Vegetarian on a Cross-Country Road Trip
August 6, 2023 10:50 AM   Subscribe

In a few weeks, I'll be embarking on a trip across the US to help my mother move. Much of my anxiety about the trip is focused around food and I am seeking general vegetarian road trip food advice as well as specific restaurant suggestions along our route (planned overnights are: Cleveland -> Madison -> Jamestown, ND -> Billings, MT -> Spokane, WA).

No one in my family wins prizes for neurotypicality and thus, growing up, McDonald's was the only place we stopped on road trips (plus they're ubiquitous, the bathrooms are clean and they sell almost decent tea). However, McDonald's has slim pickings if you're a vegetarian, which I am. (15 years ago, you could order a salad without chicken; I haven't checked yet if this is still possible. I have found the "McPlant" locator.)

Additionally, while stopping in a random supermarket and finding lunch is certainly doable, I find it surprisingly stressful.

The actual questions:
  • do you have specific restaurant recommendations in any of the listed cities with menus we could review online? (or anywhere that's roughly halfway between them -- we have Chicago and Minneapolis covered)
  • do you have any suggestions for regional chains along this route with all-day breakfast and/or a decent veg option (for example, for central Texas, I'd say look at P Terry's, Torchy's and so on)
  • specific suggestions for meals that can be assembled in a motel room (My mom is like "we can live on peanut butter on crackers." I just remembered cheese sandwiches exist.)
Sundry details:
  • other than a deep hatred of white mushrooms and cooked spinach, I don't have many hard no's on food (yes, those are inconvenient if you're a vegetarian)
  • my mom eats meat; I'd say her comfort zone is that of a cosmopolitan person in Britain in about 1980 (plus Thai food -- she likes Indian food; notably for someone in the US, she has little experience with Mexican food)
posted by hoyland to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You'll be in Culver's territory for part of that trip, they are often conveniently located at common highway exits and have good veggie burgers. They have cheese in them, so non-vegan. Overall Culver's are sort of like McDonald's but everything is made fresh and their ice cream is better, so mom should be happy too (I eat fish sometimes and their fish is also much better than McD).
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:59 AM on August 6, 2023 [3 favorites]

Madison is VERY easy for vegetarians, nearly every non-chain restaurant has decent options.
posted by rockindata at 11:07 AM on August 6, 2023 [8 favorites]

On several cross country road trips I have used the Happy Cow site to find vegetarian places to eat. Found lots of amazing spots all over the country this way.
posted by forkisbetter at 11:08 AM on August 6, 2023 [13 favorites]

How do you feel about Starbucks? Their bathrooms are usually pretty clean, and you can see some of the menu online. Our favorites of ours are: impossible breakfast sandwich, steel-cut oatmeal, yogurt parfait, crispy grilled cheese, tomato mozzarella focaccia, all sorts of breakfast rolls/muffins/etc. What's not pictured on the online menu are the grab-and-go items you can usually find, including fruit & cheese plates and hummus and the like.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:10 AM on August 6, 2023

Spokane: I had a really good meal at RÜT
posted by lizard music at 11:17 AM on August 6, 2023

Seconding Happy Cow. I have the app on my phone, and it’s a lifesaver for traveling. It will show you which places have vegetarian options near you pretty much everywhere. My vegan son even used it in Italy.
posted by FencingGal at 11:26 AM on August 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

Wendy’s has baked potatoes that make a good snack, you can get it with cheese, sour cream and chives, or plain. They also have a curry bean burger which I cannot personally vouch for but apparently it’s a thing.

If your mom is okay with trying them out, definitely look for Chipotle and Taco Bell. They both have plenty of vegetarian options and you can be very particular in what you order. Taco Bell is honestly pretty great, definitely engage with a crunch wrap supreme (sub refried beans, natch) and enjoy the best thing on their menu, but the rest of their offerings are solid these days. Chipotle is somewhat more complex in flavor and texture so might not mesh with your mom’s sensibilities or your needs on any given day, but they have a few types of beans to choose from and lots of vegetables in the form of toppings and salsas - most of it isn’t particularly spicy if that’s a concern.

Panera is likely to be available in at least a few rest stops you pass. That’s going to give you a ton of choices. They have a good roasted veggie sandwich and a toasted caprese baguette thing, plus a plethora of salads, Mac and cheese, and pretty good vegetarian soup choices. Also in my experience they keep a pretty clean bathroom.

Most ubiquitous of all, Starbucks has food! They have a couple pretty good breakfast things (okay you hate spinach so maybe just the one) and some sandwiches for lunch as well as their snack boxes, most of which are vegetarian and have eggs, nuts, or cheese for protein.
posted by Mizu at 11:27 AM on August 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In any decently size city (Cleveland, Madison, Spokane), you'll have an absolute glut of options.

Tommy's, in Cleveland (Cleveland Heights, strictly), is a veg-friendly classic. Madison has a surprising number of solid Tibetan restaurants; I think most are very vegetarian-friendly.

I've always heard that Taco Bell, among the major fast food chains, is exceptionally good for non-meat eaters. A true corporate Starbucks location will also have good options - be aware, though, that on a highway a Starbucks sign often leads to one of those licensed Starbucks locations inside a rest area, which can have more limited offerings.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:31 AM on August 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

I've had some success typing "vegetarian" in Google maps while looking for restaurants in a new city, as it will bring up reviews that mention the word. Unfortunately, this includes results of "not much for vegetarians", etc, but the list is usually at least a starting point. Taco Bell is my go-to for vegetarian/vegan fast food when I just need to eat anything on the road, including driving across North Dakota. You'll find more selections in Fargo, Bozeman and Missoula - or eat at the Hummingbird Cafe in Butte!
posted by Theiform at 11:32 AM on August 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

I agree that Madison won’t be a problem; I haven’t been there in a while and don’t have specific suggestions, but it’s super veggie-friendly (and also just a really nice town).

This might be too close to Minneapolis to be helpful, but if you find yourself passing Eau Claire, WI in the morning or early afternoon, I recommend The Nucleus. Lots of veggie options—even a vegan menu! And it’s right next to a nice riverside trail if you want to stretch your legs.
posted by bijoubijou at 11:38 AM on August 6, 2023

For snacks stock up on your favourite shelf stable snacks.

You can absolutely make porridge with nut butter and dried or fresh fruit in most hotel rooms, even if you haven’t got a microwave. You need instant oats and hot water.

Hard cheese and hard boiled eggs are ok without refrigeration for a while.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:57 AM on August 6, 2023

Response by poster: McDonald's killed their salads! That was the change I'd heard about and couldn't quite remember earlier.

To reiterate, "Madison won't be a problem" is not the sort of answer I'm looking for. I've been to Madison, I'm aware there are veggie options readily available. It's the panic of needing to make a choice among unfamiliar options after eight hours on the road I'm trying to avoid even if 'throw a dart at the results on Google Maps or Happy Cow' would likely result in something acceptable. (Though, uh, not Coldstone. Yes, Happy Cow reviewers, I agree Coldstone has veg options.)

Hell will probably freeze over before my mom will eat at Taco Bell, but they have a whole veg section on their website! Multiple options, not just the quesadilla and bean and cheese taco I knew about. They may be my new favorite fast food just for that.
posted by hoyland at 12:13 PM on August 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

Seconding Tommy's in Cleveland Heights! It's been a classic go-to for local vegetarians for 50 years (but the large, diverse menu will make meat eaters happy, too).
posted by merriment at 1:28 PM on August 6, 2023

Vegetarian here. I can't speak to local chains but for national, Burger King has the impossible burger and they are just about as ubiquitous as McDonalds, plus, I for one quite like it. I would NOT count on Starbucks, their vegetarian options are actually slim. The impossible breakfast sandwich is great - but for some reason, they often just do not have it and you're left with the sorrow that is the Kale Egg Bites. Ditto Wendy's, which no longer has the broccoli cheddar potato and now basically has nothing for vegetarians: all their salads have meat. Subway has a veggie patty, or they used to - it's not terrible? And you can also get Subway to make you a sub with just cheese and toppings, which is good. Any sub shop will do this if pressed. You can also do surprisingly well with snacks from truck stops - cheese sticks and hard boiled eggs, nuts, sometimes even hummus and fruit.

Motel rooms all have microwaves and refrigerators nowadays, which is super helpful, since you can just go to a grocery store and get a vegetarian frozen entree. Or, if that's too much trouble, pack a cooler with fruit, cheese, bread, hummus, peanut butter, etc = a little veggie charcuterie board for dinner.
posted by mygothlaundry at 2:33 PM on August 6, 2023 [2 favorites]

Subway does breakfast all day and they are everywhere; an egg and cheese sandwich is a way better option than the veggie and is pretty filling.
posted by charmedimsure at 2:35 PM on August 6, 2023

You'll be in Hardee's territory for at least part of your drive - veg guide here. (This chain is called Carl's Jr in other parts of the country.)

For the kind of meal where you'd like to sit down for some actual minutes and maybe even obtain a salad, even relatively small towns in the midwest seem to have one pizza restaurant with at least a few tables (also I sometimes call to a pizza place ~20 minutes up the road and place a takeout order, then we have Road Pizza Leftovers in the car). I don't spend a lot of time on this, I just pull it up on Yelp and pick the best-rated local option that appears to have tables. We've actually had some AMAZING pizza by this method including artisanal wood-fired pizza in the middle of nowhere, and every once in a while you stumble on a joint that takes eggplant parm extremely seriously. (Downside: severe drowsiness.)

Taco Bell, as you found, is probably the winner in the fast food category, but you don't think your mom will eat that - but note you often find them sharing a parking lot with a McD's or other burger situation, the two of you could split up and meet back at the car.

I highly recommend the Kwik Trip midwestern chain of gas/convenience stores, as not only do they have pristine bathrooms and a truly dazzling offering of baked goods/morning pastries, they also have an entire case of ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat meals, snack plates, and a small selection of produce (I just got home from a WI camping trip where we had amazing tomatoes and corn from the Kwik Trip). I know they have grilled cheese sandwiches, I'm sure they'd have egg salad too. They definitely have basic veg-snack plates, and dips and hummus, in a pinch or if you want a hotel snack. Also cheese curds, because it's the law. Definitely check there for hotel-eating options.

I don't feel like I've seen a ton of Denny'ses and IHOPs right at the highway/freeway exits, but you should be able to find one more or less anywhere. Your mom will surely find something to satisfy, and your options won't be stellar but you could probably make a meal of sides.

Dunkin' has an Impossible breakfast sandwich, avocado toast, and bagels/muffins/donuts.

Panera actually has an impressive range of vegetarian options. It's not a place I normally think to go, but there is one in Billings if you can't find anything else.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:26 PM on August 6, 2023

Vegetarian[-friendly] eats in Madison, Wisconsin:

I was going to recommend a bunch of places on State Street with great veggie options but it's been 20 years since we lived there and I am not finding a lot of them now on Google Maps! Things that do still exist:

Qdoba [menu], 548 State St., monster burrito chain

Ian's Pizza [menu], 100 State St. (and 2 other locations), pizza by the slice

Takara Sushi (West Side) [menu], 696 S Whitney Way

For the hotel room, Trader Joe's at 1810 Monroe Street: get the microwaveable Thai Vegetable Gyoza.
posted by heatherlogan at 3:56 PM on August 6, 2023

I try to carry protein sources, and supplement with the French fries, green salads, etc., which are offered to vegetarians in vegetarian-hostile areas, so my technique would be to pack trail mix, whole fruit, bags of nuts, a small water boiler to make noodles and hardboiled eggs, shelf-stable protein shakes.

Have a nice trip!
posted by hungrytiger at 3:59 PM on August 6, 2023

(Ian's Pizza has 11 different kinds of vegan pizzas on their menu, and 9 more vegetarian ones conveniently marked with a V.)
posted by heatherlogan at 4:00 PM on August 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

If you know Indian and Thai are on the okay list, I would recommend just searching in the Yelp app for those options when you are in a populous enough area/you have enough time for that kind of a meal. They almost certainly will all have vegetarian options and the option for carry out.

As for snacks, definitely items with some veggie protein. Worth grabbing a few “tasty bite” style pouches of Indian food and rice (and there are an increasingly diverse set of heat and eat foods sold in those same shelf stable packs) makes sense. Having a small cooler you can keep stocked will drastically improve your range of options.
posted by leastlikelycowgirl at 4:36 PM on August 6, 2023

Ooo, parsing descriptions on Happy Cow and google search results for vegetarian restaurants to find the restaurants that will suit me is something I am good at! It may be a transferrable skill that I could apply given someone else’s food preferences criteria? If you would like to memail me more specific expected locations where you’ll stop for each city (like, what highway exit or neighborhood), along with more detailed preferences for yourself and your mother, I can search through and pick out a top 3 list for breakfast (if needed) and dinner at each stop, plus 3 lunch suggestions at points in between?

For road snacks/lunches, in addition to the suggestions above, I also like sliced green peppers, and radish-and-butter sandwiches (good quality bread is key). If you have a decent quality cooler, you can get block ice, and sometimes even dry ice, at grocery stores, which melts more slowly that cubed ice (less mess, easier to deal with) - frozen things still won’t be practical, but you can bring fresh veggies, milk or cheese products, veggie sausages, etc. On road trips, often my breakfast will be a muffin or instant oatmeal, lunch will be snacking multiple times throughout the day and will include sliced green pepper, peanut butter crackers (you can make a big batch of your own with saltines, or buy pre-made), and granola bars, and dinner will be at a restaurant if I’m staying in hotels or homemade normal food if I’m camping along the way and have brought my Coleman stove.

For hotel room meals, instant ramen can be turned into a more balanced meal by adding some simple veggies - eg. sliced scallion/green onion, or sliced snap peas. If you feel up for it, you can bring a plastic tub to wash dishes, and a small glass microwave dish with glass lid, and that will enable you to slice up and cook zucchini or broccoli to add to instant noodles as well. Other things that can be made with just pre-boiled water (in a hotel room microwave, or if you bring your own electric kettle) include cous cous mixes (the ones that come in a box with seasoning, usually found in an international aisle of a standard grocery store; veggies can be added in the same way as described above). Cereal or instant oatmeal make decent hotel room breakfasts, as does yogurt (with or without added granola or fruit). (Side note: you can also get portable single burner induction cooktops, or one pot cookers, for cooking in hotel rooms, depending on what is allowed by the hotel. That has also been my method for a couple international trips where I stayed in dorm-like accommodations that didn’t have full kitchen facilities.)
posted by eviemath at 5:43 PM on August 6, 2023 [2 favorites]

I concur with the Culver’s recommendation. Their veggie burger is great. Ask for grilled onions instead of fresh, if you like that kind of thing.

In Madison, you can truly go anywhere and there will be a pretty good veg option. For Thai, I like Monsoon Siam. For Indian, go to Swad or Amber (both in close-in suburbs.) For pizza, you want Salvatore’s. If you know where you’re staying and you me mail me, I can probably recommend somewhere relatively close by.
posted by juliapangolin at 7:58 PM on August 6, 2023 [2 favorites]

I'm in Madison and I'm vegetarian. If you know where you'll be staying in town (a rough sense is fine, no need to tell me your exact hotel), feel free to PM me and I will find you specific nearby options.
posted by humbug at 8:17 PM on August 6, 2023

I don't know if this will be helpful, but ...
I have GERD and was having a particularly difficult battle with it one year when I had plans to drive from Seattle to Monterey, CA. So I just skipped restaurants entirely and, instead, created a daily menu of food my digestive system could tolerate that I could pack in my ice chest and bring with me. It wasn't anything exciting by any means, but it stayed within my diet restrictions and it kept me fed. I assume your drive will take you five days? That's five breakfasts, five lunches and five dinners. I think you could pack for that.
Some vegetarian suggestions: Dry boxed cereal. Powdered milk. Fresh or canned fruit. Fresh or canned veggies. Amy's brand vegetarian canned soup. Vegetarian protein bars. Canned refried beans. Tostadas. (You can spread the beans on the tostadas cold ... I've done it and it's not bad.) Nuts. Dried dates dipped in sunflower butter (sooo delicious). Beyond Meat plant-based jerky. There are also vegetarian MRE's that you could heat up in your hotel room (one place you can buy them is ebay).
Not as glamorous as eating in restaurants, but it gets the job done!
posted by SageTrail at 9:33 PM on August 6, 2023

In Madison? You can get wonderful vegetarian food at Himal Chuli. It's a Nepalese restaurant that has been around for decades now, and is a Madison institution.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:26 PM on August 6, 2023

Enthusiastically seconding Himal Chuli! The most amazing dahl I have ever eaten! I am so happy that it's still around!
posted by heatherlogan at 5:27 AM on August 7, 2023 [1 favorite]

You will likely drive through the Fargo metro area, which has a lot of cosmopolitan food options. (We all know the stereotype ... but Fargo-Moorhead actually has two universities and a liberal arts college, is where Microsoft's second-largest campus is located, is the entertainment and medical hub for a huge region, etc.)

For Thai food in Fargo, I recommend Leela Thai. For Indian food, I recommend Passage to India. There are many other places in Fargo with vegetarian options too.

If you want a sitdown restaurant in Jamestown or Bismarck, I would consider Paradiso. It is a local Mexican-American restaurant chain with a true vegetarian section, and they also serve a burger or chicken strips that might make your mother happy.

I also recommend stopping at a supermarket in Fargo, Jamestown, or Bismarck to stock up on snacks. There are few communities of any size as you cross the western half of North Dakota and Montana, which means only a small number of restaurants and grocery stores. I would also try to keep your gas tank at half full, as there can be some surprisingly long stretches of highway between stations.

Enjoy the endless horizons, badlands, and mountains!
posted by mortaddams at 5:29 AM on August 7, 2023 [1 favorite]

Burger King has an impossible burger
posted by QuakerMel at 11:07 AM on August 7, 2023

Best answer: Vegetarian, have driven across the country several times, adding a few general recommendations:

+1 to Dunkin having more options than you might think and the Burger King Impossible Whopper. -1 for McDonald's and Wendy's no longer having any real/reliable options IMO.

Subway, as mentioned, is a reliable but disappointing choice, but if you happen to see a Jimmy John's or Jersey Mike's, both have a much more satisfying (read: more cheese) cheese-only sandwich option on the menu.

Also, I suspect they may be few and far between on this route, but: diners. Veg omelet and potatoes, usually 24/7, plus safe mom foods. A nice break from fast food and I've had luck finding them near random highway hotels.

And finally, I've found that all the large truck stop chains (Love's, Pilot, Sheetz, etc.) now reliably carry some fresh fruit options + cheese sticks + those "protein packs" à la Starbucks, (sometimes) prepackaged PB&Js, and of course my old-school vegetarian fave, neon orange cheese crackers with peanut butter. Bonus: large, clean bathrooms.
posted by sparkling at 12:06 PM on August 7, 2023 [2 favorites]

Hotel room food suggestion - houmous, cheese and salad wraps. Piece of pish to put together (only need a knife or other spreading implement), pick up whatever pre-prepared salad takes your fancy in a supermarket, a pack of tortilla wraps, some houmous and some sliced cheese. Put it together on top of the wraps and you don't even need a plate.

Easy to eat as many as needed to feel full, and you can make extra for the road the next day if you've got a chiller/fridge.

I'm in the UK, but if you go past a White Castle, have an Impossible Slider for me. Damn those are good.
posted by MattWPBS at 10:32 AM on August 8, 2023 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, we survived. I wasn't able to get it together to make a plan before we left, but tried to pick a place for the next day's dinner, which sort of worked. We did miss out in Madison, which, as noted, had tons of options, because I couldn't face a) making decisions and b) getting back in the car, so we walked to some rubbish "brew pub" place near the hotel.

A few notes for posterity:
  • I did look at the Hardee's breakfast at a rest area on the Indiana Toll Road. There was nothing obviously without meat on offer, but I didn't actually talk to them. (I think there was also a Dunkin Donuts at that rest area, or the next one. Anyway, definitely had Dunkin Donuts on the Indiana Toll Road)
  • Truck stops were a winning suggestion. They pretty much all had hard-boiled eggs, enough brands of yogurt to have one without gelatin, and egg salad or pb&j. (Granted, the discovery that Miles City, MT was under a boil water notice (so no soda or coffee machines) wasn't the most reassuring for the deviled eggs I purchased there, but they had to boil the water to cook the eggs...)
  • I got my mom on board with Paradiso in Jamestown, but they had closed early due to a "temporary food shortage". Thus we ended up at Burger King.
  • Crossing time zones meant that we could catch the end of McDonald's breakfast as a late morning (for our body clock's) early lunch/late second breakfast, so we did that plus early afternoon truck stop lunch a few times.
  • Honorable mention to the people who suggested Tommy's in Cleveland Heights. We were staying in Brook Park by the airport, so going there didn't end up making sense, but some earlier Google Maps perusal led me to find Aladdin's, which had a location near where we stayed. "Remind mom she likes Middle Eastern food" paid dividends in later too, as it turns out Billings, MT has a döner-themed restaurant (I don't know how to describe it other than that).

posted by hoyland at 8:33 AM on September 2, 2023

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