Vegetarian food is everywhere in Taipei, but western-style vegetarian fare (let alone gourmet quality) is a bit harder to come by. So we headed to Herban Kitchen & Bar (二本餐廳) for a meal and a chat with owner Marco Henry Lapka about vegetarianism, veganism, and the pros and cons of Taiwan’s meat-free dining scene.
Located on a quiet dead-end street in Taipei’s fashionable Daan District, Herban Kitchen & Bar is definitely not your typical Taiwan vegetarian restaurant. You’ll find no swastika marking the place as “Buddhist vegetarian” (and this, as we’d find out during our conversation, is not a bad thing) nor any trace of the slightly pretentious air found at some of Taipei’s other upscale vegetarian restaurants.
This lack of pretentiousness makes sense. Marco hails from the American Midwest, where putting on airs is frowned upon. As if that weren’t enough, he’s from Minnesota, the state that gave birth to the phrase “Minnesota Nice.”
The Flexitarian Philosophy
“I’m from a small town in Minnesota, and I’ve spent most of the past two decades in Taiwan. You could say I’ve been in Taiwan about half of my life.” The concept behind Herban Kitchen stems from a combination of the words “herb” and “urban,” and reflect a variety of combinations, including hard and soft, yin and yang, plants and city. “We try to create a comfortable urban oasis using repurposed items. Ultimately, our goal is to serve comfort food that’s tasty, filling and meat-free.”
Though Herban Kitchen is a vegetarian restaurant in the “no animals were killed in the making of this meal” sense, the restaurant is far from vegan. While vegan means no animal products whatsoever (not even honey, which is merely the sweat stolen from the toiling of bees), Herban serves milk, eggs, and cheese in carefully-selected variety and abundance. That said, strict vegans will find plenty to love about Herban Kitchen. For what it’s worth, Marco calls himself neither vegan nor vegetarian.
“I’m more of a reducetarian/flexitarian. I may eat meat a few times a month. I stopped drinking milk over 10 years ago, but I may have some ice cream, cheese, or butter now and then.” Marco says he doesn’t see vegetarianism as all or nothing prospect, but rather more of a spectrum. “You can choose to eat as much/little meat or vegetables as you want. It’s up to you. At Herban, we serve both vegan and vegetarian.”
Compared to most other places on the planet (except maybe India), Taiwan has a large vegetarian population. According to Marco, anywhere between 10-15% of Taiwanese consider themselves vegetarian, with an even larger portion of the population abstaining from meat regularly on various days throughout the year for religious purposes. But while this gives vegetarians an abundance of options from which to choose, according to Marco, those looking for an abundance of flavors may find something lacking. As far as nutrition goes, Buddhist vegetarian places tend to utilize a fair bit of mock meat, which is often highly processed soy and gluten.
Great Western Vegetarian Cuisine
Herban, by contrast, avoids processed foods. And vegetarian though it may be, Herban Kitchen’s menu is distinctly western. Brunches are served until 5 pm daily using organic eggs, homestyle potatoes, and artery-clogging but oh-so-delicious Hollandaise sauce. The rest of the menu offers a variety ranging from tasty and super-healthy (salads and other raw food dishes) to super-tasty but still healthy (pasta, tempeh burgers, and risottos) to super amazingly tasty and hey, you only live once (a sandwich called Super Cheesy containing three types of cheese, garlic aioli and whole wheat bread).
Herban also has enough gluten-free options (including a gnocchi made with wheat-free sweet potato starch flour) to be considered a good option for visitors looking for wheat-free dining options in a city not always kind diners with wheat allergies.
Marco recommended Herban’s signature dish, the baked Moussaka (焗烤穆薩卡), a Greek dish made with layered potato, eggplant, zucchini, tomato, onion, garlic and shallots topped with Bechamel cream sauce and cheese. As we ate the Moussaka, Marco told us about his relaxed “buy local when possible” philosophy.
“We work with various suppliers, and try to source as much local and seasonal ingredients as we can, including nearly all of our vegetables and spices, as well as the grains and flours we use for baking. The one real exception is with our dairy products. Milk and cheese are all imported, as we’re still not confident with the local dairy industry insofar as additives and material quality are concerned. So for our own peace of mind, we go with imported items when it comes to dairy.”
Other Vegetarian Restaurants Worth Visiting in Taipei
Naturally, Marco considers Herban Kitchen the best vegetarian restaurant in Taipei (and after eating his Moussaka, we tend to agree). But even the most successful restaurant owner needs to eat elsewhere every now and again.
“For non-western vegetarian restaurants, there are two places I really like. One of these is a fancy Cantonese-style dim sum place in the Zhongshan District called “Yang Shin Vegetarian Restaurant”. It’s totally vegetarian, which is kind of unusual for a dim-sum place. Another place I like in the same neighborhood is a veggie sashimi/sushi joint where the dishes go around on a little track. Great food, also completely delicious. Of course, I love some of the mom & pop noodle shops that are all over Taipei, and really all over Taiwan. It’s not hard to eat vegetarian food anywhere in Taiwan.”
As the desert (to-die-for tiramisu) came around, Marco discussed further his relaxed philosophy for folks not quite ready to take the leap into full-time vegetarianism but still looking to change their dietary habits in ways that might be a tad healthier and environmentally friendly.
“In the past vegetarianism had sort of a hippie reputation, but this is changing. I don’t think everyone needs to stop eating meat, but it would be a good idea if people could reduce their consumption of animal products. So yeah, my advice is to start with one good meat-free meal a day. If that works for you, then try going one day a week without eating meat. See how you feel after that. For me, I’ve discovered the less meat I eat, the less meat I want to eat.”
Herban Kitchen & Bar 27, Ln. 101, Sec. 4, E. Rd., Daan Dist.
This article is reproduced under the permission of TAIPEI. Original content can be found at the website of Taipei Travel Net.