There was a time, during my high school years in California, when my little brother Greg was my copilot for weekend In-N-Out Burger trips; I'd get a plain ol' cheeseburger, and he'd be the one ordering a Triple-Triple. (That's three patties and three layers of American cheese. He would've done a 5x5 if they'd allowed.) I can only imagine how happy he would've been to try a Shackburger, had he come to New York a few years back.
But he's been a vegan for five years now. And when I plan our NYC eating adventures, it's always a bit of a challenge. Vegetarians have it easier, eating around the city; as long as you avoid steakhouses or seafood bars or Katz's Deli, most restaurants have at least some decent meatless options, and all of your favorite bakeries, pizzerias, and ice cream shops are still on the table.
Vegan—now, that's trickier. I have nothing against veggie-heavy fare (my coworkers will confirm that I could live forever on roasted vegetables and chickpeas); I'm not a fan of vegan restaurants pushing various forms of soy protein and basically nothing else. But there's a lot of good food out there that happens to be animal product-free.*
*Of course, strict vegans should always ask about animal products, particularly at restaurants that don't specifically cater to non-meat-eaters. Cream and butter back up many otherwise vegan soups and sauces, lard often lurks in Mexican cuisine, ghee in some Indian, shrimp paste or fish sauce in Southeast Asian cuisines, dashi and bonito flakes in Japanese.
While tomato sauce and cheese may be the classic, truly great pizzerias have a crust so great that even the simplest toppings, like tomato and garlic, can excel. Pictured here is a marinara pizza from Motorino; Paulie Gee's in Greenpoint has an entire vegan menu (special props for the arugula-olive oil-lemon juice).
Hummus and Falafel
My vegan brother would be happy eating hummus every day (truth be told, so would I). My favorite in the city is Mimi's Hummus, and their vegetable side dishes are incredible too (I can't get enough of their cauliflower-tahini salad). Miriam in Park Slope and Hummus Place, with a few Manhattan locations, are other favorites of mine.
And New York has some excellent falafel: our all-time favorite Taïm, both food truck and West Village shop; the King of Falafel and Shawarma in Astoria; even international chain Maoz. (Check out our favorite NYC falafel here.)
Sandwiches in pitas are usually a good bet, as they're more likely to be spread with hummus or tahini than mayonnaise or butter. We love the lentil-stuffed Mujadara from Kalustyan's and the fried cauliflower sandwich from Rainbow Falafel. Other recent favorites? The Edamame Hummus Sandwich at Teany (pictured above) and the Smoked Tofu Sandwich at Birdbath. We've found decent sandwiches at vegan and vegetarian sandwich shop 'snice. Plenty of sandwiches can be made vegan at Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop. And 'wichcraft's rotating offerings usually include a few awesome vegetarian sandwiches and at least one vegan (we're all about the chopped chickpeas).
Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants
Plenty of vegan or vegetarian restaurants in New York are what carnivores dread when they think of meatless fare: joyless soy proteins and unseasoned greens. Luckily, there are some dedicated veg-friendly restaurants that go way beyond that. Dirt Candy in the East Village, a vegetarian restaurant showcasing just how good vegetables can be, always has vegan options; Eataly's Le Verdure is pricey but beautifully showcases seasonal vegetables, a vegan refuge in a hall of cured meats and cheeses.
Chelsea's Blossom is one of few vegan restaurants I've been to that really does incredible things with seitan and tempeh; they also make use of mushrooms, tofu, and peanuts to create substantial, sophisticated vegan dishes.
Go With the Sides
I've often made a meal from the vegetable side dishes at Otto; a few verdure pots, a little bread, and a glass of wine, and I'm set. Vegan little brother loved the lentils and cauliflower. A few of the pizzas and pastas are vegan, too.
Other tapas bars, places with substantial meze selections, or other restaurants with lots of small bites might also be good options; everyone can get what they like.
And of course, any number of Italian restaurants could be fair game; just make sure that pastas don't contain egg and sauces don't contain butter (plenty of tomato-based sauces do).
Down in Chinatown, Robyn Lee loves the fried taro "duck" at Buddha Bodai. The Chinese-Indian Chinese Mirch in Murray Hill does great things with vegetables, and has a good number of vegan options. The macrobiotic restaurant Souen serves all sorts of vegan grains, vegetable dishes, and noodles (they serve seafood as well, but meatless options are clearly marked).
And SENY'r Howard Walfish tells us that the Senegalese Joloff in Clinton Hill has vegan options, too.
Snacks and Such
If the idea of all-vegan junk food appeals to you (corn dogs? milkshakes?), try Foodswings in Williamsburg.
Vegan baked goods can go wrong in all sorts of ways, but Babycakes on the Lower East Side turns out excellent doughnuts and cupcakes that we love even when compared with their non-vegan counterparts.
And for ice cream and even brownie sundaes, we're fans of Lula's Sweet Apothecary.
What About You?
Of course, these are just a few ideas. Where do you go for vegan-friendly food in New York? And what would you recommend others try?