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: Pearl Café (8416 North Lindbergh Boulevard; 314-831-3701)
Overview: Tucked away in Florissant, Pearl Café's unassuming storefront doesn't look like the place where all your dreams of vegetarian Thai food will come true. Oh, but it is. And if it's extreme chile heat you're craving, you're not likely to find anything that comes close to the spice level found at Pearl Café. (We were defeated by the level 25, but later came back to conquer it. Of course, the spice level at Pearl Café goes up to 100.) The level 5 is enough to send most diners flying face-first into a cold beverage.
The Grub: It's always reassuring to see a vegetarian section on a Thai menu, but after co-owner and front-of-house manager Tommy Truong explained the full range of vegetarian options, we knew we'd found a safe haven. Truong made sure that we knew which dishes were prepared without fish sauce -- and it's a long list.
The Thai Chile Fried Rice comes with broccoli, red and green peppers, and basil, and Tommy had the kitchen add some mushrooms for good measure.
The Pahd See Eew was nearly as good as the fried rice, with the eggs and noodles cooked to perfection. The level 5 sauce was blisteringly hot, and we had to back up off of it, taking small breaks as we plodded our way through the otherwise flawless dish. (Even if you love spicy food, start off with a level 3 at Pearl Café. You'll thank us.)
Seasonality/sourcing: Pearl Café gets most of its produce locally, and much of it is grown in the on-premises garden. To ensure consistency and quality, Truong grows his own organic peppers, from Thai chiles to habaneros.
Resistance to clichés (vegetable medleys, pre-made veggie burgers, etc.): While Pearl Café offers exactly what you'd expect from a Thai restaurant (curries, fried rice, soups), it will make every single dish on the menu vegetarian and/or gluten-free upon request, with tofu subbed in for meat -- all you gotta do is ask. Vegetarians can order anything they'd like from the expansive menu, with no boring old veggie burgers or cheese quesadillas in sight.
Improvisations & accommodations (vegan, gluten-free, etc.): Pearl Café will make any dish vegetarian, and gluten-free noodles are available upon request.
Extra credit: If you visit often enough, the kitchen will prepare off-menu items that cater to your preferences.
Standout item: Thai Chile Fried Rice