I've been whiny and irritable and kind of a nightmare to be around, but as I write this, I am still a vegetarian.


I think about sausage at the most inappropriate times. I got choked up with emotion watching an Outback Steakhouse commercial. A week ago at brunch, I almost lost it while watching a friend's daughter clutch a scrap of bacon while scribbling on a paper placemat with crayons; I had to fight the shameful urge to yank that piece of bacon right out of her little helpless hand. It is a sad day when you're ready to shake down a toddler for a piece of nasty, fatty, cold pork.

The bright side? I am doing the Right Thing. I am being political. I am not supporting cruelty and violence. I am being more health-conscious. I am doing my part for the environment. I am trying to get inspired in that Diet for a New America sort of way.

But I am eating more potatoes, cheese, rice, bread, and pasta than I ever have in my entire life. Suddenly I'm all about Alfredo sauce, generously buttered grilled-cheese sandwiches, enormous breakfast pastries. I mentioned this predicament last week ["Vegetarian Vacation, Part 1," Nov 14]: As I struggle with vegetarianism, my biggest challenge is getting full. I was so accustomed to having meat or fish as the focal point of every meal, it's taking my body some time to adjust.

When I kvetched about my longing for animal fat, for the succulence of seasoned flesh, I got tons of support and suggestions (vegetarians, God bless 'em, are like Republicans--they write a lot of letters). Thanks to veggie tipsters, I've become a grudging fan of Morningstar products--Chik Patties, soy-and-egg-white "bacon," spicy "buffalo wings." I've also been double-stacking Boca Burgers with thick slabs of cheddar, and I have to admit, they're not bad--I can taste hints of charred grill, always a nice touch.

Around town, I've been pleasantly surprised--I guess it can be bearable to skip the pork when you've got places like vegetarian Chinese Bamboo Garden (364 Roy St, 282-6616) or pretty greenhouse Cafe Flora (2901 E Madison St, 325-9100). Bamboo Garden fooled me in the best possible way: It's hard to believe that the flavorful Szechuan fried "chicken," or the sweet 'n' sour "chicken," or any other of its soy-protein-based dishes don't contain animal products. Bamboo's meat substitutes--simmered, deep-fried, braised with veggie stock, or wok-seared--even have impressive meatlike fibrous textures and juiciness.

Cafe Flora's popular Portabella Wellington ($17) blends grilled portobello mushrooms, sautéed leeks, and a lentil-pecan-mushroom pâté together, and tucks it all into a thick puff pastry, enveloping robust flavors and aromatic herbs. It's paired with a heap of delicious rosemary mashed potatoes and vegetables, everything coming together with the help of a Madeira-mushroom wine sauce, lovely and thick and gravylike. Also check out Flora's purely vegan ginger-pesto seitan samosas ($16) with rice noodles--this dense, sturdy dish (which doesn't hold back on flavor... hello, hoisin whiskey sauce and mango purée) challenges my previous notions about how vegan foods fail to fill you up.

I'd go to Teapot Vegetarian House (125 15th Ave E, 324-2262) even as a devoted carnivore. During a recent dinner, I was floored by the "BBQ pork" special, another glowing testament to the sophisticated world of fake meats. Along with various other soy options and tofu entrées--there's a curry-eggplant-tofu hot pot that rocks my world--this place also knows what to do with string beans (sear 'em crunchy and garlicky) and baby bok choy (sauté 'em tender with delicate strands of enoki mushrooms).

I used to enjoy my after-work drinks with a bacon cheeseburger at Linda's Tavern (707 E Pine St, 325-1220), but lately I've been inhaling Linda's veggie melt instead, and I haven't been complaining (that much). Sautéed spinach and mushrooms, thick wedges of avocado, melted provolone, and caramelized onions are smooshed between toasted wheat bread; between that damn near perfect sandwich, some hot, salty fries, and a few bottles of Pacifico, I think I could be a fulfilled, meat-avoiding lady. Of course, if I have enough Mexican beer, you can get me to eat anything. But that is another story.

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