Discover downtown vegetarian cuisine

Columbia's meat-free meals don't have to be bland.
Manager Elliot Dill and employee Wesley Powell prepare dishes on Thursday at Main Squeeze Natural Foods Café. The café's menu is entirely vegetarian and has more than 25 vegetarian and vegan-friendly items.

Paradigms and assumptions dominate the mindsets of many regarding vegetarian diets. Ask some in the food industry, and they'll say, "Vegetarian food is our food minus meat," or "Vegetarians eat salad and space-age foods like tofu and grains." Or the response I get the most, "You're a what?" Thankfully, Columbia has great, diverse vegetarian dining selections that can help both experienced vegetarians and the "play it safe, eat veggie burgers daily" newbies to the lifestyle. So if you fit either of those molds, or if you're looking for a fresh, healthy alternative in your diet, these places will quickly become habitual stops in your life and staples in your diet.

Main Squeeze Natural Foods Cafe
28 S. Ninth St.
Price range: $3-$12

Probably the first place most vegetarians think of, Main Squeeze offers an entirely vegetarian menu, with no meat options or add-ins whatsoever. In addition, small symbols next to many menu items indicate vegan-friendly options without dairy or eggs. Main Squeeze serves up homemade salads, sandwiches, entrees, a daily rotating soup menu and different, flavorful smoothies and juices (try the Ring of Fire -- apples, oranges, beets and ginger, $4). The Buddha Bowl, offered in two sizes, contains a hot, fresh mix of tofu, brown rice, sprouts, veggies and a mildly spicy sesame ginger sauce ($8.75). On the sandwich menu, the White Cheddar & Avocado is particularly memorable, featuring avocado, vegan chipotle mayo, fresh cheese and veggies on hearty wheat bread, and pairs perfectly with a house or spinach salad ($8.25). Main Squeeze can and should be a frequent stop for vegetarians, vegans or those with gluten-free diets.

304 S. Ninth St.
Price range: $5-$15

Just down Ninth Street from Main Squeeze is Ingredient, a restaurant already popular with throngs of MU students and Columbia residents. Although vegetarian food isn't Ingredient's focus, they offer a large enough menu for vegetarians to leave full, satisfied and not disappointed with yet another pale iceberg salad. When in the mood for a veggie burger, Ingredient is your go-to place, featuring a custom burger menu offering options of more than 36 toppings, 27 sauces and 16 cheeses. I tried mine with artichoke hearts, roma tomatoes, garlic aioli and fontina cheese, a little on the heavy side but full of flavor ($6.95). A similarly limitless custom salad menu can offer up a light lunch or a larger meal with additional spicy tofu ($8.95 plus $2 with tofu).

Casablanca Mediterranean Grill
Fifth and Elm streets
Price range: $4-$13

Formerly located in south Columbia, Casablanca has been rising in popularity at its new location downtown, and for good reason. Serving up some of Columbia's most flavorful Mediterranean food, Casablanca is most famous for its homemade hummus, which accompanies hot pita and many of the menu items and is a weekly staple in my life. The falafel wrap can be eaten on its own ($3.95) or as a platter with rice or fries ($6.95) and makes the perfect quick, to-go meal. Many of the dinner selections have vegetarian options. The tagean, a baked dish of vegetables, rice, olive oil and a homemade tomato sauce was exactly what I wanted out of a Mediterranean meal ($9.95). Dine in or hit the road with anything from this delicious, family-owned and affordable establishment.

Bangkok Gardens
811 Cherry St.
Price range: $6-$16

This popular Thai establishment in downtown Columbia is a great place to go all-out for a spicy, flavorful vegetarian dinner. With menu footnotes notating items that might have unnoticeable animal products, Bangkok Gardens is extremely sensitive to vegetarian and vegan diets, and the waiters are very cautious in ensuring they follow your dietary needs. As appetizers, the crisp samosas ($4.75) or tofu fried dumplings ($3.95) are only a prelude to the flavors that can be found on the large menu of dinner entrees. One of my favorites is the masaman curry, a spicy dish of eggplant, potatoes, onions and tofu ($10.95), but I often rotate with the phat pla mhung, a green curry that provides unreal flavor ($10.95). Come in during the day for a smaller but cheaper lunch menu, or come at night and enjoy the great atmosphere of this locally owned, award-winning establishment.

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