By | April 11, 2006

86 S 26th St
South Side, 15203

W-Sat: 11-9; Sun 11-3

It is hard to be a vegan.  I myself am not one, but I watch friends struggle as they try to find a bite of eat out on the town.  Not many places can say they have a vegan option.  You can buy some pre-made products at Whole Foods and the East End Co-op.  Also, I know Mad Mex has a mean vegan burrito.  Most of the Indian restaurants have a couple vegan items and will make nan without the ghee upon request.  Quiet Storm is another spot that has some pretty good offerings.  But the best, most well-rounded place to get a square vegan or vegetarian meal has got to be Zenith.  Sure, you can go there Wednesday through Saturday and get a good meal in their part-antique-store in the South Side, but the brunch on Sunday is truly hard to beat.  True meat eaters should stay away, but anyone who is a mostly-to-all veggie eater will probably love this joint for its vast offerings and its low low price.

Zenith is probably busiest at Sunday brunch – and for good reason!  For only $10 you get unlimited vegetarian and vegan salads, breads, coffee/tea and cakes, as well as one main item from a ~10-item menu.  These special items might be anything from pumpkin pancakes to nut-ball and marinara sandwiches, with many creative offerings featured.  You used to be able to take your main item home with you if you couldn’t finish it, but people started gorging on the all-you-can-eat stuff and taking home the main items untouched (for dinner or lunch).  Sadly, now there are no more take-home boxes, so you just have to stuff yourselves to the brim like usual.  It is brunch after all!

The all-you-can-eat vegetarian salad bar is immense.  I hesitate to even call it a salad bar, because it is more like a long line of prepared salads.  There are probably 20 or 30 bowls of different items on any given Sunday.  They range from boring, normal stuff like cole slaw and pasta salad, to inventive, delicious stuff like broccoli with creamy ‘bac-un’ sauce and exotically flavored potato salads.  There are so many that you can’t really try them all, so you just pick what looks good to you.  (If they have that broccoli ‘bac-un’ one, I highly recommend it!)  At the end of the salads table are a variety of freshly baked breads, plus a toaster.  Vegan items are clearly marked.

The main meal itself varies in quality depending on what you get.  I generally like everything I’ve gotten here (at its worst, I’ve had something boring, but never something bad); however, I do have some cautions.  Zenith started out as a primarily vegan restaurant, but have since had to provide more vegetarian options, like blueberry French toast (I think to encourage more business).  That being said, they are true to their Vegan roots, and in most cases if a dish can be made vegan, it will be made vegan.  For instance, the pumpkin pancakes were made vegan by using pumpkin as the binding ingredient in the batter, as opposed to eggs.  This completely alters the texture of a pancake, making it more gummy and dense, as opposed to light and fluffy.  If you are a vegan, you will be ever so grateful to have a pumpkin pancake set before you at all, but a non-vegan will probably be disappointed.  Other dishes have a vegetarian/vegan option.  My nut-ball marinara sandwich came either topped with cheese, or some kinda krazy vegan sauce: my choice.  I am, of course, a cheese-a-holic (as well as a nut-ball-a-holic…I can really go for a good malai kafta), and my meal was great.  Most menu items are delicious despite these cautions, which only hold true for either 1) menu items that would have significantly altered textures because of ingredient changes, or 2) people who aren’t used to eating vegan-prepared foods.

You could practically forego the entire salad and main item course and skip straight to dessert.  There is only one genus, the bundt cake, but there are many many species from which to choose.  There are about 15 or 20 bundt cakes laid out on the table, which is almost as many as the salads.  You might see Chocolate, or Chocolate Chocolate Chip, or Toasted Chocolate Coconut, but you’re also likely to see Pineapple Cashew, Pumpkin Orange, or Lime Ginger – how can you pass that up?!  I’m one of those people that are no good at a buffet.  I always have to try a little bit of everything, so a dessert buffet is especially hard because I simply cannot choose.  Fortunately, Zenith very kindly cuts all the cakes into whisker-thin slices to enable you to sample as many different flavors of cake as you can (or at least I like to imagine that this is the reason as I select pieces of all my favorite sounding cakes).  As with the salads and main items, the cakes range from boring to delicious.  I think of it as a good reason to try a bunch of different kinds.

And can you believe you get all this for only $10 flat?!?  It’s really a steal.  It isn’t a secret though – Zenith is just about the busiest breakfast place you have ever seen, especially since it is only open for a few hours (11-3).  If you want a table, you’d better be there at 11 sharp or you might just have to trudge elsewhere.    At the very least, you will probably have to wait a little bit.  This is never a bad thing because they antique half of the store is extremely interesting.  The taste of the purveyors is retro and funky, and all their items exude that style.  Basically, you want almost everything you see.  Take the time and browse around because you might literally find treasure.  And if you don’t find something worth treasuring on the antique side, you might once you sit down for your meal.

Brunch, especially interestingly flavored salads and cakes
Tea (see Sneaky Tip)

Zenith used to be called Zenith Tea Room.  They changed their name, I guess, but their tea menu remains.  I’m hard pressed to find a more interesting tea list in Pittsburgh.  If you love tea varieties, be sure to check it out.

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