Sunday, April 24, 2011

Blockheads. From Vegan Debacle to Cautious Mexican Delight

There's an old adage about the 2 things that happen when a cat sits on a hot stove.  One: It will never sit on a hot stove again.  Two: It will never sit on a cold stove again.

So you can understand, after I was served a chicken burrito during my last visit to Blockheads, why I might not have wanted to sit on any stoves.  I had numerous email exchanges with the owner, Ken, about vegan diners and what we expect.  I was assured that there was going to be staff training and new sections on the menu just for us and our pain in the butt foodal requirements.

"Just to update you, the new in-house menus at Blockheads include a box that points to our vegetarian and vegan options."  from Ken, email 3/14/11


"Our waiter's will be trained to steer anyone expressing vegetarian concerns to the menu box where I feel all their questions will be answered. Our waiters will also be instructed to treat vegetarian concerns seriously and to not make the type of mistake that began our correspondence. While Blockheads does not profess to be a vegetarian restaurant, vegetarians and vegans actually have a wide selection of very good options here. I thank you for pointing out to me that this was poorly conveyed. I think the new menu copy and waiter training addresses this shortcoming. 
Thanks again,
Ken" from email 2/12/11
 Here is the new menu section:

Attention Vegetarians & Vegans: You can eat our Spanish rice, brown rice, corn and flour tortillas, beans, salsa cruda, roasted corn salsa, salsa bambino, tomatillo sauce, sofrito sauce, guacamole, grilled tofu, tofu “sour cream”, soy cheese, and vegetables. In these items we use no chicken stock, butter, lard, or animal rennet. For any entree, substitute soy cheese, tofu “sour cream”, whole-wheat or low-carb tortilla (5 grams carbs). Note: Our Jamaican Jerk Sauce contains chicken stock. Our BBQ sauce contains honey.

I don't think this can be much clearer.  The only thing that raised my eyebrows was that the Jamaican Jerk sauce contained chicken stock and my order last time was for the Jamaican Jerk tofu.  I think anytime a restaurant has a customer who says "vegan" or "vegetarian" it should raise a huge red flag, almost as if I said I would go into spasms and die right there on the floor of the restaurant, knocking over tables, chairs, diners, and very expensive glassware should I be served these items.  It's never like that.  No vegan is going to die from eating an animal product mis-served.  The why shouldn't ever be the issue though.  Just the fact that it "is" should be.

On this evening my wife, (omnivore), and I went to Blockheads with our daughter, (vegetarian), and her classmate, (omnivore).   First the drinks.  My hat is off to the drunkard that invented this drink.  Bulldog. A margarita with an upside down short Corona.  Sheer genius being able to drink two drinks at the same time and not even have to use your hands.  The drink is a bit tart as the margarita isn't of the sickeningly sweet variety.

This is what  happens when you are tripping on acid and staring into the twirling world of a frozen margarita machine whilst drinking a beer.  
So now here's the thing.  Blockheads is a noisy dark hipster-ish restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Trendy isn't the right word but it's a busy hopping place.  I must have used half my iPhone battery illuminating the menu.  I guess the eagle eyes are going with age.  My flashlight, (always in my pocket ever since 9/11), was just way too bright for the ambience.  I don't mind shooting a few flash pictures but turning the place into daylight was a bit much.  Plus, I wanted to see what most people, (who don't carry around a flashlight), would be able to see.  That vegan stuff is in pretty small print.  There's a lot of it and it's not in "list" form but just written out.  I found myself going back over it more than once while cross checking the menu items.  No big deal.  I was happy to have the information on the menu where everyone can see it.  My hat is off to Blockheads for responding to the issues I brought up.  To me this is major in a few ways.  Not to break my arm patting myself on the back but here is something that I've changed in the vegan world for the better.  Not a BIG thing.  Just a SOMEthing.  I was proud of seeing it in print, even if I'd have made the pica selection a bit larger.

Now our waiter was a nice enough young man, friendly and earnest.  When he got to me I just said, "I'm vegan.  Do you know what that means?"

His answer, "Uhm, you don't eat meat?"  He has an accent and his english isn't the King's so I make the assumption that it's not his first language.  (It's better by far than my knowledge of his native tongue).  It's noisy.  I don't want to shout but want to be heard and I want to hear him.  (OK, I guess the hearing is the second thing in my 55 year old body to start to slide.  But that's ALL that's sliding!!!).

So now I'm worried.  I'm thinking about the training given to the staff which I was told about in Ken's email.  See, not eating meat only closes one tiny door.  It doesn't close them all.  Chicken stock, cheese, lard, all kinds of things are NOT covered when one uses the lack of meat in a diet as the definition of "vegan."

But I also realize something.  This has always been, is now, and will always be on my shoulders if I eat at any and all non vegan restaurants.  I must educate.  I must teach.  I must explain.  I must query and question and verify.  I was given a wonderful diving board in the form of that little vegan itemization on the menu but it's always up to me to jump off it as high as I can.

So I start and explain that I don't eat dairy, chicken, any animals or anything that is made with anything that was once a part of an animal or any animal ingredients.  The tiny things are where we get tripped up it seems.  Unless you're just served chicken in which case it doesn't matter if there's stock in the sauce.  We did have a discussion about how hot the different sauces/salsas were.  At first he said the sofrito sauce wasn't vegan but when I asked him to check he came back and said it was, just like it said on the menu box.

I order everything with soy cheese, (it's vegan Daiya), soy sour cream on the side, (vegan), and tofu.  Now I think any time anyone in a restaurant orders something vegetarian or vegan or just uses the word "tofu" the wait staff should be trained to call over a manager to clarify the order and make sure it is right and exactly what the customer wants.  At least that red flag should come up.

My wife and I shared a Quesadilla with Daiya cheese and vegan chili.  It was drippy and gooey and at first bite I wasn't sure if it was real cheese or not until my wife said, "Yup, Daiya!"  The chili added a nice beany texture to the dish but I think it overloads it.  The center was a bit too wet.  I have to stop trying to make everything I eat healthier and learn to just enjoy a little bit of decadence every once in a while.  I asked about the sour cream and the manager, "EL" came over and took it in the back where HE could see.  He came back a second later so I'm assuming it was correct on the plate and said it was, in fact soy sour cream.

Lousy picture of a decent quesadilla.

My burrito with a whole wheat tortilla, daiya cheese, rice, beans, tofu and spinach and was delicious.  Next time I will leave out the spinach as that seemed to dominate the flavor profile.  The tofu wasn't as present as I'd have liked but the thing was huge.  You will never order a burrito here and go home hungry.  The sofrito sauce was the best of the lot having a distinctive cilantro overtone.  The soy sour cream is just that but adds a nice coolness especially if you're going to pour El Yucateca hot sauce on everything after first bite.  The guac was good and had a nice bit of chunk texture.  I feel food like this, common mexican food,  is either over the line or not and Blockheads serves food which is definitely over that line by far.

Sauces, L to R, Sofrito, Soy Sour Cream, Salsa, and Guac.

You get your vegan food, side by side with the carnivorous meals, and you can feel like you're a part of society again.  Thanks Blockheads.  You as a vegan must absolutely preempt and verify that you got what you wanted.  You must do this anywhere you eat unless your covered under the "100% vegan" umbrella.  And you will pay for it.  Regular tofu burrito $10.95.  Mine with soy $12.90.  Add my $1.25 for the guac and ...$.75 for the sofrito sauce and my entree came to $14.90.  Not a lot for any entree in Manhattan and I was glad to be able to order it.  One day the meat will be what cost more but until then, I'm happy with these choices.

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