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August 20, 2014

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How was the finale of Viva Las Vegan served? With cheese

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John Katsilometes

The first meal, post-vegan summer: Bean-and-cheese enchiladas at Cozymel’s.

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Steve Wynn, appearing in illustrated form on the cover of this week's Las Vegas Weekly.

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Steve Wynn and Andrea Hissom on the Andre Agassi Grand Slam red carpet at the Wynn on Oct. 9, 2010.

So it came to this: Steve Wynn asking, “Why did you stop it?”

“Cheese,” I answer, sheepishly but honestly.

“Oh my,” Wynn says, his voice low and grave.

I laugh. There is no explanation.

“If you’re going to take the plunge, you might as well … oh s***,” he says. “Cheese.”

“That is what got me,” I continue.

“It’s like a guy who smokes marijuana and says, ‘I gave up the weed, but I’m shooting heroin,” he said.

And I’m thinking, that could be, except I’ve not mainlined Cheez Whiz.

The conversation centered on veganism, specifically the vegan diet, and the result was the cover week in the most recent issue of our sister publication Las Vegas Weekly. I embarked on a journey I called My Vegan Summer, spanning June 21 to Sept. 22. I spanned the summer, from beginning to end. Wynn started June 27 and is still at it. That’s why he wondered why I’d not remained an active member of Club Vegan.

It was the cheese, I swear. The day I shed the diet, I ordered two bean and cheese enchiladas from Cozymel’s. I got chills when I shoved the first forkful of the cheese-slathered tortilla into my mouth. It was that good.

“There is fake vegan cheese,” Wynn says, mindfully referring to the tasteless substitute that has the consistency of a shoelace.

“Ugh,” I say.

My Vegan Summer was simply a break from the norm, sort of like taking an extended vacation from my standard eating routine. It was not easy. As I’ve told many of my friends, I quit drinking alcohol nearly 10 years ago, and adjusting my diet to eat as a vegan was infinitely more difficult than not taking a drink.

Unlike the notion of consuming an alcoholic beverage, I don’t see meat as immediately life threatening. I know that eating five meatballs, then getting behind the wheel of a vehicle, is neither illegal nor unsafe.

But I stayed with it, relapsing on occasion with a Greek salad with feta cheese, or yet another bean-and-cheese burrito, from Casa Don Juan. I relapsed, I think, four times in my four months, not bad. Wynn, who is joined by his girlfriend, Andrea Hissom, in his vegan diet, made news when he offered vegan menu items in all of his restaurants.

When I disclosed my vegan diet to friends, family, colleagues and people in the field, I was hit with a bunch of questions. Here they are, with the answers:

“How’s that working out for you?” Not bad. I’m in good repair.

“Are you getting enough protein?" I think so, but I frequently found myself struggling to keep my energy up in the afternoons. I ate a lot of nuts, a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, and took B-12 supplements to compensate.

“This means no dairy at all, right?” Right. No milk. No ice cream. Nothing from a cow, including the cow itself.

“Are you losing weight?” Yes. The numbers were 210 on June 20; 195 on Sept. 23. You will lose weight as a vegan, or at the very least maintain your current weight. That was my experience anyway.

“What about your cholesterol?” A 50-point drop, from 261 to 211. Still too high, and my doctor is recommending prescription medication to drop that number to 200.

“Do you miss red meat?” Not hardly. Mid-summer, the idea of eating a hamburger actually made me feel sort of nauseous.

“Got any favorite dishes?” Yep. As someone who eats out fairly regularly, I was able to uncover some great vegan options in town. Some highlights:

• Very Veggie Burger, Serendipity 3, Caesars Palace: The bun is made with egg, so bye-bye, bun. Sandwiching the veggie patty are two palm-size lettuce leaves. It’s served with tomato salad with basil and almonds topped with balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Served on the side is a cup nearly toppling with fresh fruit (strawberry, black raspberry, apple and banana), and for desert a chilling mango sorbet topped with a fresh raspberry sauce.

• Vegas Vegan burger, Burger Bar, Mandalay Place: With this sandwich, the “bun” is actually two portabella mushrooms caps that are as large as catcher’s mitts. Roasted eggplant is a prominent ingredient in this sandwich, which also is stuffed with marinated and grilled roma tomato, grilled zucchinis and sauteed peppers. The fries are dunked in vegetable oil, so you’re good to eat those, too. Very fulfilling.

• House Salad, Go Raw Cafe, locations at 2381 East Windmill Lane #18 and 2910 Lake East Drive, both in Las Vegas): This simple creation is positively piled with mixed greens, cucumbers, shredded carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, sprouts, avocado, onion, nuts and seeds. You start hungry; you barely finish.

• Taco Salad (Vegan Option), Red Velvet Cafe, 7875 West Sahara Ave., Las Vegas: A chipotle shell filled with rice and beans, grilled vegan meat, topped with shredded lettuce, vegan cheese, avocado and salsa. It looks so bad for you but is really tasty and as fun to eat as a real taco salad.

• Creamy corn soup; roasted beet salad; napoleon of savory tofu; almond or soy milk latte, Tableau at Wynn Las Vegas: Just a delight, and for dessert the vegan cocoa-cocoanut cake is as good and fulfilling as any dessert in the city.

Wynn extols his own employee dining room’s options -- Le Staff Cafe, it’s called -- and talks of the summer rolls at Wing Lei.

“I’m doing this,” he says, “for the rest of my life.”

The implication is I should, too.

“I know, after this, I’ve left my mind open,” I say. “I could very easily return to it because I did do it for that period of time.” And standing there is Wynn, promising he’ll stay with it. I don’t know -- my head tells me he’s right, but my heart, sadly, loves the cheese.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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