With Meatless Week, Thrillist is taking a break from its meaty tendencies to indulge in all things vegetarian and vegan. We'll prod the philosophical quandaries of our dietary choices, ask for a reassessment of what it means to live meat-free, and much more -- all without a single salad in sight.
Fast Casual Vegan Junk Food Is Now a Thing
I'll admit feeling a little bad for vegetarians: Not only do they deprive themselves of delicious animal flesh, they also endure constant needling from carnivores about whether they eat bacon, whether they like real meat, and why they made such terrible life decisions. But you never hear vegetarians asking carnivores whether they've tried fake meat substitutes. "What about vegan bacon, you like that, right?" is a question that more or less never leaves a vegetarian's mouth. Probably because that would involve sharing fake bacon.
In an effort to understand and gain empathy for the vegetarian's plight, I, a staunch anti-veggie adult who eats like a toddler, bought a sampling of the most beloved fake meats, served them up to myself, and ranked them all. I sampled each major "meat" and opted for the most basic options of each type; in other words, there are no complex entrees or burritos here. This is how they stacked up.
I'm already a hot dog snob, so these guys weren't gonna do it for me. Most every brand of veggie hot dogs tastes the same, and the casing always bubbles up grotesquely the minute it hits the heat, evoking some horrific '80s Cinemax flick starring Freddy Krueger. The consistency is like somebody made Jell-O out of hot dog water, but cut it with extra water to eliminate most of the flavor. When the bun tastes stronger than the hot dog -- and we're talking a generic, Wonder-style bun -- you might as well eat a mustard sandwich.
These vegan slices have the look, feel, and some of the flavor of America's favorite deli-meat punchline, though there's an overarching blandness that hurts this curiosity in the end. It also poses a deal philosophical question, especially for a bologna apologist like me: If you're going to go to the effort to make something that tastes almost exactly like watered-down bologna, why make it taste like the worst of all store-brand bolognas instead of the good stuff? Why not emulate some baller artisan brand? Or even Oscar Mayer? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night. That, and an upset stomach for doing this entire story in one sitting.
The pieces are slightly sweet, a little smoky, and actually pretty good, in a generic jerky sort of way. But they also dissolve into strands as you chew, like that gross jerky chew stuff redneck kids eat to emulate their dads' Skoal habit. If your chaw-chompin' dad voted for Roy Moore, and you're afraid to tell him you're vegan, this is your jam!
So, the tube makes this product, helpfully subtitled "meatless soy chorizo," look more like sausage than it really is. The casing, you see, is plastic, and the meat gets squeezed out of it like spicy toothpaste, then drops into the pan like a goopy mass of semi-coagulated meat jelly. But it tastes OK, like a goopier version of Taco Bell meat, only way spicier. If this made its way into a bag of Doritos, I would be very unlikely to complain.
These meatless breakfast items look like the weird stick Yoda eats in The Empire Strikes Back, but the flavor here is surprisingly robust. The mushrooms add a nice little meatiness, and there's a lot of interesting flavor. Make no mistake, though: This tastes NOTHING like sausage. In all honesty, it tastes like dry stuffing that somebody clumped together in case somebody invited a vegetarian over for Thanksgiving. But tastes sort of good it does, says Yoda (and me).
Billed as "smoked veggie bacon with a crispy bite," these strips taste closer to the real deal than other similar products, thanks to its smokiness and saltiness. And they are, in fact, crispy, even if I suspect that mostly because they're as thin as card stock. Still, on balance, these taste more like real bacon than any other approximation I've had -- including dog treats. If I got these at a continental breakfast in a rural Best Western in North Dakota, I wouldn't be the wiser. Not that they'd serve veggie bacon in rural North Dakota.
The texture of these oxymoronic orbs is very dense and dry, with none of the spring or juice that defines great meatballs. But their flavor is oddly right and I'm surprised to say, they're pretty damn delicious. Throw them in a nice red sauce and into a hoagie bun, and you're not about to fool anyone, but you're not going to piss them off either.
Unlike the Boca Burger (see No. 2), this thing gets points for being a little extra burger-y, on account of Beyond Meat's scientific approach to producing burgers that "bleed." This doesn't actually bleed, but it's juicy as hell, and the texture's pretty close to the real deal. It's even got a little grill flavor, which goes a long way in creating the illusion of meatiness, though it definitely doesn't help the smell (liquid smoke is a fickle mistress). If you're a converted vegetarian who's been craving a burger -- a Burger King one, specifically, given the pre-made grill lines on this baby -- the Beast Burger should definitely scratch that (very specific) itch.
OK, I was terrified of this product from Gardein, purveyors as such unexpected things as beefless tips, meatless meatloaf, and sweet & sour "porkless bites." Who in their right mind would want to approximate fish, and how the hell do you manufacture that fishy scent? It turns out that Gardein has avoided a deadly catch with a good fish-type option not just for people who don't want to kill fish, but also for people who for some reason sit down at a pub and think, "I really like fish and chips, but not the fish part." The breading's good! The "fish" isn't too fishy, and even has a flakiness to it. Basically, it's a brick of thick batter with some fishy stuff in the middle. And batter makes everything better. Even better, there's none of that overpowering fish scent I was dreading. If the Gorton's fisherman ever went granola, this would be his go-to.
3. Trader Joe's Chickenless Crispy Tenders
I often rag on Trader Joe's products, largely because they're terrible. But these chickenless tenders are surprisingly edible. They're the same consistency as TJ's chicken nuggets, thanks in large part to the fact that they seem to have the same salty breading, which it a standout despite the fact that it barely stays on the "tender." They taste like chicken, too, if a piece of meat was dredged in some nondescript sweetener. Even better, unlike the real nuggets at TJs, there are no random bits of bone in it that I can detect, making for a rare situation where a meatless option is less likely to kill me than its non-hippie counterpart.
There's something weirdly endearing about this weirdly enduring OG of the fake-burger game. No, a Boca burger doesn't really taste like a burger, but its chewiness, crusty exterior, and blast of salt make it stand out, and without the dryness that plagues so many fake meats. This may be why Boca has essentially become the Kleenex of the veggie burger canon despite a taste not unlike the old high-school cafeteria beef puck (which, let's face it, was probably about as much "beef" as this). Bottom line: I ate the whole thing. Then pondered another. Then pondered my whole food philosophy. Such is Boca.
Of all the meat-substitute products out there, the British company Quorn (what, you thought they'd be from Nebraska?) has done the best at nailing the flavor and texture of the food it's emulating -- a rare fake meat that can actually stand tall next to the real thing. As a longtime fan of the generic chicken puck sandwich, I can attest that Quorn's disc -- with its thick breading, juiciness, and glorious saline kick -- is spot on. In fact, it's better than 80% of its meat-centric frozen counterparts. That's not exactly a high bar, mind you, but the fact that a non-meat from Britain has managed to out-chicken the likes of Tyson and Banquet -- it's juicier and more flavorful than both -- is a befuddling, delightful surprise.
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Andy Kryza is a senior editor at Thrillist who will now consider meatless chicken patties an acceptable vegetable side. Follow him for extremely disturbed live-tweeting of his next physical exam @apkryza.