Vegetarian and vegan lifestyles are on the rise, and this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, the baby boom is growing older and more health-conscious, while a lot of millennials are looking at a self-destructing world and worrying about a sustainable future for themselves and their children. Put these trends together, and it’s no wonder that more and more people are giving up meat.
This also may help explain why Louisville’s Roots and Heart & Soy restaurants have won a large and faithful audience since they arrived (and the 2016 LEO Readers’ Choice Award for best vegetarian food).
You can hardly open a door without finding a vegetarian or vegan on the other side. Bill Clinton is a cheating vegan who wanders, now and then, when tempted by fish or eggs, but Al Gore turned vegan in 2013 and made it stick. All manner of celebrities have forsaken meat: The singer Miley Cyrus shuns animal flesh and gets downright evangelistic about it. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and radio host Don Imus more quietly spread the vegan agenda.
The British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported in May 2016 that the number of vegans in the U.K. had increased 360 percent in the past decade. Gallup’s polling in the U.S. reveals that about 5 percent of Americans declared themselves vegetarian in 2012, and another 2 percent identified as vegan. That’s about one out of 15; and the proportion concentrated in cities is likely to be higher because of demographics.
So we have to ask: Why don’t more of Louisville’s outstanding array of excellent chefs take a clue from Roots and Heart & Soy? A surprising number of chefs seem to assume that peckish vegetarians will be satisfied with a few veggie side dishes placed prettily on a plate; or, if they want something fancy, a grilled portobello painted with crisscross stripes of balsamic. Meh.
The key to interesting vegetarian dishes isn’t complicated: Don’t just delete the meat from a recipe and present it as vegetarian. Rather, build interesting, creative recipes with a meat-free item as the center of attention. (It doesn’t hurt if you have a hulking Taiwanese tofu-making machine cranking out fresh, organic tofu right on the premises, as Roots does. It should also be noted that many of Roots’ dishes don’t make use of tofu, although it’s worth trying some while you’re there.)
Roots, having no need to pay premium prices for quality animal-based protein, may be the most-affordable fancy sit-down eatery on the Bardstown Road strip, with not a one of its 30 main dishes priced over $10.95.
How do Roots and its street-food partner, Heart & Soy, make that happen?
From small plates to large, the concept is simple: Build a compete dish made with interesting flavors that tickle the taste buds and satisfy the tummy, with a plant-based ingredient in the spotlight where meat would otherwise stand. The Zen ethos that owner Huang “Coco” Tran brings to the bill of fare is the same as she brings to simple, elegant less-is-more decor with feng shui oriented toward peace.
Consider Pad Thai ($8.90). This classic Thai comfort-food dish requires certain cooking skill to achieve a pleasing contrast of tender rice noodles and crisp bean sprouts. Heart & Soy did it well, elevated with a colorful mix of crisp stir-fried vegetables, fresh peanuts, chewy tofu julienne, and appealing plant-based aromatics.
Forbidden Rice Risotto ($9.50) was creamy and silken, amazing in its disparate, umami-loaded flavor kicked up with surprisingly meaty black cherries, walnut meats, and succulent lumps of mild goat cheese, all adding surprising bursts of flavor.
Orange tofu ($10.95) makes an excellent showcase for the house-made tofu, which is presented as tender cubes of soft, silken tofu, gently fried and then tossed with stir-fried red and green peppers and zucchini in a sweet-hot orange sauce that neatly ties it all together.
Even simple edamame ($4) gain extra points when it’s cooked to al dente perfection and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt.
Crispy avocado and tomato rolls ($6.50) offer an unexpected but delightful flavor combination.
Cucumber rolls ($6.90) were pretty and filling, an attractive sushi-style presentation of tofu and goodies rolled in thin-sliced cucumber.
Crispy egg rolls ($6.50) filled with lettuce and mint were simple and crisp. Fried tofu squares ($4.50) were competently prepared, crisp on the outside and creamy within, with a tangy Vietnamese sauce that soaks in to the receptive tofu.
A simple side of sautéed spinach ($4.50) was aromatic and delicious, pure essence of spinach and garlic.
Hue soup ($5.50) was a generous, filling portion of noodle soup with tofu, veggie “ham” and more goodies with many different layers of flavor in a very spicy broth.
Two golf ball-sized scoops of caramel espresso gelato ($5.25) were exceptionally good, subtle and balanced; a fine way to end a flavor-packed meal.
Cocoa cardamom tango tea and pomegranate and rose-hip Ceylon tea (both $3.25) were packed with subtle and complex flavors.
Our tabs at Roots were under $50 for two, and lunch at Heart & Soy was under $20; service earned tips, rounded up from 20 percent at all three meals.