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Bogotá's Best Vegetarian Restaurants

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Colombia

Vegetarian Restaurants, Bogotá, Eating

“No como carne, no como pescado, no como productos lacteos.” Two days before I was due to leave London for Colombia,a Spanish-speaking friend started my language crash course with a few dietary essentials. We both wondered how I, a long-time vegan, might fare in a country that prides itself on its staples of chicken and maize "sancocho" soups, and the hefty, seven-meats-on-a-plate bandeja paisa.

Vegetarian Lunches

Despite meat-heavy menus and the paucity of vegetables on the typical Colombian dinner table, here in Bogotá at least, vegetarians don’t go hungry. The city boasts around 50 vegetarian restaurants and it’s no new fad; some of the oldest establishments have been serving up veggie fare for almost 40 years. Most are only open for lunch but offer a generous menu del dia that typically includes a filling plantain or potato soup, a main course combination of rice, cooked vegetables and some kind of protein such as tofu or beans, plus a salad bar, fresh juice and even dessert. And with most places charging less than $3.50, eating sin carne is a steal.

Boulevard Sésamo

I stayed in backpacker-friendly La Candelaria, and the nearby Boulevard Sésamo vegetarian restaurant on Avenida Jimenez (Ave. Jiménez, 4-64) soon became a regular lunchtime haunt. There's a choice of three different set menus that change daily. The ejecutivo menu is the cheapest at $3.65, but it's an impressive spread.

On my last visit, there was a choice of either creamy pumpkin or cebada par lada soups–the latter a tasty broth of potatoes, onions, red and green beans, barley and herbs. The main course was a colorful if rather unconventional combination of brown rice, Chinese-style stirfried mushrooms, sliced smoked tofu, peas, celery and beansprouts, served with diced beetroot and banana fritters. Dessert was fruit compote and a banana, washed down with a glass of strawberry or papaya juice.

There's a simple but fresh self-service salad bar with plenty of green vegetables too, if you can possibly fit anymore in. Business suits share tables with students and arty types, and the two-floor, 150-seat restaurant does a brisk trade. The front part of the restaurant offers take-away falafel and sells some health food staples, from muesli to vegan biscuits and pan integral.

Vegetarian Set Menus

There are plenty of vegetarian places of a similar ilk, serving an all-inclusive set menu, though not all boast such a varied menu. The nearby Loto Azul restaurant (Cra. 5a,14-00 B), its walls adorned with pictures of Krishna, doubles as an Indian spiritual center and serves up large portions of vegetarian food with good cake.

Established Vegetarian Restaurants

The oldest vegetarian places can be found on Calle 17. Here, amid the profusion of health food stores, you can find the 37-year-old veggie stalwart, El Champiñon (Cra. 8a, 17-23, 2nd floor). From the outside it doesn’t look like much, just a narrow doorway that leads up a flight of stairs, but I swung by to catch a late lunch.

The starter was a hearty homemade sancocho soup with large hunks of soft plantain, and the main course-a fake meat version of the classic bandeja paisa–meant plenty of chewy, springy wheat gluten substitute. Too close a resemblance to animal innards for me, I left most of it untouched. With a mouthful of mora (Colombian raspberries) steeped in syrup and served in a plastic cup for dessert, it was nutritious fare, though not exactly haute cuisine.

For bigger portions, more fresh veg and a cheaper bill, head across the road at El Tropico, Bogotá's oldest veggie establishment. Nearly 40 years old, El Tropico (Cra. 8,17-72) serves meatless Colombian classics, with beans, plantain and rice, and plenty of extras, including, when I popped by, a generous hunk of homemade coconut cake for dessert. The restaurant is great value and its 12 tables manage to serve up to 100 lunches a day.

La Esquina in Chapinero (Cra. 9,60-91) is a light and airy second-floor restaurant with a calmer vibe, impressively attentive service and some of the best vegetarian sancocho soup I’ve tried. My main course was a colorful, carefully arranged dish of brown rice topped with a skewer of marinated tofu and chargrilled red peppers, served with a fresh onion and dill salad, new potatoes boiled in their skins,a spicy tomato salsa, green beans and carrots. Packed with plenty of fresh herbs, the food is far from the insipid veggie stereotype. No visit to La Esquina is complete without popping into the Pan Nobles bakery below.You'll find canela-infused cakes and wholemeal breads studded with some of Colombia’s best exotic fruits, from mora and fig to guanabana.

Gourmet Vegetarian

After trying out a couple of other similar style veggie places, I was on the hunt for something a little more...gourmet. When Carlos, a Bogotano friend and fellow vegetarian, recommended Imaymana (Cra. 13,78-09) further north, I decided to meet him there for lunch. Walking into the white, sunlit neighborhood restaurant with dark wood floors and white linen tablecloths, I was shown to a table by a smart waiter and knew I was in for a treat. A rich Italian-style tomato and herb soup garnished with shards of crispy plantain arrived as a starter, served with a selection of homemade breads.

The main course was equally impressive, the delight of it in the detail: the roasted chopped Brazil nuts and raisins stirred into the brown rice, the caramelized onions among the slow-roasted root vegetables, and the freshest broccoli, courgettes, French beans and carrots together with three herb-filled falafel balls hidden under a tangy tomato sauce.

The pick of the day's desserts, all made on the premises, included a refreshing maracuyá and mint mousse and a generous wedge of macadamia nut cake. According to chef and owner Mauricio, around 70% of his patrons aren't vegetarian but are simply looking to try something different.Carlos bought some wholemeal nut and carrot muffins to take away and I eyed up a dense, wholemeal raisin bread. It's no wonder even carnivorous Colombianos are stopping in at Mauricio's for lunch.

For more information on vegetarian restaurants in Bogotá, visit www.bogotavegetariana.com.



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