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Veggie tales 

Hunting and gathering in Atlanta's vegetarian restaurants

Some carnivores are under the impression that meat eating is imbedded into the human genetic code, and that vegetarians are missing out on the thrill of the hunt. As a vegetarian going on two years now, I beg to differ. I'm constantly on the prowl, searching for something suitable to eat.

I'll spare you the animal-rights soapbox. I made the decision for myself as both a naturalistic attempt to help get some health issues under control and to right a guilty conscience. The ends simply no longer justified the means for me when it came to eating animals.

And I'll admit, it's not always so easy. Some broccoli-and-onion soups are made with chicken broth; french fries are often cooked in the same oil as chicken fingers; and lard is usually a key ingredient in refried beans. So here in Atlanta – the land of biscuits and gravy, collard greens and fried chicken – where can a vegetarian go and feel like a hunter rather than a scavenger?

About eight years ago, my mom took me to what she called "a funky little place" named Café Sunflower (5975 Roswell Road, 404-256-1675). Located in the back corner of a Sandy Springs shopping center (I have yet to visit the Buckhead location), the restaurant has been serving outlandishly tasty vegetarian and vegan fare since 1994. From the herbal iced teas and the light and crispy Sandy Spring rolls to the woodsy Tuscan sandwich made with goat cheese and portobello mushrooms, Café Sunflower pretty much has it all. My only complaint: the macro stir-fry's cardboardlike tempeh. But honestly, avoiding the tempeh just left me with more room for the billowing dairy-free chocolate raspberry mousse cake.

Back inside the Perimeter at the corner of Boulevard and Edgewood Avenue stands Power Plant (476 Edgewood Ave., 404-474-1735), a vegan kitchen specializing in faux meats and double entendres. Entrees can be hit or miss: The Sesame Shicken is full of vegetables and sweetly savory Chinese-food flavor, but the Shrimp Po Boyee and veggie burger looked better on paper than on the plates. Sides such as thin-and-salty sweet-potato fries and perfectly cooked roasted-garlic asparagus outshine the main dishes. Power Plant calls itself the "Leaders of the New Foods," but I'm not sure who's following. Lunch visits and drive-bys have revealed spotty attendance. In all its effort to sport a clever theme, Power Plant may have forgotten to make consistently tasty food and decent service its main priorities.

From meat substitutes to raw foods, nutritional subcategories abound within vegetarianism. I don't know much about raw-food philosophies, but the idea that foods taste and nourish best in their natural states seems easy enough to grasp. My main problem with many vegetarian restaurants is an overabundance of deep frying and heavy sauces. At Living Food Delights (465 Boulevard, Suite 201, 404-635-1133), a vegan raw-foods takeout counter, I found straight-up fruits and veggies, and some sage advice. The cook prescribed a number of carrot-based treats to help my digestion, including her soft and chewy sun-burger patties, and a rich and slightly spicy cold-carrot-and-avocado soup with red-pepper bits. I also experimented with the Rejuvelac, a tart, lemony water, as well as a throat-scorching ginger shot. LFD's forthright flavors and textures offer an honest (and guilt-free) experience rarely found in a deep fryer.

While Atlanta's got its vegetarian and vegan staples, the past few months have given rise to a new crop of animal-friendly eateries. Cenci (1259 Glenwood Ave., 404-627-0533), one of the latest additions to a series of newbie restaurants along Glenwood Avenue in East Atlanta Village, offers a meat-free menu full of versions of American favorites such as spaghetti and meatballs and spiced beef burritos. The sesame chicken-tenders appetizer served with chili-pepper sauce was super crispy and satisfying. And do order an appetizer – it was a long time before we saw our entrees. But I can cut Cenci some slack; the Philly cheesesteak was worth the wait.

World Peace Café (227 Sandy Springs Place, Suite 302, 404-256-2100) opened a little less than two months ago in Sandy Springs with an all-organic menu and a staff from Rameshori Buddhist Center. At the restaurant's grand-opening celebration, volunteers circulated trays with crustless sandwiches suitable for the restaurant's weekday tea services (cucumber and mascarpone cheese; tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil; pimento cheese). Finger foods aside, my favorite dishes included a sturdy lentil, kale-and-mushroom soup, an airy grilled polenta cake with eggplant caponata (pistachios, olives, capers and raisins) and a "blissful" banana pudding (only available during weekend brunch), which was given as a parting gift, but devoured instantly. World peace is a tall order for any group (let alone a small restaurant full of Buddhist volunteers), but with that banana pudding on hand, it might not be so far-fetched.

Morals, ethics and conscience guide many vegetarians' and vegans' choices. Among the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem's tenets are a vegan diet and a system of preventive health care. At Soul Vegetarian (879-A Ralph David Abernathy Blvd., 404-752-5194), a restaurant and shop built around the belief system, women in bright white dresses serve heaping helpings of barbecue "ribs," collard greens and mac-n-cheese. The hot bar costs $10.50 and includes an entree, two sides and either corn bread or a salad – as much food as you hope to eat, but way more than you can.

Madras Saravana Bhavan (2179 Lawrenceville Highway, Decatur, 404-636-4400), heralded among friends and co-workers as probably the best Indian food around, is a pain in the neck to get to, but worth it for its all-vegetarian South Indian cuisine. The first and best Indian food I ever tasted was, oddly enough, in Berlin, but the combination of throat-tickling spices and homey flavors has stuck with me to this day. Since I can't jet to Berlin for a quick lunch buffet, I'll gladly settle for Madras' $8 all-you-can-eat deal complete with chewy nan for sopping up a hearty green bean kootu.

Heading farther east, Green Sprout (1529 Piedmont Ave., Suite D, 404-874-7373) is a tiny and dimly lit vegetarian Chinese restaurant semi-hidden in an Ansley Park strip mall. I love Green Sprout for its delightful food and down-to-earth service. I want to trick my meat-loving boyfriend into trying its tender Mongolian beef. It's also vegan-friendly, offering to 86 the eggs in the shrimp lo mein without so much as a hint and, afterward, delivering both regular and vegan fortune cookies to the table.

For complete information on all of the restaurants listed, click here.

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