Vegan Variety

Tucson's vegetarians may rejoice in the presence of Lovin' Spoonfuls--but there's room to improve

Being a vegan is not a piece of cake. Literally--animal products (like butter) are often used to make cake.

While I am not a vegetarian or a vegan, many friends and loved ones are, and I was quite curious about Lovin' Spoonfuls, a newish fast-casual restaurant in a newish Campbell Avenue shopping center. Lovin' Spoonfuls' claim to fame: Everything on the menu is vegan, from the deli club sandwich to, yes, the cake.

I visited Lovin' Spoonfuls for lunch on a recent weekday. Irene Messina and Carrie Stern were kind enough to join me and bring their vegetarian backgrounds along.

We walked in and were immediately impressed. Earth tones dominate the look--there's lots of wood, along with a little brick, a chocolate brown ceiling, a beige sub-ceiling and a yellow/tan-colored floor. Realistic-looking plastic plants sit on each of the tables and on small shelves along the walls--often in sets of threes, like you'd buy at a nursery. A table with all sorts of literature--from PETA brochures to a petition to move the Reid Park elephants out of Tucson--sits along on a wall adjacent to the ordering counter and dessert case.

After claiming a table and analyzing the menu, we went to the counter and placed our order. We decided to split the cashew mushroom pate ($5.45), the golden nuggets (soy chicken nuggets, $5.25) and the tempura shrimp ($6.25). Irene and I got cups of the two soups of the day ($2.75), spinach mushroom and black bean, respectively. Carrie wanted an orange-mango creamsicle smoothie ($4.50), which proved to be decent if a bit pricey, to go along with her homemade adzuki burger ($6.50). Irene picked the Route 66 bacon cheeseburger ($6.95), and I went with the deli club sandwich ($6.50).

You may have noticed that the bulk of the menu is made up of items featuring fake meat. This is an interesting direction for Lovin' Spoonfuls to go, and I was curious to see how all the food would taste.

The appetizers and soups were delivered quickly. The first thing I tasted, a piece of tempura shrimp, was stunning: If you hadn't told me I was tasting mock shrimp, I would have believed I was eating the real thing. It was fantastic, and the spicy sauce that came with it was good, too. Irene and Carrie both loved the soy chicken nuggets, deeming them the best fake chicken they'd ever had. I could tell they were soy--the taste was a bit different--but the batter and sauces (we got honey mustard and ranch) made them tasty nonetheless. However, the star was the pate. The blend of mushrooms, cashews and seasonings on toast triangles had a sweet, peppery taste. Irene raved about it.

The soups were both hits, too. Irene noted there were ample amounts of both mushrooms and spinach in her soup, and said it was seasoned perfectly. The black bean soup was creamy and peppery--I liked it.

The main courses ranged from decent to excellent. First, the excellent: Carrie loved her adzuki patty--a mix of mushrooms, corn, carrots, oats, nuts and zucchini--on the organic wheat bun with lettuce, tomato and vegan mayo. Irene liked her soy burger, too, although the patty was pretty typical, she said. It was elevated by the tasty bun, soy cheese and crispy soy bacon.

Then there was my club sandwich. Compared to a regular club, it would not hold up. Don't get me wrong--I liked it, but it wasn't in the same league. The three of us dissected one part of the sandwich, and were unanimous: The soy bacon was amazing--it tasted like the real thing, if not better--while the turkey was OK, if a bit rubbery. The ham, however, was basically flavorless and had a weird, baloney-like consistency. The bread, condiments and veggies were good.

Overall, Carrie and Irene were highly impressed, and I was satisfied.

My usual dining partner, Garrett--a former vegetarian--and I returned for dinner several days later. (FYI: Lovin' Spoonfuls also serves breakfast; check out the menu on their Web site.) The restaurant seemed a bit off its game--we walked in and could really only sit at one of the larger tables, because the rest were either occupied or dirty.

We ordered the spring roll appetizer ($4.95) and an entrée, the Mediterranean plate ($9.25), as an appetizer. I also got a cup of carrot curry soup ($2.75). For main courses, Garrett tried the vegan version of an all-time favorite, stroganoff supreme ($9.95), while I did the same, ordering old country lasagna ($9.25).

The appetizers again rocked. The spring rolls tasted fantastic, complemented nicely by the sweet-and-sour sauce. The Mediterranean plate was also a winner: The three falafel pieces were warm and tasty, and the hummus was cold and tasty (and garlicky--yum!). We enjoyed the grape leaves, too, but were surprised to find them hot and falling apart; I think they would have been better cold (and not falling apart). My carrot curry soup tasted as expected--lots of carrot, lots of curry, lots of taste. The salads that came with the entrées were fresh and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. My lasagna--with mushrooms, spinach, vegan ricotta, noodles and mock Italian sausage--came as a small portion lacking in taste. The chunky tomato sauce was quite bland, and the Italian sausage was in short supply (I found only three pieces) and almost flavorless. I didn't finish it, nor did Garrett finish his stroganoff supreme. The pasta was fine, but the vegan beef chunks were almost flavorless, and the sauce didn't fit his fancy. I liked the smoky taste of the oddly orange stroganoff sauce, but it didn't taste like stroganoff sauce.

We were hoping the desserts would redeem the meal. I told Garrett that for lunch, Carrie and Irene had split a piece of banana cream pie ($3.75) that was quite good the other day (I stole a bite and agreed it was yummy). Therefore, we looked forward to the desserts we picked: the raspberry chocolate fudge and the apple crisp (each $3.75). Neither impressed: The crisp was surprisingly devoid of apples, and the cake--while it tasted fantastic, meaning the milk, butter and other non-vegan ingredients were not missed--was stale around the edges. Hmm.

Lovin' Spoonfuls proved to be a mixed bag. At times, it excelled (especially in its dishes without fake meat), but it also had some elements any restaurant should avoid (dirty tables, dry cake, flavorless lasagna sauce). Because of the strength of the lunch, the décor and the appetizers, I'm recommending Lovin' Spoonfuls, though. Heck, any place that serves mock shrimp and soy bacon that can win me over deserves at least a second look.

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