Epic eats of Tampa Bay Veg Fest

What I sampled, and observed, at Tampa's fifth annual veg-friendly food festival.

click to enlarge Vida de Cafe's vegan tacos, with "cheese" and "meat." - Ryan Ballogg
Ryan Ballogg
Vida de Cafe's vegan tacos, with "cheese" and "meat."


Saturday’s fifth annual Tampa Bay Veg Fest offered a dish for every palate.

It gave vegetarians and vegans a taste of what the Bay area has to offer, as well as toothsome incentives for skeptics to have a whirl at the meat-free lifestyle.

The festival, held yearly at Tampa’s Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park on the Hillsborough River, was split into two areas.

On one side, dozens of exhibitors promoted veganism, animal adoption and various political campaigns; sold a mix of animal-friendly, natural and health-conscious wares; and gave out samples of their products.

Walking by the animal cruelty exhibits made the grub, located on the other side, all the more meaningful by the time I got there.

The bounty of food booths and trucks formed a ring around a tented pavilion full of tables where people could enjoy their spoils.

On top of free admission, low food prices meant we could try something from every booth for around $25. The fare was more diverse than I expected, with a total of five foreign cuisines represented.

I was thirsty when I arrived at the park, so my first stop was the Tampa’s Kaleisia Tea Lounge tent.

The iced tea blends sounded so delicious that I ordered two of them for $3 each, sharing with a friend. The Fruit Fusion had an explosive fruit-punch flavor, but the real treat was the Thai Tea, which tasted of rich spices and was blended with almond milk.

When I got to the food booths, I jumped in the shortest line at the command of my grumbling stomach.

It happened to be occupied by Gulfport’s Mangia Gourmet, a hippy-dippy restaurant that offers vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. I went with an $8 white bean veggie burger on gluten-free bread alongside an 8-ounce helping of three-bean chili for an extra $3.

The burger had a nice smoky flavor that balanced with the veganaise’s creaminess, plus lettuce, tomato and onion. I think I would’ve enjoyed it more with some plain old gluten-y wheat bread, but the hearty burger made up for the bread’s thinness. The chili was mild and sweet. I would’ve gladly eaten more.

Next I tried what had to be my favorite dish of the day — the vegan tacos from Vida de Cafe.

The St. Pete Beach cafe used a dark green piece of romaine lettuce as a shell, filling it with cilantro-cashew “cheese” and “meat,” made of diced almonds and walnuts. One taste gave me visions of living out the rest of my days as a raw vegan hermit in a deep forest.

I really wanted to try the food from Tampa’s Ethiopian restaurant Queen of Sheba, as the smells emanating from the tent were heavenly. The cooks had about 10 trays of different vegetables out; $8 let you pick whichever six you wanted.

Alas, by the time I got in line, almost everything was gone and somebody was making a run back to the restaurant to get more. It seemed like most of the vendors underestimated how much they would sell, hopefully a sign that there are more veg-inclined eaters around every year.

Instead, I hopped a few lines over to Lotus, an all-vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant in Pinellas Park. I ordered two spring rolls for $3, and some sweet and sour tofu for $2. Sweet and sour chicken was one of the only things I thought I missed about eating meat, but it turns out it was just the sauce. The crispy tofu was just as tasty.

My final stop was Miss Vi’s Cook-up, a Tampa-based Caribbean catering service with a long list of traditional meals and desserts. I ordered the Oil Down, a traditional tropical dish stocked with a whole parade of roots stewed in coconut milk.

Breadfruit, green bananas, dumplings, callaloo, yam and cassava were their names, though I couldn’t tell them all apart in their tray. The vendor warned me with a laugh that the meal would put me to sleep, and indeed, it had the inebriating impact of several Thanksgiving dinners.

My friend convinced me to try the ginger beer (not to be confused with ale) and a coconut sugar cake. I shudder at the thought of how many grams of sugar I let run amok in my bloodstream, but the syrupy, spicy drink and crumbly cake were worth it.

After sampling food and drink from five of about 15 vendors, I was full and my wallet was empty.

The “veg” in Veg Fest stands for vegetarian and vegan, but from what I could tell it was a mostly vegan affair. Even booths with vegetarian and vegan dishes got the evil eye from many a’passing purist.

As a vegetarian of three years, the festival made it seem not so hard to go vegan after all, if you don’t mind getting creative at home and doing your research to find the best restaurants.

The festgoers were an amusing mix of punks, hippies, foodies, straight-up food snobs and regular citizenry that made Veg Fest a people-watching spectacle in its own right. It seemed they even enjoyed each other’s company around the communal tables under the tent.

I guess everybody likes good food.

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