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A Sorta-tarian Haven 

Tofu po-boys and pulled pork quesadillas mix it up at a late-night Marigny tavern

When a group of friends came down to visit not long after I moved to New Orleans, I was eager to show them some of the amazing local food I was just then beginning to discover. The trouble was that a few of the visitors were vegetarians.

Full of hope but woefully uninformed, I called an Uptown neighborhood joint and asked the woman who answered the phone if there was anything on the menu for my friends who didn't eat meat.

"Oh yeah, baby," she answered. "Come on down. We got catfish, we got shrimp, we got oysters, all that."

We ended up eating Thai food. Later, though, I learned that plenty of local people are on the same page with that woman, people who consider themselves vegetarians but carve a wide exemption for seafood and can even be persuaded to enjoy a bite of muffuletta or a coin of andouille if they are presented as an exercise in local food culture. My hometown friends would call them sellouts, but I call them "New Orleans vegetarians."

In the same way, the late-night Marigny tavern known as 13 takes to the vegetarian lifestyle with lots and lots of compromise. The business model itself is as much a hybrid as the New Orleans vegetarian ducking into a crawfish boil. Somewhere between a diner and a pub, 13 is a haven for vegetarians where the chalkboard special might still be a pulled pork quesadilla.

In its previous life, the long, narrow Frenchmen Street space had been home to one of the city's few strictly vegetarian restaurants, Old Dog New Trick. When it opened in 2004, 13 did not exactly pick up the reins of this lonely role, but its first manager was a vegan (a real vegan, not a "New Orleans vegan" who might make an exception for Blue Plate mayonnaise or something like that), and he made sure the menu included a few things he could eat. He's gone now, but 13 has since established its niche as the place to find a tofu po-boy or a roasted vegetable plate, even at 3 a.m.

You can get a respectable Italian deli sandwich here with salami and capicola, an open-face turkey melt or even a link of boudin sausage, which may not be up to the standard of the those at the average Lake Charles gas station but is still nice to find on Frenchmen Street. The best eating here is usually vegetarian, however, regardless of your affections toward meat.

The black bean veggie burger at 13 doesn't even resemble a burger in shape, and that's to its credit. Served on crusty French bread, the sandwich filling is really more like a spreadable hash of black beans, rice and seasonings, crisped around its edges, slicked with mayonnaise and dressed with smoked cheddar. It has more of the crossover appeal of a good falafel sandwich than something trying to satisfy a burger craving.

Eating tofu with chopsticks is great at many local restaurants, but here you can get a satisfying slab of soy in a non-Asian dish. Baked, dusted with herbs and served on multi-grain bread, the basic tofu sandwich is fine, but the standout is the barbecue tofu sandwich. The mild-tasting bean curd is dense and moist, dosed with a sweet barbecue sauce that tastes like a bottled brand after some significant in-kitchen improvements and is served on a length of po-boy loaf. One night's special "tofu Rueben" even came stacked with the mouth-stretching thickness of an actual Rueben spilling extra pastrami.

A quesadilla stuffed with more potato and roasted pepper than cheese is one of the best choices on the menu. Made with a wheat tortilla and abundant spices, it tastes more like a stuffed Indian paratha than a Tex-Mex bar snack. Another great appetizer is the "tater tachos," which seems like the natural result of putting a short-order cook in the same room with tater tots and quesadilla fillings after midnight. I enjoyed it well enough when an order came out sloppy, its ingredients thrown together and soon mashed up by a table full of aggressive forks anyway, but the same dish was exponentially better when the kitchen took the time to really compose it. The tater tots, humble TV-dinner food if ever anything was, became a crispy, puffy potato crust melded together by a web of melted cheddar, then topped with seasoned black beans, fresh-tasting salsa, jalapeno slices and a whip of sour cream. The dish serves the same function as nachos for the late-night palate but is much more filling.

While the pizza here will answer no one's dream of Italian pizza-parlor slices, they are good, satisfying, "personal pizza"-sized pies with a chewy, slightly sour crust and nice fresh toppings. Particularly good is the white pizza smeared with herbed cream cheese beneath melted mozzarella and layered with fresh spinach and slices of portobello mushrooms. Even the standard salad here is much better than what the pub-meets-diner atmosphere might encourage you to expect. The mixed greens are crisp with plenty of spinach and arugula mixed in for flavor, and all the other sliced or shredded vegetables are fresh.

The tavern's two major drawbacks are a habit of sloppiness as the wee hours tick on -- when a waitress might deliver a clearly incinerated pizza or sandwich as if it were still perfectly edible -- and the tendency of the entire dining room and bar to fill with a noxious haze from the poorly vented, open kitchen. On a bad night, it can pain the eyes worse than a smoky barroom.

Still, those problems are sporadic, and the tofu and black bean po-boys are consistently good. In a town where vegetarians tend to measure success at a restaurant by the number of choices they have, the casual, cheap, late-night options here are worth a few accommodations.

click to enlarge Matthew Kavalauskas presents a salad at 13. - CHERYL GERBER
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