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Going green 

Vegan Veggieland

Living without meat seems like a reasonable endeavor, but giving up butter and cheese is another thing altogether. Vegan restaurants rarely inspire excitement in non-vegans. In fact, I worked across the street from Veggieland for three years and never once ate there. Veggieland may be nestled right in the heart of debauched Buckhead, but it doesn't bear much resemblance to its flashy neighbors. The decor is utilitarian and slightly down at the heels; outdated wallpaper and plain, plastic-topped tables are just about all there is to the small dining room. Outside, a clutch of plastic patio tables populate the sidewalk. A takeout counter offers a glimpse into the dingy kitchen where Veggieland's chef, the indomitable and aptly named Happy, keeps an eye on things. She's got a smile and a friendly word for just about everyone who comes through the door, regular or not.

Everybody's Doing It: You might not expect much diversity among Veggieland's clientele, but leave your assumptions at home. On a recent weeknight, a surprisingly varied cast of characters came and went. Two upscale moms corralled a handful of rambunctious towheads like old pros, alternately gossiping, talking on cell phones, and popping bites of carrot into toddlers' mouths. One of the little girls kept turning around in her seat to make faces at the guy sitting behind her, a punk with stretched earlobes and elaborately tattooed forearms. He gamely made faces back at her between bites of salad. A fellow in a vaguely rumpled business suit, tie loosened, chatted with the friendly girl behind the counter as she packed his takeout order into Styrofoam containers.

Salad Days: It takes skill to turn out creative, appetizing dishes without the aid of dairy or sugar and very little salt, but Veggieland mostly succeeds. The menu is all over the map, from meatless burgers and chili dogs to Asian stir-fries and huge salads. Virtuous but delectable veggie spring rolls were stuffed with romaine lettuce, cucumbers, spears of steamed sweet potato and crumbled "facon" (fake bacon). If you're dieting, you could do worse than the big salad of mixed greens topped with brown rice. It's a bit bland, but sesame-soy salad dressing and a dollop of guacamole punch up the flavor, and golden wedges of fried tofu offer just a little greasy goodness. Brown rice makes a better showing in the nutty, hearty "Vegger Burger," a nicely spiced brown rice patty with a bit of unexpected crunch from sunflower seeds. Sweet potato fries on the side are limp and flavorless -- a good shaking of salt would help.

Greasy Goodness: If all this healthy stuff leaves you craving something just a little bit naughty, "Potato Surprise" is a worthy option. Cornmeal-battered slices of potato are fried and served with a side of homemade honey-dijon dipping sauce. Crunchy, savory, and yes, practically dripping with grease, they are a lovely surprise, indeed. Pasta primavera, an inviting jumble of whole wheat spaghetti, pesto and steamed veggies, manages to be healthy without hammering you over the head with its virtue. The pesto, redolent of garlic and basil, lightly coats noodles and spears of broccoli, summer squash and zucchini.

Perhaps these vegans are onto something. You may not be ready to part with butter, cheese and meat permanently, but it's nice to take a vacation from them, if only for a meal or two.

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