How to Get Started as a Vegan in Knoxville

A little while ago, I got an email from a young guy who wanted some advice on getting started as a vegan in Knoxville. Here’s what he said:

I can totally relate; I had similar issues when I was newly vegan. It’s a challenging time, but it’s exciting too—so much to explore!

Going vegan as a student has its own unique challenges (cost, time, stress, jello shots), it’s really helpful to find a few places near anywhere you spend a ton of time. That way,  when you get caught out and you’re starving, you have great options instead of feeling like you’re going to be stuck with something gross and boring.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, you may want to check out my restaurants page and map for easy ways to find vegan-friendly options on the go. 

Eating with Friends & Family

When your friends know you’re vegan, they will put you on the spot and make you choose the restaurant in an attempt to be sensitive. It’s helpful to know a few places that have broad appeal, so if you’re going out with someone who doesn’t like “hippie restaurants” (parents?) you have an option.

Here in Knoxville, Barley’s is good for that, as are Mellow Mushroom, and Blaze. Pizza for everyone! Sugar Mama’s in the old city is great if you’re looking for something local but classic. Even Aubrey’s just added a kale salad that’s pretty good, so there’s finally something other than sides.

Calhoun’s and Cracker Barrel have next to nothing, so I’d avoid those unless you want a french fry dinner (and even then, some places like Buffalo Wild Wings use beef tallow or lard in the fryer). Everybody likes Mexican, though, and Mexican restaurants almost always have veggie fajitas at the very least, and will usually substitute guacamole for cheese and sour cream. 

There are loads of places downtown and in the Old City that have at least one good option. In addition to Tomato Head, Boyd’s Jig and Reel and 5 all have a portobello sandwich, Knoxville Uncorked has some things, Soccer Taco, Crown and Goose, etc., though you may have to ask for no cheese or mayo on some items.

Emergency Backups & Vegan Standbys 

I also find that if I don’t have super quick things at home, I end up snacking on something depressing. Gardein makes things like frozen “chicken” tenders and “beef” tips that aren’t bad at all, and that with one of those microwave packets of seasoned brown rice takes 5 minutes and at least tastes good.

I also keep a package of Tofurkey kielbasa or Italian sausage around because you can either chop them up and make quick pasta or put them on a bun. It’s really handy to have a Trader Joe’s vegan chorizo to toss in a pan with some black beans and make tacos. I also keep a few Amy’s frozen meals around for absolutely desperate moments.

However, as a vegan newbie, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and default to your old habits. Great restaurants with lots of options can give you a break and remind you not only that things aren’t so tough, but of why you’re doing this in the first place.

Tomato Head is so easy. There are several menu items that are already vegan (including desserts), and they offer soy cheese so there are dozens more items you can make vegan. I actually used to work there, so I happen to know that there’s even a button in the computer for a “Vegan Kepner,” a veganized version of their signature sandwich, and the staff is always happy to veganize anything.

Luckily, there are now lots of pizza places that offer vegan cheese, including Barley’s, Mellow MushroomBlaze, and Sugar Mama’s. Sunspot also has options and even has a vegan menu they’ll give upon request. Also, if friends are ordering pizzas from Pizza Hut, you can do a cheese-free pizza with lots of fresh veggies and one of the fancy sauces. They’ve made a point of having fresh veggies and different sauces, crust flavorings, etc. It’s not bad, really, and it could save you from a night of guilt and digestive issues.

There are several good Indian places in Knoxville; Sitar is my favorite, and they have a whole vegetarian section on the menu with the dairy dishes clearly labeled. At any Indian restaurant, however, it’s a good idea to ask if the dishes contain ghee (clarified butter).

If you miss sushi, don’t despair. Nama has multiple vegan sushi rolls, and not just the boring cucumber/carrot/whatever kind. They even do half-off sushi rolls from 4-close on Monday and Thursday.

Luckily, Thai places often have a lot of options; Taste of Thai is my favorite, but Surin of Thailand is good (though a bit more expensive). Japanese places almost always have multiple options, too. Noodles & Company has a number of vegan dishes, and locations on Cumberland and in Turkey Creek. If you’re out west and not in the mood for noodles, you can pick up a vegan grilled cheese at Tom+Chee or a sandwich at Which Wich.

And we’re not done yet! If you need something quick and cheap:

  • Yassin’s on Walnut is my absolute favorite. The spicy falafel is amazing, and they label their vegan options clearly. Holy Land Market on Sutherland also has decent falafel, along with the best freshly-made hummus in town, which you can buy in bulk.
  • Good Golly Tamale has $4 vegan tamales that are delicious, and one is enough for a meal (though two doesn’t hurt!).
  • Chipotle has sofritas, which is a spiced, crumbled tofu that is really good and very satisfying. Along these lines, Qdoba, Moe’s, Barberitos, and Salsarita’s have options, and both Moe’s and Barberitos offer organic tofu.
  • Also, Taco Bell just announced a vegan menu, so there are at least a few vegan options if you’re out late with friends.
  • Petro’s has veggie chili and guac, so you can get a really good chili pie with an orange tea if you like that kind of thing (I do!).

This list from PETA has a lot of “just ask for no chicken!” kind of things, which I don’t love, but it may be helpful if you’re a brand new vegan.

Holidays & Family Gatherings

As the guy who emailed me pointed out, holidays can be tough. But like with restaurants, a little preparation goes a long way. In my opinion, Field Roast makes the best vegan meats substitutes, and they make an awesome “celebration roast” that also comes en croute.

If you’re going to a big Thanksgiving dinner, it’s the perfect thing to bring because it’s delicious and not as weird to non-veg folks as slabs of tofu. Field Roast’s Chao brand of vegan cheese is better than the other grocery store brands (except for the Follow Your Heart smoked gouda), and works well for sandwiches and even just crackers. 

On family holidays, asking people to prepare veggie sides with Earth Balance instead of butter will be an easy change, especially if you turn up with a tub of it and offer to help. 

But I won’t lie, the holidays can be a challenge. I’ve been lucky because my parents are supportive, but my best friend is vegan and she has gotten comments like “Seriously, you’re that picky?” when she doesn’t want to eat things that were made with chicken broth. 

Even for the most supportive friends and family members, it can be a challenge to adjust to a loved one’s veganism. Do your best to help them understand where you’re coming from and, if you can, try to have a sense of humor about it all. They’ll come around in the end! (And even if they don’t, you can always turn to your plant-based brothers and sisters on the internet. We can relate.)


Stacy Shepanek

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