by Lee Lawrence
From the August, 2018 issue
With the plant extravaganza promised by its name, the retro American nostalgia suggested by its signage and decor, and the Indian culinary influence hinted by the menu's ingredients and dishes, Ypsilanti's Veg-O-Rama is a melange of cultures and ideas. Opened last fall on Cross St. by Prafulla Kharkar, the restaurant trades on the burgeoning fast-casual concept--reasonably quick, fairly nutritious, moderately priced meals served (unhappily but typically) on disposable dishware.
The menu is entirely vegan and vegetarian, with dishes incorporating dairy--which can often be omitted--indicated by a green dot. And although the influence is primarily Indian, the menu also references American comfort food. Take the BBQ jackfruit sandwich. Although the filling's texture more closely resembles canned artichokes than shredded meat, its flavor--aided by the barbecue sauce--admirably approximates the smokehouse favorite. Cheesy hash browns, gooey with mozzarella and fried just long enough for the grated potatoes to be crispy outside and soft within, could have tied my mother's for first place in a cooking contest. But don't confuse the "amazing Indian tomato omelette" with a diner special. The large, thin chickpea flour pancake folded over a few dabs of bland mozzarella is tasty enough but needs a more substantial filling or sauce to star as an entree.
Chickpea flour binds together much of the rest of the menu. Bowls of chaat combine masses of Indian snack foods, some made of chickpea flour, some of rice, with cooked garbanzo beans and mint and tamarind chutneys. (For more vegetable matter, albeit potato, we preferred the version featuring a broken samosa as its base.) The flour also adheres assorted ground vegetables into savory orbs for a pleasant facsimile of a meatball sub. And it glues together spicy shredded cabbage into a fabulous crackling fritter for the whimsically named "golden crunchy bird nest burger."
Other "burgers"--including a curried potato and a piquant green split pea--utilize the natural starch in tubers and legumes to form cohesive patties. All are smallish but inexpensive--any two for $5.49--and the
various chutneys, sauces, and garnishes nicely enhance each one. Consistently, though, I wished for an upgrade from their dry, tasteless, processed white buns, as well as for the the breads used for the subs, wraps, pizzas, and toast.
Equally unappealing, despite their cloaks of tempting sauces, were the dusty soy chunks used as a chicken substitute in bowls, pizzas, and wraps. Overwhelming its rosy sauce, our "butter 'chicken' pizza" presented a collage in white--chalky piles of processed soy glued onto a bleached pita by thick blobs of molten mozzarella. Better to choose a salad, which, while usually more indicative of what's on hand than the usual prescribed formula for fatoosh or Greek or kale, were always fresh and generous.
The salads, really, shone a light on where Veg-O-Rama's concept--or at least name--falls short. Where, I wondered, was the bountiful array of fresh vegetables? Yes, the menu features the vegetarian mainstays of dried legumes, seeds, and potatoes, but I would have appreciated varied vegetables--carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, string beans, roasted, sauteed, steamed--rather than soy chunks chopped into salads or tucked into wraps. Nonetheless, this small, friendly Ypsilanti storefront could clearly become a favorite of vegetarians and vegans needing a fast-food fix, and a place that we omnivores could also leave happy.
Remembering Domino's Pizza's beginnings on Cross Street, Kharkar hopes his restaurant succeeds well enough to replicate into a chain. And wouldn't that be a hoot if, with Veg-O-Rama, Ypsilanti birthed yet another mega fast-food dynasty?
533 W. Cross St.
Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sides and salads $2.99-$4.99; burgers and subs $4.99-$5.49; wraps, pizzas, bowls, and breakfasts $4.99-$6.49.
All dishes vegetarian; dairy items indicated.
[Originally published in August, 2018.]
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