semi-successful yoga-inspired cuisine introduced with a gong at Wallingford's Sutra, fantastic vegetarian Thai at the U-District's Araya's Vegetarian Place, and completely creditable veggie pub grub at Georgetown Liquor Company. I had a warm if predictable reunion with local veggie legend Cafe Flora (earning comparisons to the Vichy French for being a vegetarian who started eating fish). I'm very excited to test out Plum, the new Capitol Hill sit-down place from beloved veggie sandwich-makers Hillside Quickie. But In the Bowl is the only all-vegetarian restaurant recommended to me—passionately and repeatedly—by a carnivore.
The carnivore in question: my friend Nancy, who nearly shrieked when she heard that I'd never experienced the glories of (terribly named, no use denying it) In the Bowl. "Just go," said Nancy when I pressed for details, declaring everything she'd eaten there—from fake-meat dishes to straight-up veggie offerings—to be "amazing!"
In the Bowl is located just north of the corner of East Denny Way and Olive on Capitol Hill. The slender, no-frills space—one part kitchen and two parts dining room, a dozen or so tables laid out as tight as Tetris—is reminiscent of New York City, where such densely packed small spots are the norm. The restaurant's bossy rules, posted throughout the space on laminated paper, also have an East Coast flavor: "OUR SPICY LEVEL IS HIGHER THAN THE REGULAR, SO PLEASE THINK ABOUT IT BEFORE PLACING YOUR ORDER." If you misjudge, that's your problem: "WE HAVE TO CHARGE YOU AT FULL PRICE FOR CHANGING/REPLACING YOUR ORDER."
The menu is a pidgin-linguistic delight, with courses identified as "Episodes"—drinks are under "Beverages Episode," side dishes are "Accompany Buddies Episode." Vegetarianism is understated yet universal: "All meats, poultry, and seafood menu items are made from soy products" reads a line of print at the beginning, followed by pages of fake chicken, beef, prawn, and duck dishes. I'm ambivalent about such specific meat impersonation. Having given up eating the flesh of dead animals, why would I want to eat something striving to impersonate the taste and texture of dead animals? I don't know, but plenty of vegetarians do. And as Nancy proves, sometimes the impersonation is so tasty it even works for carnivores.
Clearly, my premier In the Bowl experience had to involve Nancy, and I instructed her to order her favorite items off the menu. An appreciation of In the Bowl runs throughout Nancy's fully meat-friendly family, including the fussy 8-year-old, who was tricked into eating at In the Bowl under false pretenses—she believed her "chicken" was chicken—and remained a fan even after the ruse was exposed. Granted, 8-year-olds are also fans of the moist-drywall cuisine of Chef Boyardee. Still, I was curious to try the fake meat that faked out even meat-eaters, and Nancy's choice was the Garlic Mania Noodle with so-called chicken ($7.95). The faux bird came in thin squares strewn among udon noodles stir-fried with a garlic-herb sauce and veggies; it was easily the least interesting component, tasting like nothing-special tofu. But even with the zero-star spice level mandated by Nancy, the dish had a lot going for it: The house-made garlic sauce had just the right edge, and, along with the simple, fresh vegetables, gave the potentially dull udon something worthy to do.
Beef with Broccoli ($7.95) was similar, another fine dose of In the Bowl's garlic gravy mixed with dice-sized nuggets of "beef," served over steamed broccoli. Again, the phony meat was the dish's weakest link. "Is that what beef tastes like?" I asked after chewing my way through a bouncy brown nugget. "Pretty much," replied Nancy. I let her eat the remaining beef dice, which granted me primary ownership of what was left of our knockout appetizer, a culinary oddity known as Melting Culture ($7.50), made of stir-fried-and-ground "chicken," green-curry paste, and coconut milk, adding up to something akin to a delicious Indian-spiced hummus, served hot, with dense, delicious roti rice-flour bread.
Revisiting In the Bowl sans Nancy, I was determined to get acquainted with the purportedly hazardous levels of hot pepper. The Spicy Noodle with tofu ($7.95) was perfect ordered two stars, the significant-but-not-punishing heat giving exactly the right kick to fried rice noodles and un-overcooked veggies (eggplant, broccoli, bell pepper, carrot). A Curry Episode, Green Curry with tofu ($7.95), was another vegetable-filled dish with an equally gratifying spiciness that took off in more complex directions, aided by fresh basil.
But it was two Starter Episodes that truly encapsulated the In the Bowl experience: an order of Vegetarian Duck and Chicken Rolls ($6.50) and an order of Pot Sticker Fans ($5.50; the fans being the diners, not an element of the dish). One involved "meat"; one did not. There was no significant difference in the taste or texture. And both were very good.