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NOVEMBER 5, 2006 10:36 AM

The best way to insure that vegan options will find their way onto restaurant menus is to ASK FOR THEM at your favorite places! Luckily, many of GR's most interesting culinary attractions already have great vegan choices on the menu. For instance:

Pita House (Easttown, Ethel and Wealthy)
Felafel sandwich with hummous, fatoosh salad, lentil soup, and french fries.

Little Africa (East Fulton, Diamond)
EVERYTHING ON THE MENU IS VEGAN, so walk in and chow down in good conscience!

Gaia (Lake and Diamond)
Vegetarian restaurant at which almost all menu items can be made vegan "by subtraction" (hold the mayo, cheese, sour cream, etc!). Be sure to try the grilled tempeh sandwich on homemade foccacia with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard. For an extra special sandwich, hit 'em up for a side of avocado. Mean Green Burrito and Veggie Hash (hold the dairy extras!) are also great choices!

Marie Catrib's (Lake and Diamond)
Local flair, organic and sustainable sensibility; this place is a HUGE ASSET to our community. ALL specialty sandwiches can be made with TOFU and vegannaise, there's usually a vegan "soup of the day" or two on the menu, and the three-salad sampler is a great way to get your veggies and legumes (try tabouleh, curried rice and raisin, baba ganooj, hummous, vegan mother earth, and (my favorite) Marie's OFF THE HOOK coleslaw). And save room for dessert; Marie's specialty is vegan cakes and cookies. YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW GOOD THESE ARE, and you certainly won't miss the eggs, butter and cream.

The Heritage Restaurant (Downtown)
This place is one of the best kept secrets in Grand Rapids! It is the "practice" restaurant for the students in the culinary institute of Grand Rapids Community College. The head of the program, Chef Kevin Dunn, is also a NATIONALLY RENOWNED vegan chef. He loves to expose the masses to the amazing possibilities of vegan cuisine, and so you will find some STAGGERINGLY IMPRESSIVE vegan items on the menu: southern fried tofu with mashed potatoes, buscuits and gravy; mock duck enchiladas; eggless tempura vegetable appetizer, mock eel appetizer, pan fried oyster mushroom appetizer, fruit napoleons, and on and on and on. This is a great place to take a date for a very reasonable fine dining experience.

Pho Soc Trang (Division and 43rd in the same complex as the Asian Market)
Recently, this Vietnamese noodle house has become one of our favorite spots in the G-Rap. For a mere $7.00 per person, you get a HUGE bowl of vermicelli noodles LOADED with fresh herbs, veggies and crushed peanuts, and sauced up with a tangy "fish" sauce surrogate. Add a little Sriracha HOT SAUCE and you are in serious business.

Bistro Bella Vita (Downtown behind the Van Andel Arena)
Make sure to call in advance to alert Chef Pat that you want a custom vegan option. He'll whip up a dining experience that is entirely "off the menu". While your omnivorous friends and family members get the boilerplate fare that's rolling off the assembly line, you're thrillin' to the exclusive vegan stylings of Chef Pat, at your service. If you're looking for a sure-fire "impress a date" strategy, this is it: set up the custom menu in advance and then rock the dining room VIP style while everyone else is thinking "I want what they got!".

El Arriero (28th between Beltline and Breton)
This family-owned Mexican restaurant has some GREAT, and VERY CHEAP vegetarian and vegan options (PLUS THE PERENNIAL HIT: FREE CHIPS AND SALSA). We order a side of rice and beans (both of which are vegan: no broth, no lard), a side of tomato and lettuce, and 6 corn tortillas. For about $4.00 a piece, we gorge on chips and salsa and get three PHAT vegan tacos each!

These places are just the tip of iceberg, but there's more than enough here to inspire you to plan a few vegan adventure outings with interested friends. Come on back and post a log of your experiences: what dishes did you try? what are your favorites? what new restaurant discoveries have you made? Roll 'em out!

UPDATED: Be sure to scroll through the comments for new suggestions