A Vegetarian in a Beef State: My Trip to South Dakota

“We’re a beef state.”

This refrain followed me through my recent week in South Dakota. My first visit to this Midwestern state included interesting and friendly people, a landscape of open prairie, the longest parade of John Deere tractors I’ve ever seen, a couple of excellent meals and a near overdose on iceberg lettuce.

Much of my time was spent in Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest town and this year’s host of Travel Media Showcase. When I managed to venture away from the group meals, I found two restaurants that were just as good as we have in the vegan paradise of Portland.

Sanaa’s

Sanaa’s has got to be one of the wonders of Sioux Falls. Nine years ago, Sanaa Abourezk opened her restaurant. The Syrian native originally came to the US to attend engineering school. But she fell in love with both cooking and a man from South Dakota, and wound up putting down roots in Sioux Falls. Now she’s a vital part of the community.

When I asked her where the local vegetarians are, she said, “Mostly they come here.”

When she started out, the menu was about 50/50 meat to vegetarian. “People said you’re crazy, this is South Dakota, no way you’re going to make it without burgers and fries.”

Now her menu is two-thirds vegetarian – most of this vegan – and one-third meat. Even the meat eaters frequently order veg meals.

Sanaa Abourezk in her gourmet Mediterranean cafe

For a main dish, try the vegetarian kibbeh, patties made of bulgur and potato and stuffed with onion and soy protein. The mjadara is a lentil and bulgur wheat pilaf topped with caramelized onions. Better yet, get the mezza sampler so you can try more of Sanaa’s dishes. The green olive tapenade and the muhammarah, a spread made of red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate, are standouts.

Sanaa is only open for lunch, with the exception of a Friday night buffet. She has a variety of fatayer, similar to calzones, made up in a case and ready to take with you. When I lunched there, I got a falafel fatayer to take with me for dinner and a pastry made with walnuts for breakfast the next day. When you find amazing vegetarian food in southeastern South Dakota, you don’t want to fool around. Stocking up is key!

I also bought a fine cookbook, The Secrets of Healthy Mediterranean Cuisine. In addition to running her restaurant, Sanaa has written three cookbooks, with a fourth on the way. She also teaches cooking classes. Vegetarians absolutely must stop in at Sanaa’s while visiting Sioux Falls.

Shahi Palace

This Indian restaurant is in a strip mall out by the Empire Mall. While it’s pretty plain inside and out, there are a couple of nice outdoor tables. And the food more than makes up for the bland surroundings.

Vegetarians suffering from PTILS – that’s post-traumatic iceberg lettuce syndrome – will be thrilled to open up their menus and see an entire page of veg offerings. There’s even a special vegetarian meal for two.

I started with samosas. They were especially good and extra-large. They seemed better spiced than the average samosa. I’m guessing extra mustard seed.

I ordered the chana palak, extra spicy. The waiter quizzed me to make sure I really wanted it spicy. I finally convinced him, and he delivered the goods. I wasn’t sure if the Midwest had enough hot peppers for me, but he proved they did. The chick peas and spinach were mashed together into a delicious semi-puree.

Chana palak at Shahi Palace in Sioux Falls

My friend who joined me ate a non-veg dish, and she said that was good, too. Our total bill for two entrees, naan, iced tea, raita and samosas was less than $40. I ate a lot, and still had half my chana palak and one samosa to take back to my hotel refrigerator.

Shahi Palace offers a lunch buffet that changes every day. If you look on their website, you’ll see the day’s buffet menu.

Other Restaurants

I didn’t have time to visit any more restaurants, but I got some suggestions. Sanaa, whose husband and daughter are both vegetarian, recommended the vegetable rolls and vegetable tempura at Sushi Masa. She said they also like to eat at the Italian restaurant Spezia.

A woman who works at the YWCA recommended Mixed for wraps, calling it “a fancier Subway.”

Lalibela has the word “vegetarian” prominently featured in their advertisements, which is a very good sign. I wanted to try this Ethiopian restaurant, but they were closed Monday, the only day I could go. A lot of Sioux Falls restaurants seemed to be closed on Mondays.

Groceries

Good news. Sioux Falls has a natural foods co-op, and it’s open every day. If you have the time, transportation and a refrigerator where you’re staying, this could come in very handy. People won’t look at you funny here if you say you’re vegan.

When I was exploring the neighborhood around the Cathedral, I stumbled across the Global Foods Grocery at 1002 W 6th Street. The name is accurate. In this small market you’ll find Indian relishes, sambar mix, dal, lentils, tubs of spices like coriander, curry and fenugreek, spring roll wrappers, couscous, jars of baba ganouj and rounds of East African hombasha bread as big as large pizzas.

Said Yusuf, proprietor of Global Foods Grocery in Sioux Falls

Proprietor Said Yusuf, who hails from Somalia, said most of his customers are immigrants. People in the neighborhood come from Sudan, Somalia, the Middle East, Pakistan, India and Nepal, among other places. Yusuf has been adding more Bosnian and Russian food to fill that demand. It was a friendly little store. Yusuf even shared his snack of fresh dates with me.

A Side Order of Tomatoes

Outside of Sioux Falls, things can get a little dicey for vegetarians. I found the people of South Dakota very accommodating. They wanted to cook me something, they just didn’t quite understand what I ate.

One night in De Smet, population 1200, I went to dinner at the country club with a bunch of travel writers and the town dignitaries. I quietly asked the server to put together a salad of all the vegetables they had. I got my second mountain of iceberg lettuce of the day, this one topped by a few cucumber slices and two cherry tomatoes. When I tried to spear my first tomato I managed to fork the edge and flip it across the room like a tiddly wink. Instead of embarrassment over my misuse of cutlery, my main feeling was despair at losing half my day’s ration of vitamin C. Scurvy was imminent! But when I recovered my wits, it occurred to me to request a side order of cherry tomatoes. I don’t think I’d ever before ordered this.

Reading Sanaa’s cookbook, I came across a story where she’s talking to a local and trying to understand the Midwestern attitude toward salads. Why this paltry salad of iceberg lettuce, she asks the local, who answers that Midwesterners don’t want to fill up on salad, but prefer to save room for the good stuff.

The moral of the story is, if you think non-meat is the good stuff, you’d best prepare. I was very happy that I’d brought nuts and granola bars, and hoarded apples and oranges in my room. If possible, stay somewhere with a fridge.

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