I have a confession to make: i am a recovering vegetarian. But before you judge me, please understand that it was the ’80s. I was young and trying to fit in with the cool crowd. I was living in Nashville as part of my failed bid to become the next Geddy Lee and didn’t think it would hurt anyone. My decent into herbivorous hell started with a salad here, some tofu there, but it wasn’t long before I was hanging out in vegetarian restaurants and showing up to family gatherings completely vegged out of my mind.
I wandered around for months, lost in denial about who I really was and what I had become until one evening the radiating light of a Fuddruckers on West End Avenue called out to me, bathing me in its comforting and forgiving glow. I felt the burden of smugness and smell of patchouli immediately begin to fall away as I ordered my 1/3-pound medium-rare burger and fries. I never looked back to those dark days and have been living a successful, tofu-free lifestyle ever since. That was until last week.
Although it’s very hard for me to admit, I’ve fallen off the wagon a few times over the past few years, letting peer pressure lure me into an occasional hit of tofu and in one particularly weak moment, I did an entire veggie burger. In spite of the guilt and distress I felt after these relapses, I’ve recently wondered if things had changed over the years. Now that vegetarian food has broken free of the dark corners of grocery store aisles and cafes that also sell Grateful Dead candles and postage scales, was the food any better?
I did a quick survey of my vegetarian friends to determine where I should visit for a sample of local vegetarian restaurant offerings and came up with only two completely vegetarian spots—Green Thumb and Sluggo’s. I arbitrarily chose Sluggo’s, at 501 Cherokee Blvd., and went into this meat-free dispensary completely solo, without as much as even an accountabilibuddy to help me navigate the menu.
Not surprisingly, these soy pimps were extraordinarily nice, even when I told them that I was a committed omnivore and may poke fun at them in print. Undeterred, their friendly staff brought out a feast of staggering variety and quality that looked surprisingly like actual food. I was ready to hate all of it on principle alone but found myself in the difficult position of actually liking some of the dishes.
They started me off with the Sweet Thai Chili Bowl and I immediately saw why this is their most popular dish. Vegetarian or not, this was a delicious and beautiful bowl of awesome. Brown rice, sweet chili sauce, veggies, pineapple and the only tofu I have ever eaten that didn’t remind me of flavorless, coagulated pudding skin. Hats off to Sluggo’s for whatever voodoo magic they do in the kitchen to make tofu edible.
The next best thing I tried was the Culture Club sandwich. I was poised to mercilessly make fun of this atrocity of soy bacon combined with slices of tofurkey (the devil’s lunchmeat) and marinated seitan. The horror. It mostly resembled a traditional BLT because someone figured out if you put enough smoke flavoring on anything it starts to taste like bacon. In all fairness, it was so good that I ate the whole thing, but I was never under the illusion that what I was eating was actually bacon and turkey.
As I ate my way through the Pecan Dusted Seitan with Mushroom Gravy and a Lentil Patty Melt Sandwich, I again realized why I am not a vegetarian. Meat “substitutes,” no matter how skillfully prepared, cannot compete with the perfect texture and flavor of actual animal flesh. If you’re already a fan of seitan, tofu, tempeh and other meat imposters, Sluggo’s will certainly satisfy your yearnings. But if you’re a recovering vegetarian like myself, or just know one, Sluggo’s can give you a quick reminder of what you loved or hated about vegetarian food. As for my recovery, with a little help from bacon and beef cheeks, I’m taking it one day at a time sweet Jesus, one day at a time.
Mike McJunkin has been in a funk since losing this year at the Mainx24 World Heavyweight Chili Championship. Cheer the poor guy up by visiting him on Facebook.com/SushiandBiscuits.