By Tim Donnelly
January is here and that means it’s the season of horrendous portmanteaus masquerading as lifestyle changes. You know about the hideous word “Drynuary,” a sobriquet for a month of sobriety that is so lugubrious on the tongue, even saying it makes me long for a tall drink. You might also see this one: Veganuary, the time when people give up animal products for a month to absolve their sins of the flesh for the past year. It’s a terrible word, but the idea is good enough.
Regardless of whether you actually do resolutions, I could sit here and list a dozen reasons you should be eating more vegan food this year, not the least of which is that it’s delicious, while our rampant consumption of meat, dairy and eggs is killing the planet, killing billions of animals a year, and, now, killing groundwater across the country. However! This is not a publication about the environment and compassion — it’s about New York City.
As a New York City vegan for 13 years, I’ve seen veggie burger horrors you cannot imagine, and am here to tell you that vegan food here is in a tremendous era right now. Yes, we have a mayor who ostensibly claims to be a vegan but also has a weakness for chicken and branzino (not to mention Turkey — ayo!). Either way, his recipes don’t look great, and some consider his eating slightly disordered. So, don’t listen to Mayor Branzino, a weird semi-vegan, listen to me instead, a less weird actual vegan, who loves junk food and would never turn down a bagel because I’m a “flaxseed guy,” as the mayor once said.
This is just a starter list based on my own experience and preferences, so I’ve included some resources for finding more options in the five boroughs that I have yet to sample. Give them a try this January, and then keep trying them the rest of the year, because I’m not sharing my groundwater with any of you when it all runs out.
The best of the best
John’s of 12th Street: John’s is an old-school (like, 100 years old), red-sauce, white-tablecloth Italian restaurant that saw the light 12 years ago and added an entirely vegan menu containing versions of many of the items on the classic menu: vegan ragu, garlic bread, raviolis, cannoli, the works. It’s an approach I wish more long-standing city restaurants embraced, catering to changing clientele instead of fiercely defending their aging existing menu. John’s is the kind of place that looks ripped from The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire, because episodes of both those shows were filmed there. Super nice guys too.
Ras Plant Based: This Crown Heights all-vegan Ethiopian spot is a top tier restaurant in the city right now, IMO. The menu is full of deliciously spiced morsels of food that you sop up with injera; just get the sampler platters and try lots of different things.
Spicy Moon: Spicy szechuan is exactly what you need in these colder months and the brightly colored Spicy Moon now has three locations in Nolita, the East Village and West Village, each with a truly delicious, all-vegan menu. My recommendation is literally everything on the menu.
Ital Kitchen: This small, cozy, slow-food, open kitchen spot in Crown Heights has been serving French-influenced Caribbean dishes since 2001. Chef Mike will chat you up about the food too. Yes, there was a time where small, cozy restaurants could thrive in New York City, go visit this one to remember what that was like, and also have some incredible food, and maybe a puff of something else, in its back garden.
Oregano: It’s a tiki-tinged Italian restaurant in Williamsburg offering an extensive vegan and non-vegan menu, along with the elusive fresh vegan pasta.
The greatest New York City vegan food is still cheap
Eleven Madison Park made big vegan news in 2021 when it decided to ditch its Michelin-starred menu and rebrand as a high-end vegan restaurant. That’s all well and good but that is like telling me they had great Lunchables on that Titanic submarine: I will never get to try it and frankly am not that interested anyway. Most other cuisines in the world don’t treat the idea of vegan food as some exclusive high-end option, or share the American obsession with putting a huge hunk of meat in the center of the plate.
There’s no better place to see this than at Punjabi Deli, the tiny, cheap, beloved Indian restaurant on Houston Street. Heaping combo dishes cost $6.50; everything is vegetarian and nearly everything is vegan (just ask). You can crowd into the small counter here to eat, or take it around the corner to The Library bar, where a tall beer might cost more than your whole meal. When in doubt, always get the chana (chickpeas).
Dumplings scatter this city and most dumpling shops will have a veggie option; but for cheap and quick vegan options, there’s one combo that I will forever love: eight dumplings and a giant veggie sesame pancake from Vanessa’s Dumplings (which has several locations across the city). Satisfying, hearty and cheap (although never as quick as I think it will be).
And now we get to the greatest food of all (after pizza, more on that below): doubles. The Trinidadian delight of chickpeas between fried spiced bread, topped with pepper or tamarind sauce, is a delicious, handheld snack of which I could eat 100 in a sitting (and almost did at my 40th birthday). And best of all, they have not wavered from their $2-a-pop price. Try the best of the best at De Hot Pot in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens or A&A Bake and Doubles in Bed-Stuy; honorary mention to Trini Girl in Crown Heights for the cucumber chutney. These are all roti spots with meat and veg options, but the double is a vegan snack for the ages.
The Washington Square dosa cart (NYDosas on Instagram) has a following, and often a line, and delicious quick, all-vegan food.
Another mini chain that gets it is Xi’an Famous Foods, where the menu includes a few cheap, spicy vegan options full of enough real heat to burn away your omnivorous habits. Follow the restaurant’s recommendations and get it to stay, get it spicy and get it soon. I recommend the A2: stir-fried liang pi cold-skin noodles, packed with meaty seitan.
And then of course, there’s bagels: any respectable bagel shop will offer a selection of dairy free tofu cream cheeses to complement any bagel. Some have gotten wilder with those flavors too. Bergen Bagels, for instance, offers a sundried tomato tofu cream cheese. It’s worth repeating: classic, respected New York City bagel places have stocked vegan cream cheese for a very long time. If your shop doesn’t have it, the bagels probably aren’t any good anyway.
We’re finally getting a pizza the action
One of the greatest accomplishments of vegan normalization is that pizza, the most New York of foods, the most convenient of meals, has now tipped into vegan-friendly territory. The proliferation of options has gotten so strong that you can sometimes spin the wheel of drunk chaos and find a vegan slice at random pizzerias on the street. But let’s get more specific:
I’ve considered this topic long and hard, put in years of research and subjected myself to some truly terrible pizza in the process, but I can say the best vegan pizza slice in New York City (and therefore, the entire world) is Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint. Paulie put four vegan slices on this menu, including the standout vegan Freddy Prinze, an “upside down” Sicilian with vegan sausage, parm and sesame seed bottom.
When it comes to pizza delivery, there is one true winner: Brooklyn Pizza Crew (aka Williamsburg Pizza). The mini chain with locations from Crown Heights to the Upper East Side sells a large square vegan pepperoni pizza whose quality transcends into the divine. Vegan pepperoni doesn’t (yet) curl up into those grease cups some of y’all love but maybe this is a good time to reconsider whether drinking tiny cups of grease is an aspirational health goal in 2024.
While up at 6 a.m. for an assignment recently, I had a shocking “avocado toast” at a diner in the Village that many people in my instagram comments declared looked like “Fyre Fest food.” The majority of diners have not learned to integrate vegan food in their sprawling menus yet, but we have a few good options.
Ro’s Diner in East Williamsburg is a classic diner menu after my own teenage New Jersey heart. It grew out of the ashes of Champs, a longtime vegan diner that closed last year, and I dare say the new version is maybe even better. There’s mozzarella sticks and jalapeno poppers, but also hangover-friendly brunch dishes, from chick’n and waffle sandwiches to corn beef hash.
Superiority Burger expanded last year from its armpit of a space into a sprawling full restaurant. You’ve probably heard about this one since it crossed over into mainstream food buzz, but the all-vegetarian mostly-vegan spot known for wacky combinations and fresh ingredients deserves recognition for not just its food, but its space. It took over the old Odessa Restaurant space on Avenue A and basically changed nothing. It looks like an old-school diner inside, dessert displays and all, and it’s open late most nights. The food isn’t cheap — probably something about sourcing good ingredients and paying a living wage – but it's worth a visit. The classic Superiority Burger ($13) never fails, and the lineup of uniquely cooked beans and veggies is ever-changing, but try the collard greens sandwich for something truly unique ($16).
Court Square Diner, in Queens, actually bucks the trend and offers vegan chicken parm and meatball parm on its menu. Other diners, take notice!
The bodega sandwiches
Food deserts are still a problem in the city, which is what led to the creation of Plantega a few years ago. The company stocks corner stores and delis with a menu of vegan sandwich options, giving people a healthier alternative to BEC and chopped cheese and other sandwiches people build their identities around. The sandwiches are good, filling and — unlike a lot of plant-based products on the shelves — still relatively cheap, in the realm of $10 for a sub. They've expanded to many parts of the city, another great win for cheap and lazy vegans on the go (and got a Grub Street write up this week). Find a location here. I’m a sucker for the chicken tender sub.
A note on ghost kitchens
Ghost kitchens are everywhere on delivery apps now. They’re restaurants that don’t really exist but run out of another kitchen, and they have names for dishes that appear to be generated by terrible AI (“Jalapeno Translation Vegan Burger” is a real one). Are they terrible for the restaurant industry? I don’t know! But they do offer vegan ghost options when no brick-and-mortar vegan restaurant is around.
A note on vegan burger joints
We simply have too many of them! We’ve entered an unfortunate new wave of restaurants that centers tech meat (Impossible Burgers and the like) above all else, and the quality ranges from fine to not very good. One popular chain famously calls you a slut when you walk in the door, others just slap sauces on frozen Impossible burgers and call it a day. Either make your own burger or make another kind of sandwich already, jeez.
Accounts to follow to learn about all the stuff I don’t know
For news: @Vegan.NYX tracks restaurant openings, closings and pop-ups.
For inspiration: @howtobeveganinthehood (aka Erick Castro) tracks his journey from a bodega-food centric diet in Queens, where he was raised, to celebrating affordable and healthy vegan food across the city. He posts great date night ideas too.
@VeganBodegaCat: Run by another NYC native, the account is a joyful romp through both some of the best restaurants in the city and the hunt for simple things like rice and beans, along with cheap meal suggestions and at-home recipes you can make from any neighborhood grocery store.
For finding more vegan options at non-vegan places: @VoltaireFoundation lists the vegan options at lots of city restaurants so you don’t have to wade through the menu yourself.
Also, download the Happy Cow app for a comprehensive, crowd-sourced guide to finding vegan food anywhere (I used it even in rural Thailand last year). You’ll find more options hiding in plain sight, and there are always more than you think.