Questions to ask when seeking a vegan-friendly dish in Tucson

Don’t Sweat it, Just Ask!

Ver la versión en inglés aquí.

When I began eating vegan and started to venture out to eat at restaurants and public venues, my main concern was knowing which ingredients to avoid and how to ask about them. First of all, I didn’t know what I was supposed to ask or inquire about — I mostly ended up trusting the restaurant’s version of a vegan dish.

I didn’t become more familiar with my options until I began reading further and educating myself on different animal ingredients in food.

Of course, that was just the beginning of my learning journey. The second part of the challenge was to build enough confidence to not feel like an annoyance. I’m not going to lie, asking a bunch of questions made me nervous. I felt as if I was bothering not only those taking my orders but also the chefs and cooks who were getting all of my questions while they were busy in the back.

Pizza with vegan cheese, red onions, jalapeños and mushrooms from Fresco (Photo by Xochitl Gracia)

Pizza with vegan cheese, red onions, jalapeños and mushrooms from Fresco (Photo by Xochitl Gracia)

Later on, I started to realize that most people were happy to answer questions and accommodate the clients’ needs; even if that meant making a couple of trips between our table and the kitchen. With time, I stopped feeling like I was wasting their time. I actually enjoyed sparking some interest in the topic of vegan eating. So, instead of presenting myself as a burden, I was starting a real conversation about alternative ways of cooking and eating.

One main thing to remember is that different cuisines have certain main ingredients to be cautious about; the list can go from obvious ones to others that are hidden.

Continue reading this quick and easy guide to learn which ingredients to skip if you are trying to make the conscious shift to eat more plant-based meals but you are unsure as to where to even begin.

Mexican Cuisine

I’d like to begin with Mexican cuisine — the one I’m most familiar with. From the most beloved traditional meals to more contemporary Mexican/American-inspired dishes, they may contain one or more of the following ingredients:

  • Pork lard and beef tallow in refried beans, tortilla, or tamal masa
  • Chicken or beef stock/bouillon in rice, sauces, or soups
  • Dairy in hot dog and torta buns

Also, a reminder that many Mexican aguas frescas may contain dairy (in horchata) or honey as sweeteners.

Foodie Suggestion:

Taco Stop (10209 E. Speedway Blvd.) has several vegan options and aguas frescas in their rotation.


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Asian & Asian-American

When it comes to eating Asian-inspired dishes, always ask the server if what you’re ordering contains:

  • Oyster sauce in stir-fried dishes and marinades
  • Fish sauce in dipping sauces
  • Fish paste in curries and broths
Foodie Suggestion:

Try Jun Dynasty (2933 E. Grant Rd.) for oyster and fish sauce-free dishes.


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American Dishes

American cuisine may contain the following:

  • Animal shortening used to deep fry
  • Anchovies in side sauces and dressings

If you’re ordering a burger, hot dog, or any dish that includes bread of some kind, make sure to ask if it comes buttered and if their butter is dairy-free (a lot of places use margarine which is usually vegan-friendly).

Foodie Suggestion:

Try Beaut Burger (267 S. Avenida del Convento) if you’re craving a good burger or sandwich without the stress of having to ask what’s in them as they’re 100% vegan.


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Vegan Coffees

One of my favorite things to do is trying new coffee shops. Coffee is usually pretty vegan-friendly, but if you are venturing out to try specialty drinks, ask if their matcha, chai, and other drink mixes are dairy-free.

There are a lot of mixes that look as if they are vegan-friendly but contain powdered dairy in the form of casein, whey, milk solids, or milk powder, just to name a few.

Foodie Suggestion:

Red Captain Coffee (4004 N. Stone Ave.) has delicious vegan-friendly drinks and an array of daily vegan pastries from vegan bakery Houlden’s Rise Above.


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Cross-contamination awareness

If you are going for a stricter approach and cross-contamination is a top concern of yours, most restaurants are usually happy to answer your questions about shared equipment.

The main questions to ask are:

  • Do you have a separate fryer for vegan food?
  • Is there a separate grill section?
  • Do you use the same utensils to serve the food?

If the establishment requires employees to use gloves you may also request a change of gloves. For more established eateries and chain restaurants, their websites can be a valuable tool to use when looking for any allergens and ingredient lists. This way, you’ll arrive prepared.

If you are curious about trying vegan food when you go out to eat, or if you have a loved one who’s on the introvert side and sometimes they need help asking questions (that used to be me), save this quick guide to have it on-hand the next time you’re visiting a restaurant.

I’ve learned something throughout these years of visiting and trying new dishes, and it’s that most business owners, managers, and cooks love to listen to their customers. You may always share your suggestions about having vegan options clearly labeled and/or available without making substitutions, too.

Sushi roll with fried tofu at Thai China Bistro

Sushi roll with fried tofu at Thai China Bistro (Photo by Xochitl Gracia)

Finally, I would like to add that if you’ve switched to a vegan lifestyle and mistakes have been made along the way (such as consuming something that wasn’t vegan because you failed to double-check or ask), don’t beat yourself up. I have always thought that any meaningful change or conscious effort towards something you believe in should be applauded and appreciated.

Be your own fan, and of course, don’t forget to ask!

If you’re local or visit Tucson frequently, make sure to follow my Instagram page, in which I share my vegan/plant-based lifestyle always focusing on local food (@tucson-vegan).