As someone who aims to eat mostly a plant–based diet, it’s a struggle to order a veggie-heavy dish off any regular menu. In a city where meat abounds, what is a veg-head to do? Continue pouring over NYC menus, I guess until – ta-da! I was introduced to Terri Choi, who with her husband Ryoon, own Hangawi and Franchia Cafe, two hidden vegetarian gems near my fabulous home base of Penn Station (ah, the life of a commuter). I was thrilled to meet Terri Choi and learn about what inspired her and Ryoon to open their restaurants and the philosophy behind their plant-based menu.
After arriving in NYC from South Korea in the early 90s, Ryoon was inspired by a local seminar and their first restaurant, Hangawi was born. Hangawi was based on the concept of eating with a conscience and respecting the lives of all beings, including animals. The couple’s hope was for people to learn how to eat healthy while providing a complete 100% plant–based meal – something many vegetarians are not all that confident about mastering on their own. As Korean natives, they credit their deep understanding of traditional Korean cuisine for enabling them to introduce Westerners to delicious vegetarian cuisine that is creatively prepared.
After opening Hangawi in 1994, they went on to open Franchia in 2003. I am thrilled to have visited – and munched and crunched delish veggies – at both locations. Here is a quick recap:
Walking up to the gorgeously authentic front door I knew I was in for a treat. Although it was a cold, fall day, I immediately felt cozy when I arrived. Surrounded by authentic Korean décor, Joanne, the Manager, greeted me and asked to remove my shoes. I realized then that I was going to get the full experience here!
At lunchtime, this place was buzzing. I sat underneath a wooden table – not an easy feat for the less flexible, however I’m sure the restaurant could arrange something.
Once I saw the menu, I got really excited. 1.) I was starving and 2.) this is a vegetarian’s dream! There were so many wonderful choices of vegetables, grains, and tofu.
Starters were the steamed vegetable dumplings. The texture was perfect, with a slight crisp on the shell, combined with the tangy and citrusy tomato and pepper dipping sauce, this dish was divine – my favorite by the end of the meal. After the dumplings, I had the avocado salad with ginger and carrot dressing on the side. Another win. My favorite part was the dressing since the ginger flavor really stole the show.
For my main, I had the vegetarian stone bowl, an assortment of vegetables over brown rice served in a hot stone bowl with chili paste on the side. It was very tasty, however let’s remember I am biased since these are a few of my favorite things all in one bowl.
It was fun to watch everything cook and be able to mix it around in the bowl. It made me feel like I was participating in making the meal – a very interactive experience indeed! I paired this with a Sauvignon Blanc. I felt like I was getting in my fruits and vegetables for the day from the grapefruit and orange notes in the wine.
For the grand finale… chocolate tofu ice cream. This was my second favorite dish, reason being NOT because I am a chocoholic, but it was just so incredibly creamy and refreshing. I kept saying to myself, “I cannot believe there is no cream in this.” Was this stuff magic or just a plant based dream come true?
Since I loved my lunch at Hangawi so much I had to check out their sister restaurant, Franchia Cafe, for a proper dinner. Whereas Hangawi has an entrance leading into the never-ending horizon of the dining room, Franchia is two-stories tall, creating a tiered approach of tables.
At the door, I once again had that pleasant feeling that I was entering a spiritual sanctuary. Unlike Hangawi, I didn’t have to take my shoes off, so already it felt a bit more modern. No one was sitting on the floor, either. I was greeted by friendly Manager, Andy, who took me to the second story where tables were dressed by dimmed candlelight.
I started with the scallion pancakes which were delicious, light, crispy, and not greasy at all. They were served with a simple and light soy sauce which was perfect since I’m a sauce dipper not spreader. The main dish was another stone bowl… I just couldn’t help myself. This time it was the avocado bowl with a variety of vegetables and tofu over brown rice. I paired this meal with a Cabernet and the red-wine tannins handled rather than fought the hot spices from the chili sauce that came with the stone bowl. Both dishes were great, but the pancakes won this round.
No dessert for me this time since I had to catch the train. Once again, I left feeling satisfied and not overly full.
If you’re looking to try a restaurant that leaves you feeling like you left the spa, then I highly recommend trying these two award–winning restaurants. Their menus – and veggie-based offerings surely do not disappoint!