State of the Veg Union Part 4
Traveling east, through amber waves of grain, to Lincoln, Nebraska, on our San Diego to Detroit restaurant tour, my wife Sara and I marveled as the Rocky Mountains disappeared into the ground and flattened into the Great Plains of the mid-west.
We pulled into the historic Haymarket District of Lincoln, where the old rail and distribution system has been largely bypassed by 21st century modernization.
Over a century ago, way stations for the railroad system, which distributed grains, produce and farm products, were set up from coast to coast. These stations became distribution centers and agricultural hubs, standing out like sparkling jewels in corn and wheat fields when there was little else around. Eventually, these became the urban centers, which were integral components for the westward expansion of America’s commodity food system. Thanks to local efforts, many of the magnificent edifices from the late 19th and early 20th century are preserved and now function as cultural centers of the community.
In one of those old warehouse structures stands Maggie’s Vegetarian Cafe–an all-natural, from-scratch cafe using local and organic ingredients whenever possible. It is very casual and charming with down-to-earth sensibility.
Owner Maggie Pleskac was in the kitchen and made our Spicy Hummus Wrap and Unfried Falafel Wrap, which we found to be filling and delicious with noticeably fresh ingredients.
On the walls were pictures of the local farmers who supply the cafe–Maggie told us which one provided each part of the sandwiches. We left with renewed energy from a simple, yet satiating, meal and felt good about supporting a business that reveres the local farmers, who I view as the true heroes of the modern food revolution.
Omaha was our next stop. This city still has many of the mansions and magnificent structures from the early 20th century. Reminiscent of the elegant neighborhoods populated by the auto-barons of Detroit, these were the homes of cattle barons. Omaha was one of the capitals of the early factory farming industry in America.
Ironically, McFosters Natural Kind Cafe is at the edge of this neighborhood. The building looks like an old Tudor-style home, but was originally Skip’s Skelly Gas Station, one of the original service stations on the old Lincoln Highway. Now re-incarnated as a natural foods restaurant, it fuels visitors with freshly-prepared food. Although they serve seafood and free-range chicken, it reminded me of the old-school vegetarian cafes–down to earth, funky and colorful, with an expansive, but uncomplicated, menu. Unfortunately, we had filled ourselves in Lincoln, so a salad and carrot juice were all we could manage–both were fresh and flavorful. We hope to travel through Omaha again–this time with empty stomachs.
Our appetites returned that evening as we pulled into Iowa City, Iowa, a college town with a number of veg choices. We chose The Red Avocado, an upscale, yet cozy, vegan restaurant in the lower level of a house near the university. We began with a Cilantro-White Bean Dip garnished with toasted pepitas and fresh baked flatbread (check out my version of the recipe below).
This was followed by a Corn-Mushroom Soup which was creamy and savory. Our first entree was Corn Cakes with Shiitake Mushrooms and Tofu, a beautifully prepared dish with excellent flavors and textures.
Second was Gnocchi, properly light and fluffy–unfortunately, it was swimming in tomato sauce. Dessert was a chocolate truffle which we took to go because the restaurant was closing. Later, we discovered this to be the weak-link in the meal; however, the rest of the experience, including the great service, overcame any disappointment. This was one of our favorite meals of the entire trip.
The heartlands of Nebraska and Iowa were a pleasant surprise. We were heartened to see the passion and commitment for local and organic foods as well as a relative abundance of plant-based options.
Next, in our quest to discover the state of the veg union, we visit a raw, culinary treasure in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.
Inspired by the Cilantro-White Bean appetizer at The Red Avocado in Iowa City, I created my own version to celebrate the heartlands of America and those good people who are making a difference.
White Bean Cilantro Dip