We sometimes say there are two types of vegetarians in Alabama – those who pick the meat out of their veggies before eating them and those who won’t.
For a lot of non-Southern vegetarians, it’s a horrifying realization that many cooks here wouldn’t think of making green beans or collard greens without throwing in a hunk of ham. But being a vegetarian in Alabama does not require total alienation from the restaurant scene or adoption of highly annoying ordering habits. We happen to reside in Montgomery, a city that has some great spots for vegetarians in the know.
If we had to pick one to highlight, it’d be El Rey Burrito Lounge. It’s a beautiful testament to what a locally owned restaurant can be. They focus on quality food, to the point that you’re glad for the opportunity to start your meal with $5 guacamole or the inimitable mixed olives ($3.50). The guacamole is just one of eight dips El Rey offers, but it stands alongside the tortilla soup as the stars of the appetizers.
Entrees include quesadillas, grilled tacos, enchiladas, fajitas and various platters – all of which can be produced in meatless varieties. We most frequently order a burrito called the “Cali,” which is delicious and enormous. Sure, Mexican food is usually reliable for the meatless crowd, but El Rey shines because all of the previous items can be ordered with tofu or tempeh. They get the details right too, ranging from beans cooked without lard to the spectacular tres leches cake. You can even order things vegan (not the tres leches cake, obviously) and the menu contains fine print like “our kitchen respects vegetarian diets,” alongside the info about locally sourcing their ingredients.
Most other Mexican eateries in town are traditional, family-style restaurants. La Zona Rosa is the best of these. They augment the traditional fare with some Salvadoran items, notably pupusas.
For traditional Southern food, we frequent Derk’s Filet & Vine, Shashy’s and Martin’s. These all offer the typical meat-and-three fare, with our focus being, obviously, on their great veggie plates. As an added bonus, veggie plates are usually cheaper than meat entrees. At Martin’s, don’t miss the chocolate pie. Also be sure to work Isaiah’s, Down the Street Cafe and Peyton’s Place into your regular routines.
Italian is also great for meatlessness. At Sa Za, try the spicy Pizza in Purgatory, topped with poached eggs. Tomatino’s makes pizzas that we’d honestly stack up against the best pizza in any other big city, including Chicago. Everything is great at Tomatino’s, although lately we’ve been obsessed with getting artichoke hearts stuffed into calzones.
Next door to Tomatino’s is Cafe Louisa with its indescribably spectacular portobello Reuben, with pressed mushroom and sauerkraut comprising the single best sandwich in town. And don’t forget Montgomery Biscuits ball games: You’ll enjoy awesome veggie burgers with cheese and a few jalapeño slices.
These restaurants are just the tip of the iceberg. New grocery stores make cooking without meat easier than ever. Earth Fare and The Fresh Market are both impressive additions to the retail scene. We have great community supported agriculture like Red Root Herb & Vegetable Farm, Hampstead Institute and a brand new urban farm. Produce is darn near abundant.
The South is a rich place for vegetarians, especially since the Southern food repertoire includes so many vegetables. Tell someone you’re vegetarian, and you may get the “What do y’all eat?” question. But once you offer some examples, people realize they knew the answers all along.
Kate Shuster and Stephen Stetson live and work in Montgomery. They have been vegetarian since the mid-1990s. They are the managing editors of Midtown Montgomery Living, and write about life in Montgomery at Lost in Montgomery.
The views expressed here are those of the author.