When I ordered a cup of “natural veggie chili” at Good to Go Organics the other day, the friendly, aim-to-please counterman told me I would never guess it was vegetarian. “Customers are always asking me if I gave them the beef chili by accident,” he said. “It tastes so meaty.”
But that wasn’t the first thing that occurred to me. After a spoonful, I decided that someone had gone crazy with the vinegar. The sourness traveled all the way down. Then I guessed that most of the solid bits floating in the chili were textured vegetable protein, the standard meat substitute, and wondered why a good cook would use something that has no flavor. Then I wondered why the chili didn’t have more beans, the ingredient that can make chili thick and unctuous.
Then I began to wonder what was being served at places down the street instead of at Good to Go.
Good to Go is a take-out shop with a few tables in a building shared with LIM College (Laboratory Institute of Merchandising), on East 45th Street between Second and Third Avenues. Part of a three-resto mini chain, which started as a few hot-dog carts in Central Park, it carries Applegate Organic and Natural Meats products. These can also be found in D’Agostino grocery stores in Manhattan. Good to Go still sells hot dogs, which may turn out to be your best bet when dining here.
“We serve all-natural all-American food,” Good to Go brags on its Web site. “Our food is made with simple ingredients that you can feel good about. All the great taste, without the junk.”
Maybe the “all-American” bit refers to the “natural meats” hot dogs. And aren’t we all in favor of healthy food these days? Both animals and vegetarians should be treated with respect. We should give all creatures, human and otherwise, enough room to roam freely and food that is free of hormones and antibiotics.
But the point of natural or vegetarian food is not that it should taste “vegetarian” or “natural,” but that it should taste good while being good for both you and the cosmos. If you’re preparing vegetarian chili, it is not your goal to make it taste like meat. For any restaurant, there are even bigger obligations. The food should make up a good meal and be a good value. And these are some of my issues when I eat at Good to Go.
Let’s consider its “roasted turkey and pesto” wrap, made with natural turkey and organic baby spinach leaves and tomato bits. True, the turkey and spinach do have a tad more flavor than the usual sandwich fodder. But the most striking thing about this wrap is its lightness, which may not be a good thing. It has less turkey than you would expect on a New York sandwich, and the way it is sliced, from a rolled turkey breast, means it bears no resemblance to an actual roasted bird.
“The wraps are 11 inches,” the counterman told me. This one was just six and a half; I brought home the wrapper and checked it against a ruler. Turns out 11 inches refers to the diameter of the wrap before it is stuffed and rolled. But for $8.89, a finished wrap should be thicker in the middle, right?
I do understand that organic and natural labels come at a price. I just don’t want to go home hungry.
The hummus wrap, at $7.89, got me no closer to satiation. When I unwrapped it, I saw just a few dashes of a bright orange substance that the counterman insisted was hummus, even though chickpeas, the inexpensive main ingredient in hummus, are khaki colored. A Caesar salad, at $5.89, was also less than generous, and the dressing was quite ordinary — no lively garlic, fresh Parmesan or anchovy bite. Though much of the packaging is “green” at Good to Go, the salads are served in a polystyrene shell.
A vegetarian minestrone soup ($4.69 for an 8-ounce cup), however, was nicely seasoned and stocked with vegetables. The chicken tenders were baked rather than deep-fried, and the hot dogs and other sausages were delicious and came with first-rate condiments like organic sauerkraut and chopped fresh onion.
But they really could improve on that vegetarian chili. For those who prefer to brown-bag, here’s my own recipe:
Irwin’s Vegetarian Chili
1 cup dried kidney beans
1 cup dried black beans
1/2 cup bulgur wheat
1 medium onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive or other vegetable oil
1 tablespoon paprika, smoked or ordinary
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 large (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (available in cans), finely minced
Sour cream or plain yogurt (for garnish)
Fresh coriander (for garnish)
1. Soak both kinds of beans for six hours or overnight in a bowl with plenty of lightly salted water in it.
2. Drain, throwing away the water, and put the beans in a saucepan in plenty of lightly salted water to cover. Simmer for an hour or until just tender. Drain and set aside.
3. While the beans are cooking, put the bulgur in a bowl and pour a cup of boiling water over it. Stir to mix and let it sit until the bulgur has swelled up and softened, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
4. Sauté the onion and red pepper in the cooking oil in a stew or soup pot until soft. Add the garlic, paprika, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper and stir around in the pot for a few minutes to bring out their flavor.
5. Add the tomatoes, beans, chipotle pepper and bulgur and stir for a few more minutes. Throw a cup of water into the pot to thin the mix a bit. Cover and simmer for another half hour to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the beans and tomato are beginning to disintegrate. Add more water if the chili is too thick for your taste.
6. Serve in bowls, garnishing each on top with a spoonful of sour cream or plain yogurt and sprigs of fresh coriander.
Good To Go is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. It is located at 216 E. 45th Street between Second and Third Avenues; (646) 438-9622.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.