Anyone who has yearned for something a bit more exciting than a veggie burger can attest that this city is lacking in casual vegetarian dining options.
How depressing is it watching friends tuck into sandwiches piled with succulent deli knowing that yet another plate of Spartan crudités is your only option? After all, being vegetarian doesn’t mean you’ve taken some sort of masochistic oath against pleasure. With a growing number of Vancouverites committing to vegetarianism as a lifestyle, head chef Harley Darnell of the Rockford Wok saw a need and has filled it with an exclusive menu of unique, meat-free dishes guaranteed to make the ubiquitous veggie patty obsolete.
Restaurant manager Chandni Chaube describes Rockford Grill as a “ Pacific rim inspired, casual premium dining experience.” Like Milestones and Cactus Club, Rockford places itself firmly between family and upscale, appealing to those who are looking for something interesting but still accessible. Although more Asian inspired than its big-box competitors, it still serves up dishes that any local diner has come to expect from the city’s casual/premium dining genre. The real uniqueness of Rockford and perhaps what stands to make it a success is found in the meat-free offerings, which finally make casual dining more enjoyable for the city’s growing number of vegetarians.
I was lucky enough to enjoy both the company of the chain’s PR representative, Katharine Kitts, as well as a few of the meat-free dishes when I visited Rockford’s West Broadway location. An immaculately spoken woman, Kath detailed how Gardein and Rockford’s partnership has finally created options beyond stir-fries and salads for vegetarian diners. “It’s nice to see the restaurant industry is starting to cater to that, because before it was either you go for the meat or the veggie burger.” Kath explained, sipping her tea, “ This is a way you can come out for lunch or dinner and you can say…it looks like meat, it tastes similar, its got the meaty texture to it and it’s not a veggie burger.”
It certainly wasn’t. When our server, Laura, placed the two plates before us, it looked for the world as if we were about to fill our bellies with rich Mongolian beef and a thick, satisfying chicken breast. Before leaving us to enjoy, Laura explained the Gardein used to make the ‘meat’ in our meals was composed of soy and whole grains and was slow cooked to create the kind of chewy texture that meat eaters are accustomed to. “It actually has more protein than meat,” she said proudly before whisking off to get me another green tea mojito.
Gardein may have more protein than beef, but it just doesn’t have the flavour. This is not necessarily the chef’s fault as creating the kind of depth that red meat has without sacrificing a cow or two is almost impossible. Although the texture of the ‘beef’ slices in the noodles was chewier than tofu, the complexity of this dish was entirely up to the sauce. Being raised in Vancouver, I have to say I know a good black bean hoisin when I stumble across one and this was a little disappointing. Not spicy enough for my personal tastes, particularly for something with ‘Mongolian’ in the title, the majority of the flavour came from the sauce’s sweetness and almost overpowering saltiness. Wondering if this was done to compensate for the natural lack of substance that most veggie-broth based sauces have, I had to ask what they had used in the kitchen. With great diplomacy, Laura informed me it was chicken broth but it could be replaced if requested. For those religious about their vegetarianism, you might want to keep that in mind…
Admittedly unimpressed with what was a rather sophomoric stir-fry, I moved on to the decadent looking Spicy Chicken Naan-wich. The Gardein chicken patty was thick and well fried, pocketed in a warm, fluffy Naan and surrounded with shredded lettuce and a sad looking tomato. I suppose I was expecting a bit of an Indian kick to it, seeing as how the Naan had replaced the bun but found instead a dollop of chipotle mayo and some sweaty cheddar. There was a distracting discord there. I have to say that if the chipotle and cheddar were replaced with more Indian-inspired flavour such as a mild curry mayo or chutney I would’ve been delighted. The patty itself however was a revelation. It was the most incredible faux chicken burger I had ever had and it almost served to erase my disappointment. I even took a few seconds to dissect it and sample it on its own. My suspicions were confirmed. It tastes exactly like a McDonalds McChicken patty, which is actually not surprising seeing those lovely little pucks are over 50 per cent corn product in the first place. All in all, it is the menu’s bestseller for a reason – it’s the perfect hangover fare or decadent lunch food for the vegetarian set.
Owned by the same corporation that handles Denny’s, Rockford Wok and Grill is not striving to become Vancouver’s next fine dining destination. With three locations in the lower mainland, it is more quietly squeezing in between Earls and White Spot as the kind of casual experience that works for both families and ‘game day’ crowds. What makes it different however, is its apparent mission to liberate Vancouver’s vegetarian crowd from veggie burger tyranny – a noble mission indeed and, in my opinion, one that is certainly attainable but with perhaps a little more tweaking.