When I went "downashore" to explore vegan dining possibilities, I expected to find juice bars, sorbet shops, candy stores - places with a single, plant-based alternative.
They were there, but I also found many businesses getting truly serious about multiple animal-free options. The old standard of a lone veggie burger on the menu, or the option to "veganize" items by leaving out the meat or cheese doesn't cut it in 2016.
My intrepid guide and copilot for the day was Anne Dinshah, a vegan-cuisine consultant who works with food retailers. She's also vice president of the American Vegan Society, headquartered in South Jersey.
Trekking from Cape May to Atlantic City, Anne and I found many of the family-owned businesses we visited were gradually being transformed not just by the growing demand among vegan customers but because a new, vegan-friendly generation of family members is taking their plant-based expertise behind the counter. And that means more fun choices for everybody.
Ventnor's Greens and Grains, highlighted by the Vegetarian Society of South Jersey, is the one full-fledged, all-vegan restaurant along this stretch of Shore. The company launched a year ago and already has three locations (also in Galloway and Northfield).
Its Chick'n Sandwich with vegan mayo was very good, one of an eclectic mix of items that included Vegan Chili, Grilled Cheez & Tomato Panini, a meatball parm pita, bagels with vegan cream cheese and other toppings, a veggie-burger wrap, a coconut curry rice/quinoa bowl and a whole line of smoothies and juices.
Owner Nicole Jacoby is cooking up more expansion plans, including some closer to Philly. "Bottom line, this is the wave of the future," she said.
Many nonvegan Shore restaurants seem to agree, as more are catering to the plant-based palate, especially in the Spanish/Mexican/Tex-Mex realm.
Out in front, Atlantic City's Los Amigos (609-344-2293) does vegan tasting dinners with exotic delights such as jackfruit crab cakes and smoked-eggplant tostadas on plantain tortillas. The everyday menu includes mushroom tacos with avocado, ancho-marinated seitan tacos, portobello fajitas, and a tamale al pastor featuring seitan marinated in pineapple.
The bar/restaurant's vegan footprint has grown under the direction of corporate chef Curt Taylor Jr. (son of owner Curt Sr.), who oversees this location as well as one in Berlin, N.J., where chef Mark Simone is vegan, as is Taylor.
At the tasting dinners, "people really enjoyed the stuff," Taylor told me. "First one had 15 people show up - the second one it was more like 50." (The next one is scheduled for July 27.)
In Wildwood Crest, the Wild Burrito (609-523-9453) specializes in avocado fries with a vegan ranch dipping sauce. But don't miss menu pillars such as vegan nachos, vegan quesadillas, Buffalo seitan, al pastor tacos, breakfast burritos and vegan brownies. (Wild Burrito also has a location in South Philly.)
Often at the Shore, though, we all just want to grab a slice of pizza - and, boy, are vegans in luck! Uncle Oogies in Sea Isle not only offers Daiya-cheese pizzas but sources toppings like tempeh bacon and mushroom scrapple from Philly's Vegan Commissary.
Lou Cerone of Oogies is another insider who quit meat and saw the chance to claim Sea Isle for vegan finger food, such as "boneless" vegan buffalo wings in three varieties. Watch for his vegan-chicken-spinach-walnut-raisin pizza to debut soon. Oogies' two locations in South Philly plan to add vegan options this summer.
Up at the north end of Atlantic City, Tony Boloney's is also getting creative about vegan pizzas, starting with basics such as Daiya mozzarella and branching out into pizza with kale and roasted garlic; pizza and subs with truffle-roasted Brussels sprouts; roasted cauliflower and smoked-tofu options on several pies, and creative salads. With its overstuffed menu and no-nonsense vibe, this offbeat place tries to provide for just about every taste.
Ocean City has Mario's Pizza (609-398-0490), with its "vegan pizzas" sign in the window, and down in Cape May you can find vegan pizzas at The Mad Batter.
In fact, should you wind up partying the night away at the Shore, you could start the morning after at the Mad Batter with either the tofu scrambler or the BLT breakfast sandwich - or both! There's also almond milk for your cereal, explained Mad Batter bartender Kyle Kulkowitz, a longtime vegan. He said that plant-based entrées was "something the chef likes to do," evident in offerings such as the white-bean ravioli, the black-bean wrap, and the spicy sesame-ginger stir fry with tofu.
Cape May's macrobiotic Good Earth Organic Eatery has many organic plant-based offerings - from homemade almond milk to spaghetti in vegan seitan ragu, apple crisp with a side of vegan gelato to dark chocolate almond pudding. A pioneer in organic foods in South Jersey, Good Earth brings creative fun to what co-owner Contrano Rosettani calls "clean healthy food made special."
If you're making a beeline for vegan-friendly Cape May, note that the all-vegan Wildflower Cafe is right on your way, in Millville. Wildflower hosts special dinners and events such as VegStock at the end of summer.
And don't forget classic, old-school "crunchy-granola" venues such as Stone Harbor's Green Cuisine. This locally-focused, gluten-free-friendly non-veg restaurant offers an eggless egg salad sandwich that I enjoyed, and Anne gave thumbs-up to the Bistro Burger.
Fun in the sun, of course, calls for cool frozen treats, and it's no surprise that those are also trending vegan, as U.S. cow's milk consumption continues to dive.
I noticed that smoothie/juice bars where one used to expect only creamy dairy options are now using almond, coconut, and cashew milk, too. Aloha Smoothie, which we saw in Wildwood, is one example, and note that Aloha's Cape May location (609-600-2514) has not only the requisite Acai bowls and refreshing vegan frozen drinks but also wraps (such as this week's spicy chickpea wrap), three kinds of hummus, and rotating salads, such as strawberry quinoa.
One of the most venerable ice cream shops in South Jersey is Cool Scoops in Wildwood, whose 1950s-themed decor takes you back to a simpler time before this ultracool spot started offering vegan soy ice cream.
Owner Paul Russo says that soy vanilla, always available, can be used in cones, sundaes, and even milkshakes (with plant-based Silk). Vegan chocolate and wild berry ice creams will be added to the menu soon for the summer. Russo said he strives to accommodate all dietary preferences and allergies: "Every person should enjoy ice cream on vacation!"
In Margate, Two Cents Plain has a separate vegan menu (most items are banana-whip-based) right on the front counter. Yes!
So make your beach time seriously special: Take some time off from the meat grinder and chill out vegan-style at your favorite Shore spot.