Fast Food Review: Veggie Grill's Vegan Fare Didn't Kill Me

By Luke Y. Thompson in Food & Drink
Friday, December 6, 2013 at 10:00 am

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And here we get to my penance for the Jack in the Box Munchie Meals.

Well, last time we reviewed Denny's, which is everywhere, so this time, let's go in the other direction. Vegan fast food chain Veggie Grill is strictly a west coast thing, in California, Portland and Washington, probably because the idea of "vegan fast food" would be laughed out of town in the south and midwest. That's not because food without animal products can't be tasty - most Middle-East/Mediterranean places can disavow one of that notion very quickly - but vegans really seem to want to take away everything that's fun about eating for the rest of us. I don't just mean cheese; I'm also talking about how it's not enough to eat vegetables, but you have to eat them nearly raw to get all those good vitamins and fibers or whatever. And then there's the tendency to needlessly add dried fruit to things that don't need it.

Veggie Grill, though, is courting the mainstream, and invited me down to try some of their new winter menu items. How did I do? Would I order any again? Read onward...



First up were the new bowls, and here's a great example of what I'm talking about. People enjoy teriyaki bowls and such, and so a rice bowl with steamed veggies doesn't seem like a stretch. Except that rice and steamed veggies isn't good enough - why give folks reasonably familiar comfort food when you can substitute quinoa and kale instead? Kale is one of those things I can't believe anybody actually eats by choice - it's like when my mother, in her 30s, actively chose to eat Bran Flakes as her cereal of choice. Thankfully, this is one green leaf that Veggie Grill cooks well, so it's not a nightmare of harsh tasting, chewy-crunchy animal feed.

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That's the harvest bowl, which features fake sausage and miso gravy as its primary key ingredients; as Veggie Grill's "Chief Foodie" Ray White told us, it's designed to hit that umami part of the palate that satisfies, which I think (once you get through the buzzwords) means it's supposed to taste kinda like meat. It does a pretty good job. The mixed roasted vegetables, of course, were undercooked, and speaking as someone whose grandfather once loudly proclaimed, "Praise the Lord for burnt parsnips!" I think a crunchy parsnip is indeed a mortal sin. Less ingredients would help this - make the "sausage" and gravy the main thing, with one or two complementary veggies only (mushrooms and broccoli, I'd pick), and you'd have something I'd order again.

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This next bowl holds at least one ace in its imaginary hand - green coconut Thai curry. If I ever had to go vegan for whatever reason, and someday I fully expect this to be a doctor's mandate, Thai food would be up there with Mid-East as the stuff I'd eat every day. The bowl also has cannellini beans, which are bean-ish, whatever. But then they had to go and put whole almonds in it (not cooked, of course. Because even though cooked nuts are delish, vegans always seem to find a way to make even the stuff they allow as un -delish as they can).

Put enough of the sauce on and the rest doesn't matter. But again, a few less ingredients would be more to my liking. Too many huge lumps can kill the coherence of any dish.

Am I imagining an agenda here? Maybe. But White twice gave us a big speech about how meat would not be a viable option any more in the future, probably in his grandkids' lifetime, and he wants this chain to lead the way. Cool. But if you are trying to seduce me, Mr. White, lay off the undercooking. And would it kill you to have sodas? I love the strawberry lemonade, but my mind wants a Diet Coke.

Okay, here's the thing they get most totally right - the Buffalo mini-wrap.

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Tastes like chicken. Textured like chicken. Even looks not unlike certain overly processed brands of cheap chicken. But this is not bleached-out pink slime - it's "Chickin'" and it's made from soy, wheat and peas. The "ranch" dressing is even better than ranch for a non-ranchie like me - it's basically creamy oils mixed with vinegar and garlic. Hot sauce is hot sauce. This thing was yummy, and I ate the entire item, figuring they couldn't top it.

Certainly they wouldn't with these tempeh "ribs":

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We were told up front that tempeh is an acquired taste, and maybe it is, but I'm still not honestly sure what it really does taste like, since the whole "blackening" process made it taste mostly like burning. To be entirely, frankly honest - and I told them this at the time - it tastes like the inhalation of smoke from a pipe hit. The barbecue sauce is nice, but the big onion slices could have been smaller and more caramelized...and ruining coleslaw with raisins is just nasty. Blecch.

So then came the Quinoa Power Salad...

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I'll say this, there was a nice freshness to the taste. But then they had to ruin it with the not-leaving-well-enough-alone vegan touch of throwing dried currants on it. And huge-ass almonds. I get it; you like trail mix the way omnivorous joints love bacon. Both of you have a problem. See, I'm equal-opportunity here.

Things were topped off with a really delicious chocolate mousse, which can stand with the best I've had - the health-food phase of favoring carob seems to have thankfully died back in the '80s - but there was one thing left I really had to try.

Nachos.

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I love nachos, but the vegan substitutes for cheese are generally about as convincing as Frank Stallone doubling for his brother Sly. I wanted to believe that had changed.

At least you knew they'd get the avocado right. The soy-ish crumbles in spicy sauce made a passable meat substitute too; at least as tasty as Taco Bell "ground beef." The cheese, though - it came off like warm vanilla pudding. The fake sour cream tasted more like real cheese, once again having strong notes of garlic and vinegar.

But here's the thing...

I took it home. Put it in the fridge. Felt a hankering late at night. And you know what?

Soggy, refrigerated and finished belatedly, these were indistinguishable from the real thing. Perhaps, like Jack in the Box, they need to market to the "late night" (wink wink) crowd whose tastebuds are slightly deadened already.

Would I eat at Veggie Grill again? Yes, but I'd be very, VERY picky.

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