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To TVP or Not to TVP

For vegetarians, especially around the Bay Area, fake meat is the question. Here are the answers.

By Elisa Camahort

TVP is Textured Vegetable Protein. Along with seitan, tempeh and various glutens, it's among the ingredients that create "fake" meat products.

Some vegetarians don't like that concept. Their question is: if meat makes me sick, then exactly what is appealing about something that tastes and chews like meat?

For me, the answer is: I never objected to the flavor or feeling of meat, I objected to the source. If you deliver all of the former without harming the latter, then dish it on out.

It requires a special touch, though, and you rarely run across such fakery at "regular" restaurants. Their vegetarian options are typically comprised of recognizable foods. And that can make a meal a safer bet.

Take this weekend. The Significant Other Vegetarian and I spent it in San Francisco. On Friday we ate at Millennium, a fancy vegetarian place in this area. It was hit and miss. And one of the big misses was my chile relleno-like dish stuffed with "jerk-spiced ground seitan." Sorry, but it was nasty. Bitter, not flavorful, with a texture and appearance akin to the mystery meats of youthful meals in public school cafeterias. On the other hand, my SOV got a pappardelle dish with mushrooms that wasn't trying to replicate meat and was delicious. Saturday night, we ate at Kuleto's. I ordered a delicious vegetable tortellini dish. And the waitress really scored points by making sure I knew there was chicken stock in the sauce. Without my even asking! That's being considerate of your potential vegetarian customer. I got a different sauce; she got a big tip.

My experience with icky fake meat left me craving good fake meat. I will admit to readers that it is the crave-inducing greasy meat products I miss. I don't look twice at steak, but man, I occasionally crave Sweet and Sour Pork or KFC.

Luckily, there is somewhere to turn, guilt-free, to satisfy either craving. I can have a Morningstar Farms Chik Patty any old time. And when I crave "pork" lumps of an unnaturally red color, I go to the king of fake meat restaurants, Garden Fresh in Mountain View. I love this place ... from Sweet and Sour Pork to Orange Vegetarian Beef, they have mastered fake meat. I have brought many an unsuspecting carnivore there and watched their pleasant surprise.

Then again, I brought a vegetarian friend there, and he looked at me like I was crazy--and ordered eggplant.

In Santa Cruz, every vegetarian knows the Saturn Café can be counted on for the burger-joint experience without the beef. Even better is the fact that it's one of the few vegetarian-loving places that gives you a smorgasbord of fake meat options in all of its creative approaches to the meatless burger. If you care about living the vegetarian lifestyle and haven't tried the Saturn's Fine Burger or Western, you haven't truly experienced the possibilities for fake meat.

And speaking of that, what about Dharma's on Capitola Road. The fake-meat alchemy of the Nuclear Bluff in particular has to be experienced to be believed. There is more than one veggie in this town who is hopelessly hooked on it.

A run-down of top fakers:

4250 Capitola Rd., Capitola

145 Laurel St., Santa Cruz

1245 W. El Camino Real, Mtn. View

221 Powell St., San Francisco

580 Geary St., San Francisco

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From the September 29-October 6, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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