I dread going to New Orleans because it's not a city for vegetarians. But, on my most recent trip there earlier this month, I was shocked to discover that The Wandering Buddha, an all-vegan restaurant, had opened up...serving Korean food in a place not known for having a thriving Korean community. In fact, the Wandering Buddha may be one of only 3 Korean vegan restaurants in the United States--the others being HanGawi and Franchia in NYC. Pluses and minuses of my visit:
* It's a Korean vegan restaurant in a very meaty town. If you're a vegetarian or vegan visiting New Orleans, you MUST make the trek and support this bold initiative.
* The food tasted authentic. The cuisine wasn't clearly watered down for American or local tastes. Everything was fresh and good (not great, but good). We tried almost every dish on the menu and there were no standouts, but no clunkers either. On the plus side, perhaps I liked the side dishes to the braised tofu the best, and on the minus side, the lettuce wraps were so leafy that they were more lettucy than wrappy. The owner sold the scallion pancakes highly and my dining companions loved them. I thought they were fine but not hype-worthy.
* The bar was surprisingly clean and not too scary.
* We went on a Sunday evening and were entertained by two surprisingly excellent bands. No cover charge or drink minimum! It wasn't my kind of music (the first was zydeco and I'm not sure how to describe the second), but the performers were quite talented and overall I enjoyed the music a lot. With a full belly and good tunes in a completely unexpected location, for the first time I could almost understand why people liked vacationing in New Orleans.
* Prices were fair and I'm pretty sure we were undercharged.
* The neighborhood is sketchy.
* The restaurant faces out of the back of a dive bar, the Hi-Ho Lounge. There are a few tables outdoors. Alternatively, there are a few tables in the bar itself where the restaurant will serve food, but most drinks are ordered from the bar and are on a separate check. The arrangements were a little confusing.
* Though the bar was clean, like most New Orleans restaurants, it was smoky. The bar had high ceilings that prevented the smoke from being too oppressive.
* While the bands were great, there were some dramatic performers that acted out bizarre scenes in between the music. I had absolutely no idea what was going on or why they were there. And there was really no audience (the place probably had about 30 people in the joint, over half of whom were the band, the dramatic performers or the waitstaff) so I really didn't understand who they were performing for. Themselves, I guess. It was all too high-concept for me.
If you can handle the cigarette smoke and the sketchiness, go ahead and order in and enjoy the music. If not, order to-go and take it back to your hotel room if the weather doesn't permit outdoor eating. Either way, recommended.