There is a wonderfully tasty alternative to the typically American killer diet of saturated fat, cholesterol, and artificially created hormones. It's called vegan food, and it's made without any animal-based substance. No meat. No butter. No cheese. Which means, with any luck, no heart attacks, no cancer, no obesity. (Provided, of course, that you exercise and don't smoke or drink yourself to the grave.) It may sound a bit austere, but fear not. San Francisco is a haven for vegans, and with restaurants like the ones below, you won't miss a thing.
246 McAllister (at Hyde), 487-9800
This is gourmet vegan cooking — no eggs, heavy cream, or blood roasts grease up Millennium's kitchen. Its menus are based only on vegetables, fruits, and grains. It is amazing what a fine vegan chef can do with simple, cruelty-free ingredients. Start off with an herbal martini or a glass of the fermented grape. Follow it with creatively combined salad fixings, such as papaya, beets, and nuts, that mash and crackle between your teeth with sensations you never thought possible. The entrees (with items like daily risottos and a chanterelle mushroom turnover) are as pretty as the usual prissy California cuisine, but the portions are a good size and loaded with surprising flavors. Every full moon, Millennium offers special dinners for lovers, designed to make you swoon with gustatory and aphrodisiac delight.
Shangri-La Chinese Vegetarian Restaurant
2026 Irving (at 22nd Avenue), 731-2548
Shangri-La's greatest contribution to local cuisine is its “vegetable-meats.” The chefs are experts at turning wheat gluten (aka seitan) into a variety of meaty tastes — chicken, beef, pork, fish, and barbecued ribs — but without the terminal side effects. The fresh vegetables are very good, too. A small warning: Unless you have a subtly trained palate — or no palate at all — be careful about ordering from the front of the menu, which features concoctions of medicinal herbs with extremely, shall we say, earthy smells. The restaurant is not only megacheap, it is also certified as kosher. Shangri-La doesn't serve bagels, but the “vegetable baby back-ribs” are to-get-well-for.
Bamboo Garden Vegetarian Restaurant
832 Clement (at Ninth Avenue), 876-0832
Vegan sausage served here! These wheat gluten links come wrapped in a pastry crust that you can dip in a hot red sauce, and they taste authentic enough to pretend you're back in New York's Little Italy during the summer festivals, slamming down that greasy, offal-stuffed pork skin on a white roll. Bamboo Garden's false fried chicken (also made from wheat gluten) is everything Popeye's is not, and you'll swoon with every bite of the taro-stuffed mushrooms. The vegetable clay pot is a tongue-lapping experience, which makes trying to find a parking spot in the Richmond nearly worthwhile. Bamboo Garden knows how to do up the little creamy rice cakes, too. Go with a group and sit at one of the large round tables. Eat like gluttons, and waddle out without an ounce of guilt or regret.