Beating the Meat: Veggie Sandwiches at Taps and Oregano's

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Though I may have some carnivorous tendencies (mmm...carne asada), occasionally I get an urge to get closer to Mother Nature via some fresh vegetables. When a salad just won't do and a veggie burger seems too processed, there's always the classic vegetarian sandwich -- or as I like to call it, the Plantwich.

I tracked down two restaurants boasting delicious sounding eggplant and vegetable sandwiches on their menus. Read on to find out which one had me pondering a veghead lifestyle and which one left me mourning the lack of meat.

In One Corner: Taps Signature Cuisine & Bar 
76 N. Old Litchfield Rd. in Litchfield Park

Tucked in a small stucco strip mall just blocks from Litchfield Park's luxurious Wigwam Resort, Taps is an off-the-beaten-path hideaway. The massive metal and glass front doors made my friend and I feel like extras in Honey I Shrunk the Kids as we struggled to open them, but once inside we felt right at home. Taps is a combo wine and beer pub, with faux brick walls, sleek wine racks and lots of counter-height metal tables.

The restaurant offers quite a few vegetarian-friendly selections including the tasty sounding Napa Roasted Veggie sandwich with marinated and slow-roasted eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers/onions, feta and 5 cheese blend with garlic aioli. Yum! We were salivating just reading the description. Our sandwich arrived warm, but a little puny-looking, with 80% crusty bread and 20% bland looking brownish lumpy filling.

Uh-oh. Red flag.

You know when a movie trailer looks amazing and action-packed and you're so excited to see it and then it gets here and you go on opening night and it's a pile of steaming...well, you get the picture. Yeah, eating this sandwich after reading the menu description was kind of like that.

"It tastes really bland," my vegetarian friend said as she reluctantly munched on the sandwich. "And it's all eggplant. Where are all of the beautiful colored vegetables that were supposed to be in here?"

She had a point. The brown mush sandwiched in-between the thick baguette had recognizable chunks of eggplant and possibly mushroom, but I couldn't taste the peppers, or even the pungent feta that was supposed to be in there alongside the tasteless stringy cheese blend. The baguette was okay, but could've used a little seasoning and grilling.

All of the veggies had been cooked until colorless and mushy, and there definitely wasn't enough aioli to mask the taste. Our other dishes were good, and the service was excellent -- but buyer beware, this Plantwich might drive even a die-hard vegetarian to start eating meat again.

In the Other Corner: Oregano's Pizza Bistro
523 W. University Dr. in Tempe

After the dreadful sandwich we had at Taps, my vegetarian friend backed out of a second Plantwich trek. So I headed out with a fellow omnivore in tow. He wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea of eating a plant sandwich, but agreed to go to Oregano's as long as he could order a pizza too.

If you haven't been to Oregano's before, it's pretty awesome. They've got a quaint, neighborhood bistro feel, with several quirky buildings and a giant misted patio in-between. Inside, you'll find large vinyl booths, a nice bar overlooking the kitchen and vintage signs and rustic (and rusty!) food-related memorabilia overhead. Their eggplant sandwich, called the Veggie Wedgie, sounded delicious, what with the spinach, roma tomatoes, provolone, portabellas and goat cheese. But this time I wasn't getting my hopes up.

Our sandwich arrived in short order, served on thick foccacia bread with sweet potato fries (bonus!) and a spicy aioli dipping sauce. My dining companion and I gathered our wits and each took a bite, already wincing at the anticipated paste taste. Ok, so the consistency of the filling was a little like paste. But the taste was surprisingly pleasant.

"I'm not repulsed!" announced my dining companion. "It's pasty, but the bread is really crunchy and tasty." Coming from him, that was a huge compliment.

The foccacia bread was indeed delicious, with a crunchy toasted texture and hints of herbs and cheese. I could taste the rich earthy flavor of the mushrooms and the pungent zing of feta against a backdrop of slightly bitter spinach and musky eggplant. The eggplant was cut into thin strips, breaded and sauteed until crisp, which was a welcome departure from the standard mush. Fresh lettuce strips and tomato, together with the tangy aioli dipping sauce, gave the sandwich a bright flavor.

The Winner: Oregano's Pizza Bistro. Maybe it was just my lowered expectations, but their Plantwich was decent enough to warrant a second try. Especially if we can get a side of meat lover's pizza with it.

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