By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
My first visit to WaterCourse Foods was on a bet. It was a bet with myself -- a wager between my better and worse natures that revolved around my good self's belief that every restaurant, no matter its kink, offers something tasty to those willing to really look, and my bad self's contention that the very notion of vegetarianism trumped any such happy optimism. The stakes were a big plate of barbecue, loser buys. Which was perfect, because no matter which half of me won, I would be getting barbecue.
837 E. 17th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218
Region: Central Denver
BBQ tofu: $9.50
Tempeh tacos: $8.75
Tempeh burger: $8.75
Seitan Philly: $7.95
The Sid: $8.25< br>Penne pesto: $8.25
Amsterdam hash: $7.50
Stepping inside WaterCourse, which has occupied its storefront space in the middle of a highly eclectic block of 13th Avenue since 1998, I quickly pegged it as the better version of the two kinds of vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic restaurants that seem to exist outside the realm of the ethno-specific Indian and Middle Eastern veggie joints. Not one of those sleek, polished and highly aerodynamic boîtes -- rare outside of Manhattan and California -- that cater to sleek, polished and wealthy health nuts who stop in between yoga classes for a shot of wheat-grass juice and a $34 plate of mangled tofu in celery sauce, but rather the rough-around-the-edges Bohemian version with the mismatched silverware and secondhand tables. In these places, the art on the walls is generally pleasingly abstract (though it occasionally constitutes disturbing collections of feminist vaginal self-portraiture), the music tolerable as long as the counterman isn't on some kind of jam-band kick, and the crowd an exercise in demographic free association: hippies and yuppies and neighbors and hemp-sandaled digestive activists with the sickly pallor of those who haven't even smelled a steak in years, let alone eaten one, all jammed together in lovely John-and-Yoko tranquility. You can always tell when you've found one of the latter sort of vegetarian restaurants, because right inside the door, there will be some kind of community message board offering holistic car repair, chakra realignment, cheap massages and cash rewards for the return of lost pets. As Alan Richman -- a fellow food writer and unabashed carnivore like me -- once wisely observed, vegetarians seem to lose more than their share of cats. I think this is because even cats can't stand being around most vegetarians for too long.
On my first visit to WaterCourse, I had a cup of coffee, a glass of apple juice and a tempeh burger because the menu, rather ostentatiously, claimed it was the "best damn veggie burger anywhere." Calling anything the "best veggie burger" is a lot like saying you have the "best damn fish sandwich with no fish in it" or "the best damn snail-less escargot," but that aside, I got a very good meatless patty of vegetable matter, served with grilled onions and sautéed mushrooms on a solid grilled bun. It wasn't a burger, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was tasty, cooked to what I can only assume was a perfect mid-rare for fermented soybean paste -- which is to say, brown.
My better half won that bet. I, a dedicated meat-eater with an inordinate fear of tofu and patchouli perfume, had gone into a vegetarian restaurant -- stormed the gates of the broccoli temple, as it were -- and right off the bat, found something to my liking. I hadn't been converted, but I had been well-fed, and in celebration, the devil on my shoulder bought the barbecue. That was two years ago.
My second, third, fifth and all subsequent visits to WaterCourse have been entirely voluntary. I simply like this spot, which chef/owner Dan Landes (who's not a vegetarian) started because he thought Denver needed a good vegetarian restaurant, and if there was going to be one, it might as well be his. I sometimes go just for coffee at the bar because I like the neighborhood, because sitting there makes me feel like an anthropologist on Venus cataloguing the habits of strange, alien creatures who -- in their dependence on vegetable proteins, legumes and celery used as something other than part of the mirepoix in a good veal-bone stock -- are barely recognizable as coming from my own meat-centric universe. Also, I like to keep an eye on the kind of people who frequent WaterCourse, because I've never shaken the nagging suspicion that they're plotting something when I'm not looking. Like replacing all the butter in the world with non-hydrogenated soy margarine -- which is what the kitchen at WaterCourse actually uses, to sometimes frighteningly good effect, as in a dinner special of roasted butternut squash vegan alfredo with zucchini and tomatoes.
I go when I'm suffering from occasional bouts of critical ague -- what the French call a crise de foie, literally translated as "liver trouble," a peculiarly Froggish malady that strikes those who've overindulged in real butter, snails and beaujolais too many nights running. WaterCourse is the perfect cure for this, because I can eat an entire meal here and still feel as though I haven't ingested any actual food.
And sometimes I just go for pancakes. Vegetarian restaurants -- and now I'm talking about the Bohemian joints again, because the chrome-and-lacquer addresses would never deign to serve anything so pedestrian as breakfast -- seem to do pancakes unerringly well, and WaterCourse is no exception. Maybe that's because pancakes are one of the few foods on earth not improved by a demiglace or the inclusion of pork.