For the junk food junkie, a road trip can be a dream journey. Between the fast food outlets and the glop at gas station minimarts, travelers may find themselves on a never-ending sugar/trans-fat wallow.
But on a monthlong road trip from Los Angeles to Naples, Fla., to visit friends and family, my wife, Landry, and I decided to go another direction: We would eat healthfully. It was a challenge, but not an insurmountable one if you knew where to look. Our goal on this trip was to find those hidden, healthful dining oases. As a bonus, we hoped we wouldn't gain weight. Bye-bye, guilt.
About 18 months ago, in an effort to achieve a more healthful lifestyle, we made big changes in our diets. I became a vegetarian, and Landry became a vegan, cutting all animal products, including eggs and dairy, from her diet. As we laid out our plans for our 5,516-mile journey, we plotted our stops based on where we could find health-food stores, vegetarian and vegan restaurants and Whole Foods markets to stock up in between.
Our route directly followed major freeways: Interstate 10 from L.A. through Tucson; past El Paso and up Interstate 20 south of Dallas to Atlanta; and south on Interstate 75 to Naples.
We hit bumps along the healthful highway only twice: One night as we drove through Midland, Texas, the only healthful option we could find was a plain baked potato and salad at Wendy's. On another afternoon, we gave in to our grumbling bellies and ordered veggie sandwiches at a gas station Subway outside San Antonio. But overall, like modern-day explorers charting new territory, we made some notable discoveries that may serve as a new healthful road map for travelers who want to travel the green highway.
This Arizona desert city was our first major stop. We took a 10-mile detour off the freeway for lunch at Lovin' Spoonfuls (2990 N. Campbell Ave.,  325-7766, http://www.lovinspoonfuls.com). As we were driving through a not-so-nice part of town to arrive at its strip mall location, we wondered whether we had made the right choice. Once inside the air-conditioned restaurant, though, we found modern decor, friendly people and a tempting menu. The house specialty is the Route 66 bacon cheeseburger, a grilled soy patty topped with crispy soy bacon strips and melted vegan cheese. The highlight, at least as far as Landry was concerned, was the chocolate truffle cake. Divinely creamy and darkly fudgy. You'd never know it was vegan.
In major metropolitan areas, we had no trouble finding a vegetarian restaurant or a grocery store that carried organic produce. In the hinterlands, salads are a fine choice, although they are not always organic. So we veered north on Interstate 20 near Midland the day after our Wendy's experience to stop at the huge Whole Foods store in Arlington (801 E. Lamar Blvd.,  461-9362, http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com). Whole Foods, founded 150 miles south in Austin, always felt like a homecoming. We stocked up on vegetarian and vegan dishes such as tofu curry over brown rice, spinach cakes and organic fruits and vegetables. We loaded our score into our cooler and hopped back on the highway, happy to have satisfied a craving.
Atlanta surprised us. This may be the land of deep-fat friers, but we also found several vegan and vegetarian restaurants. World Peace Cafe Atlanta (220 Hammond Drive, Sandy Springs, Ga.;  256-2100, http://www.worldpeacecafeatlanta.com) is a haven in the midst of the bustling metropolitan area. Volunteers staff the café, which was built through donations. All tips go to create a meditation center. (In the tradition of the Buddhists, meditation contributes to world peace.) The tofu scramble was laced with turmeric, cumin and other tasty spices and was delicious, but my favorite dish was the vegan cranberry-orange pancakes. We ate here several times and felt good about doing so for reasons beyond the food. After all, how many places can you eat pancakes and contribute to world peace at the same time?
R. Thomas' Deluxe Grill (1812 Peachtree St. N.W.;  872-2942, http://www.rthomasdeluxegrill.net) is a longtime Atlanta vegan favorite. Decorated with Chinese paper lanterns, bamboo curtains, seashell wind chimes and a chirping canary, the restaurant is more aptly described as outdoor seating in a heated tent. Its menu has offerings as diverse as tempeh (a soy-based meat substitute often used in things such as vegan burgers and bacon) and quinoa (a South American "supergrain" with a texture like couscous) served 24 hours a day. We showed up at 6 one morning and found that the Thai Express — a bowl of quinoa topped with sautéed broccoli, red cabbage, carrots, scallion and cilantro in a spicy peanut sauce — was a delicious breakfast choice. When we ordered, John Vo, a manager, who has been at R. Thomas for 19 years, said: "Laughter is still the best medicine, but quinoa is a close second." No argument from us.
We weren't expecting many options in Naples, so we again stocked up on prepared vegetarian and vegan dishes at the local Whole Foods. But to our pleasant surprise, we found some notable options. Food & Thought Farm Market & Café (2132 Tamiami Trail,  213-2222; http://www.foodandthought.com) brought us back several times during our visit for flavorful prepared and takeout dishes, organic coffees, smoothies and vegan desserts for breakfast and lunch. It offers both a market and cafe with outdoor patio seating under pleasant trees. Plus, the fruits and vegetables are picked daily from Food & Thought's own certified organic farm.
Our favorite dishes here included the Holy Yamoli sandwich, with yams, avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion and vegan mayo, and the Bunny Wrappit, a raw vegan lettuce wrap made with sprouts, avocado, tomato, vegan cheese and cucumber. Less adventurous souls can order a raw vegan Caesar salad and be safe and happy.
On the way home, we made a point of stopping in Austin. We figured that a city whose unofficial motto is "Keep Austin Weird" must have some good vegan and vegetarian food. Alternative eating, after all, often follows alternative thinking.
Here, we found a food truck called the Vegan Yacht that parks just a few blocks from Whole Foods' flagship store on 6th Street and around the corner from a tasty raw restaurant called Beets. The Vegan Yacht (1001 E. 6th St., Austin;  619-7989, http://www.theveganyacht.com) menu includes mock chicken "sammies," organic "TLTS" (tempeh/lettuce/tomato) sandwiches, quesadillas and wraps, but what caught my eye was the mock chick'n wrap. One reviewer on Yelp recommended: "Get the fake chicken wrap thingy with the apples. I wanna bathe in it. It is not fast food. So much love and care is put into your meal — it will fill up your insides with joy and tenderness...mmm. It's like eating Al Green." Who could resist such a recommendation? This flour tortilla stuffed with mock chicken, diced apples, local sprouts, organic shredded carrots and creamy avocado was amazing.
We also chowed down at Beets Café (1611 W. 5th St.;  477-2338, http://www.beetscafe.com). Beets is a "living foods" cafe that serves raw and yummy meals and desserts. It was the inspiration of Chef Sylvia Heisey, who worked for 16 years in the corporate world before opening Beets in late 2010. Nowadays, she can be found enthusiastically discussing the benefits of raw foods with customers and encouraging them to try her fruit or vegetable smoothies, fresh salads and nut milk "i-screams." We split a raw pizza rustica, with a sprouted sunflower seed crust topped with spicy almond nut cheese and tomato sauce and loaded with marinated mushrooms and other vegetables. The combination of crunchy/seedy crust and fresh vegetable toppings was so good that we contemplated going raw then and there.
Green (2240 N. Scottsdale Road, Tempe;  941-9003, http://www.greenvegetarian.com) is in a busy storefront near Old Town Scottsdale and the Arizona State University campus in Tempe. It serves some creative vegetarian dishes: The Apricot Miso bowl sounded tempting, as did the Singapore Tofu — curried tofu tossed in a spicy orange soy glaze over rice noodles. But we just had to try the Texas "Moo-Shroom" Po-Boy, a tangy mock meatball sandwich smothered in tomato sauce topped with melted mock mozzarella. Licking my lips, I thought, "Take that, Texas."
We made one last stop before finding our front door. Since we were getting into town around dinnertime, Native Foods (now with seven locations; http://www.nativefoods.com) was calling our name; it was an ideal place to celebrate our four-week accomplishment.
The creativity and passion of chef Tanya Petrovna shows through on the menu. The sweet potato fries, the Very Voluptuous Veggie Pizza and chocolate Good Luck Cupcakes are daily staples, but the Gandhi Bowl is my standard order, which is perfectly blackened tempeh with steamed veggies, organic greens and curry sauce over brown rice.
We pulled into our driveway and reflected on our sojourn: We had not only maintained our weight over the journey but we also had discovered a growing health-food consciousness across the country.
For us, the road trip had evolved. It wasn't the junk food jamboree we remembered from our childhoods. It was better.