A Vegan in Vegas: Thai Basil Salad, Beautiful Beets, and More

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Yesterday, my friends and I were walking up the Las Vegas strip in desiccating 115-degree heat. My skin felt deflated, dehydrated and stretched to my bones. I looked to my left and to my right and saw nothing but immense hotels and a huge sign for Outback steakhouse. A Google search informed me the city's Whole Foods was two miles off the strip, which might as well have been a light year in a place where it takes 20 minutes just to get out of your hotel's "compound." A picture of colorful, aqueous carrots, apples, celery, mangoes, and strawberries came into my tired and dried out mind, and I would have shed a tear, but I couldn't spare the water.

Huge shopping malls aren't my thing. Nor are theme parks. Vegas is the bastard child of both. It's incredibly easy to get lost in the plastic and kitsch, and the prospect of finding a significant stash of vegetables seems like a distant fantasy.

Don't get me wrong - I've found things to eat here, but nearly every stop has required much more negotiation than I'm accustomed to. For instance, my friend and I made our way across the casino floor of the Bellagio, where we're staying, in search of fresh fruit and oatmeal to start off our day. We did indeed find it, at a cafe at the far end of the compound (the word "hotel" just doesn't do it justice). But the oatmeal and berry bowls were pre-made, soaking in pools of cow's milk in the window of a pastry shelf. No biggie, I thought. I'll just ask them to cook up a fresh bowl without the milk.

Not possible, it turns out. The cafe gets its cooked oats from some other mysterious restaurant on the floor, and they deliver them already soaked in a milk bath. The lovely and resourceful woman at the counter did have granola, though, and offered to hand me a bowl of that with a glass of soy milk (which they have on hand for coffees). I could then buy a dish of berries separately. Sold. My deconstructed breakfast was actually quite good -- I was given a whole carton of berries, and the total cost was just over $13. But the long negotiation process is just something I'm not accustomed to and don't particularly enjoy.

I scored a yummy Thai basil salad ($13) at the hotel's namesake restaurant, Cafe Bellagio, for lunch. It consisted of cucumber noodles, carrots, peanuts, cabbage, rice noodles, and a sweet peanut dressing, and my server indulged me by asking the chef to throw on any extra vegetables he had. So what if there were black olives in my Thai salad? I've given up on being picky out here in the desert.

And for dinner, we went to the new Michael Mina and our table ordered the tasting menu. They offered a vegetarian tasting menu, but it wasn't vegan-friendly. The server worked with me to make some substitutions, however, and I ended up with a field green salad, a gorgeous beet salad (one of my table mates remarked on how elegant it looked next to the big clumsy-looking lobster pot pies they received for that course), Japanese rice, bok choy, coconut tofu and fried shiitake mushrooms (which looked more impressive than it tasted) and a trio of fruit sorbets for dessert.

Then my friend and her fiancee specifically chose P.F. Chang's at Planet Hollywood for a late lunch yesterday because they were sure the chain would offer some tasty vegan options for me. The thought was sweet, but in fact the restaurant doesn't; all its dishes are cooked in oyster sauce. So I ended up with a plate of steamed vegetables and nibbles of tofu. In fact, it was exactly what I needed, but I wouldn't exactly call it impressive vegan fare.

Vegans, if you are looking for good green food, do not make the Strip your next vacation destination. I hear there are some decent spots off the main drag, but they require a drive or a cab ride to access, and in my experience, the labyrinthine and congested casinos and walkways are more than enough of a challenge to navigate without venturing outside the bubble.

And I reckon you'll miss your vegetables while you're here. Personally, the dry heat, the frigid air conditioning, and the hours of dancing in crowded nightclubs all make me want to devour bushels of produce, and this desert town doesn't seem to truck enough in to go around.

If you get dragged in for a bachelor party or an impromptu road trip, I recommend bringing plenty of vegan convenience foods -- you will probably need them to scrape by if you're planning to stay vegan in Vegas.

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