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The Verdict on the New Veggie Grill & A Food Gal Giveaway

With no offense to vegetarians, I admit that I have often had a love-hate relationship with wheat gluten products that try to masquerade as bona fide meat.

I love the idea. But I hate the taste and texture, which have always seemed a true letdown.

I can remember once going to a Chinese Buddhist restaurant with friends. After one of the dishes was set down at the table, my friend’s Dad dived in excitedly, then proclaimed that the molded, pressed wheat gluten slices tasted just like Peking duck.

I almost blurted out, “Are you high?” But I managed to restrain myself and just smile in silence.

Now, Veggie Grill is making me eat that thought.

The first branch of the Southern California fast-casual vegetarian restaurant recently opened in San Jose’s Santana Row. As a local food writer, I received a couple of coupons to try a few of the entrees on the house.

I went in with trepidation. But I came out a fan. Yes, even of the wheat gluten.

I ordered a take-out order of the “Baja Fiesta Salad” ($8.95), adding grilled chickin’  ($2.75) to it, as well as the “Crispy Chickin’ Plate” ($9.95) and the Papa’s Portobello ($8.50) sandwich.

Let’s cut to the chase. As you probably surmised, the chickin’ is fashioned from wheat gluten, soy protein, potato starch, carrot fiber, organic beet root fiber and seasonings.

When it’s charred and cut into strips as it is in the salad, you’d be hard-pressed at quick glance not to mistake it for chicken breast. The strand-like texture does mimic real chicken pretty well. It has a mild savory flavor like poultry, too.

The salad is a mix of chopped romaine, roasted corn salsa, cucumber, cilantro, papaya and avocado. It’s fresh and crisp, with a tropical slant. The ginger-papaya vinaigrette was quite fruity, reminding me of a thinner version of lemon curd with its exceedingly bright sweet-tart taste.

The chickin’ on the plate entree looked like an oblong hockey puck, but had a tender interior and a crisp exterior. The cauli-mashed potatoes were chunky in texture with a flavorful porcini gravy to spoon over. The steamed kale on the plate may have been simple, but it had been cooked perfectly, with the leaves soft, but still keeping their integrity. The ginger-miso dressing on it was fabulous, so much so that I want to try to replicate it at home. Indeed, the dressings at Veggie Grill are true stars. They have a real pop of flavor with bold vibrancy.

The portobello is grilled before being placed on a bun with tomato, basil and garlic sauce, pesto, caramelized onions, lettuce, red onion and chipotle ranch. It’s smoky, a little spicy, and quite satisfying. You get your choice of chili or cabbage slaw as a side. I chose the latter, which was a small mound of crisp red cabbage strands that was minimally dressed and tasted mostly of plain cabbage. But that was fine, considering the portobello sandwich had so much going on already with all of its sauces.

I can’t say I’m having a love affair with wheat gluten yet. But Veggie Grill has definitely opened my taste buds to the possibilities of one.

CONTEST: Two lucky Food Gal readers will each win four ”free entree” coupons to any Veggie Grill in California, Oregon or Washington state. Entries, limited to those in the continental United States who have a Veggie Grill in their area, will be accepted through midnight PST Dec. 8. Winners will be announced Dec. 10.

How to win?

You’ve already read about my 180-degree reversal when it comes to wheat gluten, faux meat products. Tell me about a food or ingredient that you swore you hated, but then changed your mind about — and why. Best two answers win.

LAST WEEK’S CONTEST: In the previous Food Gal contest, I asked you to tell me about your favorite Middle Eastern food, ingredient or dish. Best answer wins a copy of “An Edible Mosaic: Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flare” (Tuttle) by Faith Gorsky.

Congrats to:

Jackie, who wrote, “I LOVE these spinach pies- definitely one of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes! (Recipe pinned for future cooking.) However, my absolute favorite Middle Eastern dish is my aunt Nahreen’s Assyrian-style dolma. I say Assyrian style because its so different from dolma that other cultures make (ie, the lemony and rice-heavy Persian and Greek style dolmas, which are typically served cold.) Assyrian dolma is comfort food to the MAX. Grape leaves stuffed not only with rice, but a ton of vegetables and herbs (tomato, onions, cilantro, dill, parsley)- all cooked in a tangy tomato/tamarind sauce and served warm, ideally with a huge scoop of tangy yogurt to accompany the dish. Everything about dolma screams home to me: the taste, the smells, and the gathering of people (typically women) around a table to chop (and chop and chop) and stuff (and stuff and stuff) and roll (and roll and roll). Hours of work for a single meal that can serve an entire clan. It personifies everything I love about being a first-generation Middle Easterner, and it tastes freaking fabulous. FYI, if you’re curious about what Assyrian style dolma is, check out this post I wrote up on my food blog. I’m still an amateur, so it isn’t necessarily the most beautiful thing ever, but it tasted great: http://food-ology.blogspot.com/2009/09/has-anyone-ever-asked-you-what-is-your.html”

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