One outsider's intrepid move into dining plant-based in the Pikes Peak region 

Animal subtraction

Hello, my name's JL, and I'm a vegan.

I moved to Colorado Springs five months ago, not knowing much about the city, other than it being home to Focus on the Family. After 20 years of leading feminist nonprofit organizations in Chicago and New York, including a six-year stint at a gay, lesbian and bisexual social service agency, I can't say that this intuitively felt like a great idea.

Well, that and, like I said, I am a vegan. And not just a little bit vegan. I'm the whole PETA-loving package deal. I don't even wear a leather belt. Yes, I'm that vegan.

For me, it all started 11 years ago while I was in Kenya hosting a nonprofit event, where I ate goat for the first time. I was traumatized by the fact that just hours before, an elder in the small village pranced his prized possession in, and I'd practically shaken its hoof.

My proximity to the impending slaughter, stewing and serving led me to vegetarianism right after that meal, and started a journey that ultimately turned me into the kale-proselytizing Tofurky-lover I am today.

I shifted to an entirely plant-based diet and what the Vegan Society calls "a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose."

And New York is a great place for that way of living. Soon, I was happily feasting on vegan Rastafarian food in Westchester County; vegan drumsticks in Brooklyn; seitan ("wheat-meat") piccata on the Upper East Side; hippie bowls of greens and tempeh in the West Village; and faux meat Chinese food in Queens. I even took culinary classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute.

I was eating high on the vegan hog, and it was actually pretty easy. That was, until my husband asked how I felt about moving.

A toast to tofu

Reassuringly, a simple Google search led me to the Colorado Springs Vegan & Vegetarian Group Meetup. I scrolled through events past and present and was amazed by the diversity of restaurants and breweries offering vegan food. I was even more astonished by the frequency of events and size of the group: around 400 members at the time. So I mapped my first weekend of food forays, and a few weeks later we drove from the Denver airport to scope things out.

Shortly after entering Colorado Springs, I of course stopped at Whole Foods to stock up on essentials for my hotel mini-fridge: nut milk, raw veggies and fruit, ready-to-eat tofu, and hearty salads with beans and grains. Because even with a dining plan in-hand, I for some reason still wasn't feeling terribly optimistic.

And then I met the Senegalese Vegetables at Adam's Mountain Café, all lightly steamed vegetables with a rich peanut sauce and satiating sesame tofu over udon noodles. After that, penne with tofu in a fiery sauce at Rasta Pasta; fragrant falafel at Caspian Café; and New York-style pizza with vegan Daiya cheese at Poor Richard's.

Eating vegan in the Springs — here comes the shocker — seemed to be a breeze.

We returned five months later to secure housing, and this time drove directly from the airport to Trinity Brewing Co. for a Vegan Drinks event. There, I found more than 20 friendly people enjoying vegan food and beer, and I was quickly made to feel completely at home.

Two months after that, we finally drove across the country. And in short time, I discovered a few new-to-me grocery chains: Sprouts Farmers Market and Natural Grocers, as well as Mountain Mama's to stock my kitchen. We continued to dine frequently at the handful of vegan-friendly restaurants with which I'd become familiar.

Then I decided to reach out further, and was quickly rewarded.

Before moving, I had come across 719woman.com and read the community blog regularly. After arriving, I befriended site owner Tammy York, and soon she and her husband Paul, the general manager of the Cliff House at Pikes Peak, invited us to dinner there.

Paul likely was confident in chef Scott Savage's ability to improvise off-menu. And sure enough, Savage prepared a wonderfully vibrant quinoa Napoleon layered high with a quinoa bed, surrounded by baby corn, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini and squash, and topped with greens, and a potato latke filled with raw spring greens.

Three weeks later, I received an e-mail that the Cliff House had launched its new spring menu with two vegan items for breakfast: a delicious tofu scramble colored with peppers, onions and spinach, and a tofu French toast with cinnamon and pecans that's so flavorful you almost believe you're eating bread. Be still my beating, plant-based heart!

Growing movement

Of course, the red carpet isn't always so warmly thrust.

I had fallen hard for the peanut-crusted tofu salad at Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. and was back for more when our waitress quipped that favorite line, "How vegan are you?"

I had a feeling it was in response to her reading my PETA sweatshirt with VEGAN emblazoned on the front. Yes, I'm that vegan.

After some back-and-forth relating to whether the tofu was egg-battered (it wasn't), I did learn that it's deep-fried in the same oil as the fish and other fried meats.

Respectably, Phantom's GM did later sit down with me to go over vegan substitutions, and I can still fill up there. But the experience serves to illustrate just how many questions we have to ask when out to dinner, at times to servers sadly ill-equipped to field them.

Does the pita contain whey? Is there honey in that? Are the vegetables made with butter?

Now that I'm organizing the Colorado Springs Vegan & Vegetarian Group, I try to help others with those questions. In April, 30 of us converged on the Colorado Avenue Amanda's Fonda, where, after advance consultation with the manager, I had printed up a special "how to order vegan" menu and placed a copy on each table. Good to go: the lard-free refried beans in the tacos, tostadas, burritos and enchiladas (hold the cheese, of course). No-no: the rice, made with chicken broth, plus the cabbage salad and potatoes, both made with dairy.

Other restaurants do a good job looking out for us, too. At a recent happy hour at Nosh, our waitress rattled off our vegan options so rapidly I could barely keep up. That's a welcome problem for us, and incidentally, you must try the dressed edamame. At Nourish Organic Juice, vegan soups are often rotated through the mix, and a green smoothie delights.

Currently our Meetup community of vegans, vegetarians and veg-curious boasts around 515 members. A Gallup poll last year projected that vegans now make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, and interest in veganism appears to be growing in the Springs accordingly: A Vegan Society of Colorado Springs Meetup appeared a few months ago and already has 100-plus members.

So, all-in-all, Colorado Springs is impressing me. Though I would love to see an entirely vegetarian or vegan restaurant, I can't complain when I can order seitan gyros at Trinity, "mock chicken" at Silver Pond, cheese-less pizza at Swirl Wine Bar, tofu fries at Spice Island Grill and mango curry at the Curry Leaf.

But I would be lying if I said I wasn't counting down the days until my next trip to New York, where I can walk into any number of restaurants and order without saying, "Hold the ..." Yes, I'm that vegan.

JL Fields is a vegan cook, lifestyle coach, blogger (JL Goes Vegan) and co-author of the forthcoming Vegan for Her: The Woman's Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet (Da Capo Press, July 9).

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