Red Bamboo is not much to look at. On West 4th Street in Manhattan, wedged between the Avenue of the Americas and Washington Square West (nesting ground of NYU students), there is only a red awning with the name printed on it to let you know that this tiny below-ground spot is the place you’ve been looking for. And that is certainly is the case if “you” are a vegan-curious person on a fairly low budget happy to splurge a bit for that tasty experience.
Yes, Red Bamboo serves vegan food (almost entirely, but if you are persistent, you might get them to put dairy cheese on a sandwich for you). Get over it. I am not a vegan, though I used to be (in fact, I was still eating mostly vegan when I was first introduced to Red Bamboo’s omnivore-friendly fare more than 10 years ago). And I am always thrilled to eat at Red Bamboo.
You see, the restaurant is carrying on an ancient movement in Buddhist cuisine, one that recognizes that, while many of us are uncomfortable with the cruelty involved in eating meat, we have grown up used to having it all the time, and so we find it hard to live without it. So they serve numerous “mock meats,” made from soy textured protein, wheat gluten and other plant products. These substitutes approximate the texture, richness and flavor of, say, chicken and beef, while remaining completely cruelty-free. The pleasure of eating these things is not bad, the philosophy goes, but only the source is what makes meat-eating abhorrent. If we can have that pleasure without hurting any animals, why not?
And Red Bamboo makes the whole venture fun. A lot of their raw materials come from a supermarket in Chinatown called May Wah, which imports them from China, so if you like what you find at Red Bamboo and want to try your hand at making mock meats at home, you can visit May Wah. But for most of us, Red Bamboo is the place. They give you favorites like chicken nuggets and chicken parmigiana and lots of others. There’s a gentle soul attitude expressed in the cuisine, so you can find sweet chili dipping sauces and other accents like that.
Over the years, I have eaten almost everything on the menu. On this occasion, I wanted to try out the Bamboo Nuggets, which my friend and co-diner Ed told me has changed over the years.
Sure enough, they were lighter than I remember them. But still wonderful – nice lightly fried crispy breading over a delicate chicken-y interior. And the Vidalia onion-based dipping sauce was a nice accompaniment.
For my main course, I went with the Coconut Chicken –
while Ed ordered the Steak and Potatoes.
If you look closely, you can see that we had already started sharing when I took my photos – one of my pineapple slices is on his plate, and I have a few green beans on mine. Sorry for upsetting the harmony of the presentation – we were very hungry, and eager to dig into our vegan delights. I thoroughly enjoyed my coconut chicken, and was happy to find the green beans nicely cooked – once upon a time, Red Bamboo used to be notorious for serving under-cooked, bland vegetables, but they seem to have corrected that.
Then after we had finished our meals, there were unbelievably amazing cakes for dessert – which we took with us, since we were going to a movie at the nearby Angelika Film Center. I am telling you, even if everything about vegan food appalls you, Red Bamboo’s desserts are worth a special trip. They get them from the incredible Vegan Treats in Pennsylvania, who make a road trip to New York City once a week to supply Red Bamboo and other NYC-area restaurants and cafes. Red Bamboo sells a nice selection of these incredible cakes, pies and vegan cheesecakes, but hurry, because they sell out by the weekend.
So in conclusion, all of you who still think vegans are weird and vegan food is gag-me territory, grow up and eat your vegetables. You’ll find the rest of us at Red Bamboo, having the time of our lives, knowing we are helping to save the planet (or at least keep it going for a few more days) and being kind to animals and our bodies.