My poor sainted mother. A Jew-Bu through & through (so maybe “sainted” isn’t quite the right adjective), she has to live with the fact that her only daughter would eat pretty much anything given half a chance, excluding turtles but possibly including human (hey, you only live once—unless the Buddhists, Jew- or not, are right, in which case you’ve got some karma-dependent options).

But that means I’ll also do durian & huitlacoche, & that I’m potentially just as happy at a vegetarian haven as I am at a barbecue shack. WaterCourse Foods realizes that potential in many ways, much of the time. Sure, some (not all) of the servers are too cool for school rules like promptness or cheer; & sure, not all protein-based dishes have plant-based equals. There are rough(age) edges. But there’s also plenty of smooth sailing (get it?).

And that, shockingly enough, includes buffalo-style seitan. The menu calls them “wings,” which, come on, isn’t even close. But in & of themselves, the spears of so-called wheat meat are actually tasty. Texturally, they’re more like potato wedges, crisping well, & they do have a vaguely meaty savor that absorbs the buffalo sauce & ranch dressing—both of which are addictive in themselves, of course, so yay.

Of several visits I’ve made recently, one was for dinner to go; the Director’s nachos held up as well to be expected, so while there was no saving the lettuce, a quick trip under the broiler made them good as new. All I ask of vegetarian nachos are crisp corn chips, nice salty cheese (in this case asadero), well-seasoned & moist refried beans, & some spice. The latter was left to pico de gallo (no sign of the advertised green chile), but otherwise they were a-ok, complete with guacamole that was mostly mashed avocado (as well it should be).

Wraps are hard to mess up, but they’re also hard to make interesting. The Juan Wrap is just that, vibrant & hearty with grilled sweet potatoes, sauteed mushrooms & onions, smoked mozzarella & a liberal coating of rich cilantro-pistachio pesto. The tortilla is neither here nor there, of course, but probably the best vehicle for the substantial filling. You get your choice of two among several sides; the quinoa salad with beans & corn had a nice kick, but the sesame-seed-sprinkled, supposedly steamed kale was nearly raw. I get that the frilly-edged, dark green leaves look prettier that way, but uncooked kale is just too tough (& I tried it 3 times, so it wasn’t a fluke).

It went down a little more easily lightly dressed & mixed with steamed squash & carrots as part of the seasonal vegetable mix; compared to the quinoa, however, the amaranth was soggy. Too bad, because the flavors were great, combining chopped sugar snap peas & red pepper, golden raisins & chai-spiced pistachios (think cardamom above all).

They came with the “Reuben,” which, as with the “wings,” is a mighty fine sandwich on its own; no need for it to suffer by comparison to something it’s not. Kinda reminds me of that old Mitch Hedberg joke, “If you go to the grocery store and you stand in front of the lunchmeat section for too long, you start to get pissed off at turkeys. You see, like, turkey ham, turkey pastrami, turkey bologna… Somebody needs to tell the turkeys, ‘Man, just be yourself!'” Speaking of lunchmeat, the classic grilled Reuben features corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese & 1000 Island dressing on buttered rye; here, the coarse-chopped portobellos that stand in for the beef were happily as smoky as promised, in nice contrast to the “special sauce,” which, tangy & tomatoey, vaguely evoked pizza sauce. Just a touch of red cabbage sauerkraut added a tart note, the Swiss added the salt & the whole thing, in short, came together really well, even if it wasn’t grilled.

The only major disappointment was the Maximus Burger. I am gung-ho for a good veggie patty, which, carefully made with grains, legumes et al., can be a totally thick & juicy, variegated surprise. WaterCourse’s version features a combo of pinto beans & quinoa, which looks good on paper, & it packs a little spice from green chile. But it was also flat, dense & dry, texturally no better than its mass-produced, frozen supermarket equivalent, suggesting way too much binder for the buck. I don’t know if it’s topped with the same “special sauce” that accompanies the Reuben; this one seemed more 1000-Islandy, actually, i.e. ketchup-&-(vegan?)-mayo based, but you know, different day, different results. The kaiser roll was fine, fresh, although there was nothing particularly sweet-potato-like about it (as opposed to any other kind of potato-based bun).
The kitchen’s had onion rings down pat for a long time, though. Thick-cut, judiciously coated in a well-seasoned-&-herbed batter that yields a lovely, lacy crunch, they hardly needed the accompanying chipotle aioli, though it didn’t hurt either. (It’s a real bummer that the salad they used to grace, once one of Denver’s most interesting, is no longer available. Online campaign starts here.)

You can get cheese on that “burger,” but you can’t get “cheese” on it; since I really wanted to try the housemade vegan options, I asked if I could order one à la carte rather than as a selection of 3 (the current menu lists smoky jalapeño “cheddar,” pistachio-fennel “manouri,” &  lavender-herb “chèvre,” as well as sweet onion pâté). Actually I asked twice, & with little ado the 1st time, rather more the 2nd, my wish was granted.

Loving cheese the way I do, I am no expert on substitutes, so I can’t say whether these fared better or worse than others by comparison. I can say, as I already have, that there’s not much point in comparing them to the real deal, because they’re simply nothing of the kind. Which doesn’t mean they’re not intriguing. In appearance & mouthfeel, the “cheddar” was unnervingly reminiscent of sea urchin, but the flavor was really nice: nutty, indeed smoky & a touch spicy. (The perfect ripe fig was a swell touch too.)

The “manouri” (which I got to go) was more like ricotta, fluffy rather than creamy, but as a mild binder for chopped nuts it grew on me.

These days WaterCourse also sports a small seasonal selection, including the watermelon caprese with (real) buffalo mozzarella, basil oil, balsamic vinegar & smoked salt.

I agreed with the companion who ordered it that shaved melon, while awfully pretty & surely time-intensive, releases too much water. Can’t say I even detected the balsamic. Still, it had its refreshing aspects.

As does WaterCourse as a whole, even for omnivores; like all local institutions, it’s got quirks that become at least tolerable, at best charming, if you let them. I can’t help but have a soft spot for the place, for all its disaffected youth & culinary quotation marks.

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