Growing up, my mom didn’t eat meat and couldn’t consume gluten or dairy, which made dining out a challenge. At most restaurants, she was relegated to the oft-uninspired salad section of the menu. Even supposedly allergy-friendly eateries often disappointed: Their gluten-free dishes were dairylicious and their non-dairy dishes featured meat or gluten. That’s why I can still picture the joy on her face as she first perused the menu at a new spot near where we lived in Altadena, California, and realized she could have nearly everything on the menu. It was a small privilege, a small pleasure, but a very real one.
Since that late-2000s meal, diets like my mom’s are much more common, and more restaurants strive to accommodate them. Indeed, restaurants and their patrons have many motivations—health, ethics, morals, cultural influences—for cutting down on meat (or eliminating it altogether). That said, you shouldn’t feel guilty if you’re eternally keen on carnitas or just can’t part with poached eggs—there is no one way to live a good life. (Moreover, eating vegan does not mean that you’re necessarily eating sustainably, nor that you’ve disinvested from exploitative supply chains.) But I’ve joined the growing community trying to keep our meat-eating to a minimum, and as such have been exploring restaurants in Denver, Boulder, and beyond with menus that can satisfy diets like my mom’s.
If you too are looking to expand your vegetable horizons—or already do so—here are six restaurants worth your time and what we recommend.
Where: 1710 Pearl St., Boulder
The lowdown: Upscale vegetarian cuisine made with lots of local, sustainably farmed ingredients
What to order: For your first course, tuck into a generous pile of oyster mushrooms, lightly fried in tempura batter and finished with sesame seeds. Then pair the fruit-forward pear cocktail with the flatbread and satisfyingly cheesy pumpkin alfredo. I think Leaf’s orchestral bibimbap is wonderful, too; the chilled kimchi and spinach harmoniously complements the warm grilled tofu and fried egg.
Where: 1165 S. Broadway
The lowdown: A hip Mediterranean spot serving vegan fare, as well as prepare-at-home options
What to order: Get the farinata, a savory Italian pancake made with chickpea flour. Topped with a cool dollop of silky almond milk cream, it was golden all the way around, with oily divots and a crispy, almost lattice-like rim. Also top-notch: the restaurant’s range of house-made pasta dishes. I’ve been skeptical of kale pesto in the past, but this one—less sweet than others—pairs perfectly with the mini gnocchi, thanks in no small part to the garnish of basil leaves.
Where: 5711 Olde Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada
The lowdown: 100 percent plant-based contemporary comfort food with a disco-punk aesthetic
What to order: For an appetizer, dig into light, creamy pearls of fried avocado or Brussel sprouts elevated with a sticky maple glaze that is almost reminiscent of Thai drunken noodles. Hummus fans will love the arugula-forward chickpea sandwich (So Radish’s non-gluten bread option is miraculously pillowy); and those who love traditional beef or chicken tacos will come around for the restaurant’s cauliflower version, crowned with avocado and a vegan cilantro crema. For a sour counterpoint to all the savory, try the green tea turmeric kombucha on draft.
Where: 810 Vallejo St. (Cloud Kitchens)
The lowdown: A husband-and-wife-owned joint serving all-vegan Thai staples out of a takeout- and delivery-only ghost kitchen
What to order: Thai and Indian restaurants tend to be especially accommodating for vegetarians and vegans, but Vegan Thai Co. takes it to the next level—the short menu is big on flavor and portions. Go for the papaya salad, a dish that sings with its signature tang despite the absence of fish sauce and is enhanced by bursts of sweetness from cherry tomatoes and peanut nibs. The pad thai is also delicious, with perfectly cooked noodles and ample scatterings of scallions. Don’t miss the super-sticky summer rolls, which are thick with julienned carrots, cabbage, and mint—just don’t get them near your napkin or they’ll never come unattached!
Where: 3570 S. Logan St., Englewood
The lowdown: A plant-based, Pan-Asian joint dedicated to reducing humanity’s impact on the global environment
What to order: Start with the eponymous “V fries,” fried tofu spears saturated with an orange sweet-and-sour sauce good enough to bottle. Then move on to the black pepper mushroom baos, consisting of a spongy bao bun and chewy ‘shrooms that have an immaculate mouthfeel and just the right kick of heat to keep things interesting. But my favorite dish is the green power dumplings—crimped half-moons of spinach-infused dough filled with tofu, carrot, ginger, and bamboo shoots.
Where: Check the website for the weekly schedule
The lowdown: All-vegan street food with meat substitutes that stand on their own
What to order: Try the rich Chik’n Chimichanga, which has a crispy fried tortilla and a vegan-sour-cream-doused top. As you dig into the messy burrito, gleams of corn peek out from the mounds of Spanish-style rice and just-as-tasty-as-poultry soy chicken. Double dip the homemade tater tots in the house hot sauce, then the banana pepper ketchup, for a sweet, spicy, and cumin-y treat on the side. To round out the indulgence, score a double scoop of strawberry and chocolate vegan ice cream from the Best One Yet, a food truck that will be parked outside Nooch Vegan Market this summer alongside WongWayVeg every Friday from 12–6 p.m.