Veggie Boy: Soma Cafe

My new favorite meal deal: Soma Cafe's veggie burger and strawberry-kiwi iced green tea.

Sometimes life is filled with happy coincidences.

Like when my bosses here at Phoenix New Times recently announced they were looking for someone to take over the vegetarian dining beat for Chow Bella after the illustrious Megan Irwin departed for greener pastures earlier this summer. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as I’d recently decided to ease back into a meat-free lifestyle in an attempt to lose weight and avoid dying from heart disease at a tragically young age.

That’s right, I said back into vegetarianism, as during my college days in the mid-90s I’d been a steadfast member of the PETA set. It started during my freshman year at Scottsdale Community College, where I eschewed burgers and steaks for both karmic and health reasons.

It wasn’t easy at first, as a dearth of vegetarian/vegan dining options in the Valley at the time (far fewer than the choices available today like Green or Fate) meant a lot of salads, French fries, and beans and rice. I also got taunted by my pals at the time (including getting called a “faggot vegetarian”), but the joke was on them, as I dropped 20 pounds within a year. By 1996, I was the slimmest I’d ever been, weighing a lean, mean 185 pounds.

Boy, I wish I’d stuck with those habits.

After three years, I fell off the vegetarian bandwagon. Hard. I started gorging myself on tacos, barbecue, ribeyes…you name it. Soon my diet became a dumping ground of junk food, greasy takeout, and drive-thru offerings. And I paid dearly for it, gaining back all the weight I'd lost tenfold. It got me to where I’m at today: facing a scale that reads 350-plus pounds and a pretty bleak future.

In June, I decided it was time to shake things up. I ditched soda completely (as well as any beverage containing high-fructose corn syrup), and put the smackdown on fast food and (gasp) alcohol. Restaurants like Pita Jungle and That's a Wrap have become my favored dining destinations, as I’m going vegetarian as much as possible, with a goal of being almost completely meatless by the end of the year (I’ll still enjoy the occasional steak or chicken breast).

I’m planning on bringing y’all along on my culinary quest for veg-friendly eats around the Valley, and tips and suggestions are more than welcome (so please don’t hesitate to fire off an e-mail to me at [email protected]). For instance, I’ve been looking for a good veggie burger as of late (as I’ve kinda grown tired of the ones offered by Pita Jungle), and a friend of mine recommended I check out either of Soma Café’s locations in Chandler and north Phoenix. It turned out to be a nice tip, as I dug what they had to offer.

Soma functions as juice bar/coffee house/health food joint, with a menu full of good-for-you dining selections (a portion of which are vegetarian-friendly). Although I’m hoping to come back around breakfast time for delectable-looking fruit and granola bowls or the banana-oat flaxseed pancakes, on my recent visit to the Soma near Tatum and Shea boulevards, I had my heart set on their veggie burger.

It was way better than the Morningstar Farms patties I used to choke down back in the day, made from a savory mix of ground-up black beans, tomatoes, yellow squash, onions, and spices like cilantro and basil. It tasted hand-made and not like some hockey puck straight from the freezer. I got my burger on a whole grain sesame seed roll, but it's also possible to substitute some homemade grilled flatbread if you'd like. There are bottles of mustard and ketchup available, but I skipped ‘em, as a pile of sliced romaine lettuce, Roma tomatoes, red onion, and avocado was included and provided plenty of flavor. Everything tasted fresh, and the cashier was also cool enough to give me a side of hummus for free, which I dipped my burger in.

I also went for the side dish of a heaping helping or four-grain wild rice mixed with scallions instead of baked French fries or a sunomono cucumber salad. It needed a little salt, but was otherwise good. (Sides like cottage cheese, fresh fruit, grilled vegetables, or sweet potato fries are also available, but for an additional charge). Another plus is the strawberry/kiwi-flavored iced green tea, which was phenomenal.

My companion (who’s a diehard veggie) also let me try his grilled vegetable flatbread sandwich, which is a combo of smoked red pepper, asparagus, zucchini, and eggplant. Topping the sammy is a mound of arugula lettuce, tomatoes, hummus, and non-fat mozzarella. It was damn delicious and makes me want to get a whole one for myself on my next visit.

Needless to say, I’ve got a long road ahead of me, but after noshing at Soma, I figured that maybe this whole vegetarian thing ain’t gonna be so bad after all.