Veg out: Downtown bistro offers Lawrence’s first full-service vegetarian restaurant in years

Flan with caramel sauce.

Flan with caramel sauce.

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Banana cake with watermelon and grape jelly sauce. Tenth Street Vegetarian Bistro, 125 E. 10th Street, is Lawrence’s first full-service vegetarian restaurant in a few years.

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Spicy vegan tuna served over veggies and rice with coconut curry sauce.

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Head chef Kevin McGee (left) and owner Nancy Nguyen.

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Tenth Street Vegetarian Bistro, 125 E. 10th St., features dining area seating on two floors.

Usually, Ariel Hecke stares at a menu not knowing where to begin. She squints at the type, reads all the descriptions and agonizes over whether to bother the server about the possibility of beef broth lurking in the soup of the day: Is that minestrone truly vegetarian?

But this week when she sidled into a booth at Tenth Street Vegetarian Bistro, pulled out a menu and stared at it, she was clueless where to begin for a different reason.

Choice. And lots of it.

“It’s really nice because usually you have a menu and you have to search for ... anything that you can eat, which isn’t a lot,” Hecke says.

The bistro is the first full-service, fully vegetarian restaurant in Lawrence in years. No meat is stored in the kitchen save for the faux kind — chicken, fish and steak. About 40 percent of the menu is vegan, as in devoid of any animal ingredients or byproducts.

The restaurant is the brainchild of Nancy Nguyen. Nguyen has long served vegetarian and vegan clients at her flagship restaurant, The Orient Vietnamese Restaurant, 1006 Mass. She says those customers encouraged her to open a vegetarian restaurant rather than having her hands in three “meat-heavy” establishments: The Orient, Angler’s Seafood House, 1004 Mass., and Drake’s Diner, 125 E. 10th St. She decided to close down Drake’s and give her customers “their own restaurant,” completing the transition in early November.

“I had three restaurants, and the most customers told me, ‘Nancy, why don’t we open one (vegetarian restaurant) because you have all three meat restaurants,’” Nguyen says. “I said, OK, I’ll try.”

She then asked Kevin McGee, who had been working at Angler’s, to create a varied menu using the faux meats that were popular among her Orient customers. The result is a menu that runs the gamut from falafel to vegan fish and chips to gnocchi made in-house.

“When I create menus, I like to keep it pretty varied unless I’m at a specific restaurant with a specific kind of cuisine that we need to follow,” says McGee, who, before moving to Lawrence, worked in the restaurant business in San Francisco. “I try to keep it pretty diverse — it helps people decide more easily on what they would want, I think.”

Well, unless you want pretty much everything on the menu. Eva Helsel, a vegan living in Kansas City, Mo., has driven in just to eat at the restaurant three times, and has been alternately trying all of the restaurant’s vegan offerings. She calls the restaurant’s vegan variety “awesome.”

“I don’t see a lot of the faux meats, as much. A lot of places, they have the vegan and vegetarian options, but they don’t have the fake meats,” Helsel says. “It’s really exciting and everything here is really good, everything that I’ve tried.”

Comments

jmcmillian 12 years, 6 months ago

I was completely unimpressed with my meal. The entire vegan section from the looks of our own and everyone else's food is that it's the same mixture of veggies and rice with an overpriced meat substitute. It appears that they took the "*vegan option available" off a regular menu and opened a restaurant. Lawrence needs a place that serves cashew "cheese" and raw tacos. I won't be spending my money here again.

chewyfally 12 years, 6 months ago

The place was amazing. I had vegan fish n chips, and vegan steak, was on cloud 9. Try the French Carrot Soup!!

JakeTheSnake 12 years, 6 months ago

I went to this restaurant with three other people, one of whom was a full-time vegetarian. The other three were vegetarian-friendly. We all agreed this was the worst dining experience we had ever had. Ever. Bad food. Bad prices. Poor atmosphere. Active roaches.

We had fish and chips, pepper steak and cheese macaroni. The "fish" was flavorless, and the texture of the meat substitute resembled a firm, greasy sponge. The "chips" were standard fries, yet were cold. The pepper steak was tolerable. It was served with rice and vegetables and topped with a suspicious gravy. The macaroni was standard. It resembled cafeteria macaroni with some vegetables thrown in. Overall, none of us could finish the fish because it tasted too bad. Most of the pepper steak and macaroni were left unfinished out of boredom. The portions sizes were right, but the prices were wrong. $10 for a cereal bowl full of macaroni. $12 for a plate of grease pucks. $12 for pepper steak.

The atmosphere was depressing. Tight seating. Dirty dining room that also doubled as storage. Lots and lots of fake plants.

The roaches were most disturbing. We counted 3 crawling on the dining room walls in the hour or so we were there. We pointed out one roach to our server. His response: "I don't know what to say about the cleanliness." I didn't know what to say, either.

megajoe 12 years, 3 months ago

I've been vegan for two years and I was a hardcore meat-eater before that. I have been to the bistro twice. I went for the grand opening and again recently. I wasn't impressed either time. I will say that they have new management and they plan diversify and expand the menu soon, so I'll give it another chance after that.

There is a whole world of amazing vegetarian cuisine, and at The 10th Street there isn't a vegan entree without rice and fake meat, tofu or tempeh. I like those things, and I know it's a bistro, but it makes the place seem like the vegetarian section of The Orient, except the dishes are more expensive and less interesting. Why even bother with a different restaurant?

The first time I had the Spicy Vegan Tuna and the Oriental Coleslaw Salad. Overall it was pretty good and the tuna was edible, but I'm a sucker for curries. The coleslaw salad was pretty good. No real complaints, but they did have the ceiling fans on, which is a problem because the lights are above them. What about people with epilepsy?

The second time, I wasn't in the mood for rice & faux meat, so I tried a salad. I ordered the Balsamic Salad, double portion, no cheese, sub sesame seeds. When I see 'greens', a dozen leafy plants come to mind. Romaine was the only green. The other ingredients were sparse. The balsamic vinaigrette was alright, but that's hard to mess up. Overall it was really weak. That's ok, they didn't claim to be salad experts. If they ever get serious about making a real salad, they can send someone over to my place for examples. With all that said though, I did have excellent service provided by the new manager.

I ate it and left hungry. If that was a double, I would have needed a 6x salad to feel satisfied. I decided to go to Aladdin's Cafe for a sandwich, but they were closed (there was a snowstorm!). I walked to Chipotle and ate a burrito. It was a strange experience. I felt like a meat eater going to McDonald's after a vegan potluck.

Like I said, I'll go back after the menu change, I'm really curious. The mock meat entrees with common ingredients live up to the name "vegetarian bistro". I think several people who have been there don't take the type of restaurant into consideration. People seem to want a full blown vegetarian restaurant. I do too, and I think that's the niche that needs filling around town, especially since the totally amazing Nice Cafe is now no more.

If you're going to make a vegetarian restaurant, please make it better than all the other meat-serving restaurants in town for a vegetarian to eat at. I expect nothing less.

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