Maybe it’s a silly distinction, but when a meal starts with an extensive list of what’s not in it, our taste buds threaten to go on strike. Instead, inspecting local menus has become a favorite “Where’s Waldo” search for standout dishes that just happen to not include meat. These increasingly frequent finds still pack all the flavors, the spices, the intrigue, the complexity and the rib-stickiness of beef, chicken, fish, lamb or pork, but simply don’t need it to shine.
So, in gathering a list of meaty (not literally, of course) meals, we’re considering the eggplant, the fennel root and the hearty bean not as substitutes, but as heroes of dinner. Trust us, you won’t miss a thing.
Rancho Gordo Beans on Toast, Della Fattoria: If you’re not indoctrinated into the cult of Rancho Gordo, introduce yourself to the best heirloom beans known to the universe. Wine Country entrepreneur Steve Sando has been a major force in preserving and promoting heirloom bean breeds of the Americas. With meaty, satisfying flavors, they’re more than enough to sate a big appetite. We love them with pretty much anything, but Della Fattoria’s peasant-style dish of pureed flageolet beans, chèvre, roasted garlic, olives and olive oil on rosemary Meyer-lemon toast is so ridiculously good you’ll dream about it for days. 141 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma.
We’re also big fans of the beans and greens at Spinster Sisters, which is equally comforting and simple, with garlic and lemon. 401 S. A St., Santa Rosa.
Chicken fried portobello with mushroom leek gravy, Gypsy Cafe: If there’s any vegetable that mimics the chew of a perfectly cooked steak, it’s the portly portobello mushroom. Battered and fried, it gets a pour of hearty gravy, potato cake and two eggs (if you want ‘em) on the breakfast menu. Also a tasty breakfast fave at Gypsy: seared polenta with garlic braised greens, parmesan and sourdough. 162 North Main St., Sebastopol.
Orange and ginger stewed prunes with Greek yogurt, honey, granola and bee pollen, Fork Roadhouse: Prunes, where have you been all our lives? Stewed “dried plums” are a warm, sweet surprise in a bowl of granola and tart yogurt. Maybe the world’s most perfect breakfast. 9890 Bodega Highway, Sebastopol. (Not vegan, but plant-based).
Fried Green Tomato PoBoy, Parish Cafe: Tart green tomatoes are given a cornmeal dusting and bubbling oil bath, then sandwiched between spicy aioli and a soft roll. Southern perfection that doesn’t need explaining. 60 Mill St., Healdsburg.
Reuben Tempeh Sandwich with Kimchi, Backyard Kitchen: There is exactly one chef we trust for a tasty tempeh, and that’s Daniel Keden. This “wheat meat” tends to be a bit off-putting, but slathered with kimchi and Thousand Island dressing and served on the required toasted rye, it’s a winner. Even without pastrami. 6566 Front St., Forestville.
Ethiopian Veggie Combo, Abyssinia (913 Fourth St., Santa Rosa): Unless you’re quite familiar with this fragrantly-spiced cuisine, it’s best to just let your taste buds go on an exotic adventure. “Shiro, miser we’t, yater kik alecha, yabesha gomen… I don’t know what any of these things are, but they were sure delicious last night!” said Robert Larsen of Santa Rosa, a fan who recommended this combination as a favorite meatless meal. Atop your injera (fermented bread), you’ll find a mash-up of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, lentils, carrots, and spices that are better experienced than deeply considered. Just open wide and say, mmmmm.
Bhaji and Dal Bukhara at Yeti (190 Farmers Lane, Santa Rosa): Oh, happy day that this Glen Ellen Indian/Himalayan has opened a (huge) outpost in Santa Rosa. With this cuisine, meatless dishes spiced with cumin, curry, garam masala, fennel seeds and a treasure box of other ancient herbs and spices elevate humble vegetables and yogurt dishes to masterpieces. Most curries can be made meatless, but we’re bigger fans of rich daal (seasoned lentils, onion, chili, ginger, cream, cilantro) and onion bhaji, which are chickpea flour fritters with onions, garlic and ginger. Eggs are used, so, again, plant-based.