If Betty’s is not the heart of the Allentown community, it at least qualifies as a vital organ.
Born in 2004, if Betty’s was a kid, it would be studying for a learner’s permit. Its community center feel, reinforced by poetry readings and walls lined with local artists, has always explicitly included vegetarians.
Before vegan entrees were a staple in Buffalo restaurants, Betty’s offered dishes that made vegetarian dining attractive to all. That inclusiveness has drawn everyone from parents with toddlers to Buffalo mayors, making Betty’s a table people have been willing to wait for, especially on weekends.
The room hasn’t changed much in recent years, with a bar to the left of the entrance for drinking and solo dining under fixtures red as Altoids tins. Exposed brick and art surrounds the dining room, and tables are covered in vinyl.
In 2017, the restaurant changed hands, when founders Caroll Ann Simon and Dody Hall, whose grandmother the place is named after, sold it to Arber Sopi. Its menu tacked even further toward vegan. Under the kitchen leadership of Chef Kujo Kumro, it’s added the use of an extensive lineup of vegan substitutes for meat and dairy products. Kumro makes seitan, wheat gluten that can be flavored and molded into various meat-like guises.
Eaters skeptical of the ability of vegetables to supplant meat for satisfaction might warm to the notion after attacking Kumro’s stynger sandwich ($15). It takes a lot of nerve to propose an animal-free edition of one of the great drunk foods, but the faux fried chicken patty and shaved beef-ish seitan was surprisingly enjoyable.
The faux beef tastes like onion soup mix by itself, but on a roll with vegan cheese and faux blue cheese dressing, the combination hits lots of the same pleasure points, without a helping of animal fats.
Tofu gets punched up with assertive garlic spirits and whipped into a thick spread offered as house-made tofu ricotta ($11). Slathered onto slices of toasted Luigi’s Italian bread, it was a tidy little example of how tofu can shed its meekness if you’re willing to play rough.
The Vegan Tour of Buffalo ($15) was even more of a revelation. The dish subverts the dominant paradigms of Buffalo comfort food on three axes: spicy chicken, blue cheese dressing and roast beef on weck.
The “chicken” is more of Kumro’s seitan shenanigans, nuggets that bite, chew and taste like their poultry inspirations. The mayonnaise analog for the dressing is made of aquafaba (chickpea liquid), with chunks of seasoned tofu aiming for feta territory. If I wasn’t paying attention, I wouldn’t have noticed someone was trying to feed me health food.
The beef experience was much like the stynger, with the addition of a heady horseradish sauce that completed the picture. The roll, a sort of pretzel-weck hybrid, was slightly distracting, but not a disqualifier.
While I celebrated the vegan advancements in the Betty’s menu that made me wanna shout, most of the meaty dishes that I tried left me quiet. Chicken tenders ($12) were on the dry side, and served with a ranch-style dressing.
Quesadillas ($12), ordered in pork carnitas, and mole chicken, were underseasoned. Shredded pork was tender enough, but not cooked to the point of sweetness that characterizes the best carnitas. Chicken was pale to the point where my dissection revealed none of the tarry mole sauces I have ever encountered.
Chicken Milanese ($21) was made of an un-filleted, un-pounded chicken breast, throwing off the coating-to-chicken ratio. A corned beef dinner special ($17) had the usual cabbage, carrot, potato, corned beef array, but these vegetables were nicer. The red cabbage, braised in thick, almost steaklike slices, was firmly tender, the carrots roasted and marked up on a grill. The meat was slightly undercooked, sliced and served before reaching full tenderness.
A piece of smoked maple-glazed grilled salmon ($25) finished the entree round on a high note, with emphatically crusty corners on the lacquer-glazed filet contrasting with its creamy interior. Its vegetable foundation, of Swiss chard stems and leaves, parsnips and apples, was also excellent.
Of desserts, avocado chocolate mousse ($7) hit the chocolate spot, but accompanying brittle was hard and tacky enough to extract a filling. Vegan birthday bites ($6) delivered on the promise of eating vegan cookie dough, but a delightful cream of coconut pie ($7) stole my heart with lush filling inside delicately flaky pastry.
If the price of adding a terrific vegan platter to the Betty's lineup is skipping other dishes, I think I'll cope somehow. I know where to find chicken tenders.
Betty’s - 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 370 Virginia St.
Hours: breakfast served 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Dinner is served 2 to 9 p.m. Saturday. Brunch is served 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: breakfast $4-$14, lunch $5-$14, dinner $11-$26
Atmosphere: community room can get deafening if full
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: extensive selections on well-marked menu