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Maggie's: All vegan, all of the time

Friday, September 28, 2001

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Katie Werner likes to tell the story about the man who stopped in at Maggie's Merchantile (cq) for lunch, ordered the lasagna, and when he left, told her how much he liked it. "It's vegan, you know," Werner said.

"It's what?"

The customer was surprised. He didn't realize this new deli cafe on Route 711 outside Donegal is totally vegan. If he were more observant, he might have been tipped off by some unusual menu items on the chalkboard behind the deli counter: Asian yam tart, Chinese long beans in miso, basil broccolini quiche, barbecue tofu, porcini farro salad, wild rattlesnake wrap with chile mint oil (it's rattlesnake beans, not the reptiles, folks) and my favorite, no pigs in a blanket. (That's cabbage stuffed with tofu, kidney beans, rice and tomatoes in a red sauce.)

The surprised customer's lasagna had tofu, noodles, spinach, marinara sauce, cauliflower, textured vegetable protein, lemon juice and salt. No meat, no cheese.

The cafe is full of surprises. The list of desserts is extensive, some unbelievably rich, and everything is made right there. One day His Honor and I had a slice of dense, dark chocolate and raspberry cake (no eggs, no dairy) to top off our lunch.

Guests who take time to stroll into the adjacent sales room might find a variety of specialty breads, purple asparagus, Peruvian blue potatoes, pluots (an apricot-plum combination) and a big vat of watercress that was grown hydroponically.

The deli-cafe is the latest venture of Margaret Raphael, who has a business of growing, importing and selling exotic and unique products to restaurants. Casbah in Shadyside was one of her first customers, then Lucca in Oakland, Nemacolin Woodlands Resorts, the larger country clubs like Rolling Rock, Laurel Valley, Churchill Valley and so on. She imports some items like the pitahaya, or dragon fruit. Others, like flawless hydroponic lettuce, are grown near Pittsburgh. She specializes in specialty lettuces, herbs, heirloom tomatoes, beans, edible flowers, and tracking down unusual ingredients for chefs.

"Why have just a tomato, when you can have a green zebra tomato?" she asks.

When Raphael opened the deli-cafe earlier this summer, Werner, a Penn State horticulture graduate and most recently, the head propagator at Phipps Conservatory, signed on as manager. The staff includes a number of people from the Donegal area and some from the East End Co-op in Point Breeze.

For lunch at Maggie's Merchantile, you get a plate and either point to what you want in the deli case or read it from the chalkboard. (The menu is constantly changing.) If you're adventurous -- and you'd better be if you're not already a vegan -- you can order a spoonful of this, a little of that, etc. You pay by weight.

Let the record show that I liked the sun-dried tomato hummus, the spinach pie, basil broccolini quiche and the sesame noodles. H.H. didn't.

Oh, well. As Raphael says, "Either you like vegan food, or you don't."

A lot of people do, she's found, adding: "The deli-cafe is going phenomenally well." It's open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, the entire restaurant is turned into an ethnic buffet brunch. Each month has a different theme. For this month, it is Asia.

Maggie's Merchantile, 724-593-5056, can be reached by taking Exit 9 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, turning left on Route 31, then a quick left onto Route 711. It's on the right hand side of the road, about 3 1/2 miles from the turnpike.

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