by Bryan Peters
The Veggielante has had it up to here with people bitching that St. Louis restaurants are vegetarian unfriendly. Sure, we'd like to see more restaurants offering more meatless dishes, but there are excellent choices out there if you take the trouble to look for them. We're not here to proselytize about greening up your diet. Our only motive is to spread the word about places where you can order good grub that ain't got no meat. To enhance your reading experience, we've settled on a handful of criteria we'll use to suss out a restaurant's vegetarian friendliness.
Destination: Bobo Noodle House [278 North Skinker Blvd.; 314-863-7373]
Neighborhood: University City
Overview: Good vegetarian noodle dishes are tough to come by in the Midwest. As most vegetarians and vegans know, most Asian restaurants -- be it Thai, Korean or Chinese -- prepare their noodles with fish sauce or, more recently, umami paste, which is often made with anchovies. Even if you manage to avoid fish, you're likely to encounter some kind of beef broth. Much to our delight, U. City's Bobo Noodle House serves up plenty of meat- and fish-free fare, including vegetable dumpling and shiitake pho and vegetarian pad thai.
The Grub: Although Bobo's vegetable dumpling pho isn't in the strictest sense a pho, it is an interesting and much-appreciated modern interpretation for the vegetarian crowd. You see, not only is Bobo's vegetable dumpling pho lacking the rice noodles, basil and peppers one ordinarily sees in a traditional pho, it's also lacking the ubiquitous beef broth. Bobo's Ny Vongsaly shows off his creative chops with this dish, substituting vegetable-stuffed dumplings for thin rice noodles, swapping out beef in favor of shiitakes. There's a beautifully fragrant and comforting veggie broth, too, but don't be shy with the Sriracha -- it could use a little lift.
The highlight of the meal was the vegetarian pad thai. As with the pho, this dish isn't ordinarily veg-friendly, but not only does Bobo prepare it without fish sauce, they also serve it without egg. Vegans rejoice! Thanks to the peanuts, herbs and sautéed veggies, there's still the depth of flavor you want in a pad thai, but the addition of sriracha really had us buzzing. We appreciated the generous offering of tofu, too, which further demonstrated Bobo's commitment to large portions of quality food.
Ability/willingness to improvise: Bobo's reinvention of the pho demonstrates a respectable aptitude for inventiveness and improvisation.The kitchen assures us that tofu can be subbed for most of the meat dishes, but because of the limited space, it's difficult to accommodate all requests (particularly regarding broths).
Seasonality/sourcing: Chef Ny and the gang do their shopping at local supermarkets, but we'd still like to see them incorporate more produce from the farmers' market.
Resistance to clichés (vegetable medleys, premade veggie burgers, etc.): You'll find Bobo's menu full of traditional noodle dishes and appetizers, and the offerings are predominantly meat-centric. And because they only have one fryer, the vegetable spring rolls and crispy green beans are not strictly vegetarian. They do get bonus points for offering a vegetable pho, though, which is a dish very hard to come by in these parts.
Other dietary accommodations (vegan, gluten-free, etc.): Bobo is what it is, and that's a restaurant designed to accommodate noodle hungry omnivores. Still, both the pho and the pad thai are safe for vegans.
Extra credit: We love the interior design, particularly the wave-shaped booth.
Standout item: Vegetable pad thai.