The third installment of Adventures in Veganism, an exploration of vegan eating in NYC that Curt and I undertook in honor of Curt’s brother Timmy, who recently converted to veganism and visited New York.
John’s of 12th Street
302 East 12th Street, NYC 10003
When I was researching vegan restaurants or vegan menus, this restaurant popped up. I’d never been here, but I pass it all the time when I’m in the East Village, as it’s on my way to S’Mac, Veniero’s, or if I’m walking down to St. Mark’s Place from Union Square. Between 2nd and 3rd Avenue on 12th Street, I always chalked it up to one of those old Italian-American red sauce joints, of which there are a plethora in Little Italy (at least there used to be – the face of that neighborhood is constantly changing). I’m not opposed to Italian-American food – in fact, I love it, but it’s hard sometimes to go out for it, since I cook it a lot at home.
But when I found out that John’s of 12th offers a vegan menu, and it was actually well-reviewed on some vegan blogs, I was highly intrigued. Italian, especially Italian American food is not one food profile that I consider vegan friendly. I made marinara sauce for Timmy, when he came into town; and while that sauce is used for multiple dishes in the Italian American repertoire and also happens to be vegan, I didn’t know how they would compensate for the mozzarella, Parmesan, or ricotta that characterizes certain dishes like chicken or eggplant parmigiana, lasagna.
We ordered Vegan Stuffed Mushrooms to share – a little watery, and Curt remarked that it was odd to eat stuffed mushrooms without any cheese, since that’s what they’re usually loaded with. They tasted fine, but a little too breadcrumby. We also shared Vegan Garlic Bread. I don’t know what vegan butter is – Timmy said that he can’t tell the difference between vegan and regular butter. When Curt bit into it, he said it tasted almost seafoody. I said that maybe it was the flavors, the garlic and butter, that we almost always cook our mussels with. But there was something odd about it – I haven’t tried vegan butter on its own to determine whether or not that was the taste. Timmy got the eggplant parm, which was covered with daiya, an arrowroot and cassava based vegan cheese substitute. He was excited to eat Italian – as I said, it’s rarely something he can do as a vegan.
Curt and I ordered off the traditional menu, two Italian-American classics: chicken parm (for me) and lasagna (for him). I don’t know how the lasagna was, but judging by Curt’s empty dish, I think it was fine. The chicken parm was decent – marinara sauce maybe a little watery, and could have used more salt overall, but it was what I wanted from an old Italian American restaurant, something comforting and filling.
John’s of 12th Street has been in existence since 1908. I love an old New York story and restaurant – Keen’s Steakhouse with the pipes hanging from the ceiling, Elaine’s before it closed, Venieiro’s with the line for cheesecakes extending around the corner, every holiday. At John’s of 12th Street, we were seated by the kitchen, next to the mountain of melted candles that’s over 75 years old. I’m especially pleased when an old school haunt revitalizes itself without compromising its integrity. There are still the classics on the menu, but they’ve embraced the changing food tastes of the population, and filled a void in the vegan restaurant eating world for old-school Italian American cuisine. While I wouldn’t rush back as a non-vegan (the restaurant didn’t stand out to me from the other red sauce joints available around the city), I would certainly return if in the neighborhood and in the mood for any number of Italian-American classics (spaghetti and meatballs, sausage and peppers, etc.), and most definitely when in vegan company.