Why go out to eat at a restaurant?
Or is to eat a meal that you couldn’t experience elsewhere nor make at home?
It’s a very important question and one that matters to all regular restaurant patrons.
Sam and I eat out a lot. And as vegans, no less.
It’s part of how we enjoy life and experience other cultures. Consequently, our vegan city guides aren’t simply an obligation, but something very important to us that we want to share. Most importantly though, we want them to be helpful. Eating out vegan has it’s own special challenges.
So how does one write a helpful vegan guide? And those who seek these vegan guides: what do they hope for and expect?
There are many ways to find a list of what vegan food is available in a specific place: Happy Cow, Facebook groups, Instagram, Yelp, Google. These are all great tools and we use them regularly.
But we aim for more with our vegan guides.
We’re budget travelers, so we can’t afford to just throw around cash on mediocrity. We know that our readers are budget travelers too. So we want to provide an informed, substantiated opinion, along with the corresponding resources, so that you can decide which places warrant your attention and hard earned cash.
Read more: Budget Vegan Travel Tips for a Tasty Trip!
So it bears repeating: what makes vegan food worth going out for?
I want to try to answer this question with a recent restaurant experience I shared with an old friend along with some very relevant tangents.
A Restaurateur’s Perspective
“It needs more salt.”
I don’t disagree – it could have used some more.
Charlotte further adds a rather salient point: “Do you want to pay money to season the food served to you?”
There’s no denying the quality of the dish. Will other customers be as forgiving though?
Charlotte is onto something here with her food philosophy.
Salt is pretty basic in cooking. Any cook worth their salt knows how to salt. Many nutritionists say we get too much (ahem, Americans) but most agree some sort of minimum is necessary.
Regardless of your position on salt, it’s in almost all foods, either naturally or added. While you may want none added, even a raw vegan wouldn’t enjoy their celery if the sodium had been removed. It’s a key ingredient in bringing out flavor. We just range the spectrum in how much we want.
Charlotte and I discuss the international vegan dining scene in the West and the changes it’s going through. Interestingly enough, despite being engaged in two different vegan scenes (France and the US), we have come to very similar conclusions:
All too often, vegan food served at restaurants is boring, uninspired, and under seasoned.
Why is that?
From “Communal Atmosphere” to Foodie Destination
A central part of the vegan restaurant experience is that as a vegan you can eat anything and everything on the menu.
There’s no feeling of exclusion.
You need not worry about your soup coming with a bone or your fries arriving with a sprinkling of cheese on top.
Everyone involved in the experience is on the same plant-based page.
Creating this safe space was the priority of the Old Vegan Vanguard (my term/phrase). These intrepid pioneers opened the first vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the 1970s-1990s. The focus was mostly on creating a “communal food environment,” based on the core principles of veganism, rather than actually making good food.
Regarding this safe-space-first mentality, the minimum standard was to make food that wasn’t outright terrible. That meant black bean burger patties that seemed like the beans were taken straight out of the can and smashed on your plate. Or hummus missing tahini – a key ingredient. Boiled vegetables served over quinoa. Overly chewy, flavorless meat substitutes, if offered at all.
Sounds exciting, right?
For years, it seemed like the actual quality of the food experience was secondary to the animal-product-free experience.
Not to mention that the interiors of most old school vegetarian restaurants mirrored the health food stores from which the food came. Sam and I love health food stores, but we don’t want to eat in one. The usual tired bohemian earth chic could really use an upgrade.
The Creation of Satisfying Vegan Food
Many long-time vegans have forgotten the rich flavor and uniquely textured quality of animal products.
This is especially true of the Old Vegan Vanguard with their ambitiously named menu items that don’t come close to the original inspiration.
The fact is that meat and dairy products have distinct flavors and textures that plants do not naturally have, along with an obscene amount of salt, fat, and sugar that make them taste and feel satisfying. When all you have to do is brown a steak in butter and serve it topped with caramelized shallots, you’ll be hard-pressed to make tofu taste as good without a similar fat-enriched approach.
Most people, not even just health-conscious folks, would be shocked at how much oil, salt, and sugar one would have to add to a plant-based dish at a restaurant to give that same satiation that the meat or dairy counterpart does.
As an example, I recently cooked two (vegan) meals a day at a retreat house for a few weeks. None of the guests were vegan, so I modified my cooking accordingly. Often I made dishes that I felt had too much salt or oil for my tastes. Needless to say, every guest wanted second helpings without fail and didn’t even know the food was vegan. One vegetarian even swore that my homemade tomato sauce tasted like it contained meat.
Again: it’s all about the amount of salt, fat, and sugar.
Regular meat and dairy eaters may struggle to enjoy most vegan food because the majority of it just doesn’t have the fat, salt, and sugar content that they’re used to. This is especially true in non-vegan restaurants, where they load up on these ingredients. I used to work in them and I’ve seen how butter is ladled on everything.
Humans seem to be able to adjust their threshold for these substances easily. We’ll quickly get used to more or less, but with more, it’s harder to reduce once you’ve grown accustomed to higher intakes. Consequently, those in the habit of eating out will have very high thresholds for fat/salt/sugar satiation.
So how can we make vegan food that appeals to vegans and non-vegans?
One way: have a non-vegan tell you if they were satisfied with the food.
I believe that this is the crucial component that many, dare I say, most, vegan food services are missing.
Is this vegan heresy?
The Unintended Effects of Vegan Purism
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of division in the vegan world.
Many dislike reducetarianism (eating less meat in lieu of 100% abstinence) and another sect refuses to patronize any establishment or company that isn’t 100% vegan (yet still shop at typical supermarkets).
Is this purism hurting or helping the vegan movement?
Veganism is about reducing animal suffering as much as possible. It’s about the intention, as purity is nearly impossible in our current world.
Some vehemently idealistic vegans may say it’s about abstaining from animal exploitation – no exceptions. But in the end, what’s the underlying goal? To reduce animal death and suffering.
That cow/chicken/pig doesn’t care if a vegan or a mostly vegan is the reason their life was spared.
This is why it’s essential to recognize the legitimacy of reducing one’s animal consumption. Statistics also support this. Venture capitalists have all the data. Who do you think the insanely popular Beyond and Impossible Burgers are being made for?
Hint: they’re not marketing to vegans.
It’s a very rare vegan that’s turned 100% overnight. Often it’s a gradual, progressive transition (though the stubborn purists won’t admit it).
The same vegans that act like they were never not-vegan are the ones shooting themselves and the movement in the foot.
We need to be about inclusion, not purism, and making food that can appeal to everyone is a huge step in the right direction.
The more plant-based food is seen as normal and delicious, the more people will voluntarily eat it.
What Good Vegan Food Looks and Tastes Like
So what does the process of creating vegan food that appeals to all kinds of eaters look like?
There are many components that add up to a great experience.
The basics aren’t new to the restaurant scene: fresh, quality ingredients, experienced cooks, and proper execution.
Creating good food that appeals to and satisfies both vegans and non-vegans often means appealing to nostalgia.
Read more: Learning My Manners with Meme
The (Nostalgic) Anatomy of a Quiche
I can’t remember the last time I had a quiche, but I can remember how the quiche I had at Totum Bistro, the restaurant run by Charlotte and family, ushered in this exact sentiment. A successful imitation has two parts: flavor, of course, but also texture.
Often, what’s called quiche in the vegan world should be more appropriately called a vegetable pie. I’ve had some damn good vegetable pies, but names and labels create expectations. If your execution isn’t up to snuff, you’re setting up diners for disappointment.
In a true French quiche, the filling needs to be creamy and smooth, yet able to physically stand on its own. The secondary ingredients need to be suspended in the filling and constitute roughly less than half of the filling volume. They need to enhance and support texture, not dominate it. Often so-called quiches are really just chopped veggies glued together by something sticky or gooey. This could be great, but it won’t ever be a quiche. Whereas Totum’s quiche hits all the texture boxes.
The quiche is smooth on the tongue with a slight crunch thanks to peas and edamame. It cuts with a fork while not crumbling apart, and the filling coats the tongue: rich, savory, and creamy.
So why is Totum’s quiche so successful?
When making vegan dishes, knowing how to make the original makes all the difference. You need a ton of familiarity with the right ingredients along with how to manipulate them. Finding the replacements that work for a particular dish may take lots of trial and error.
For example, chickpea flour works great as an egg replacement in Spanish tortilla (aka the Spanish omelette), but in a French quiche it will be too dense and heavy. I can’t tell you what they use for the quiche base at Totum. What I do know is that it’s not chickpea flour and it works impressively well.
When you make non-vegan food, it’s easy to make anything satisfying. Add bacon, butter, and/or melted cheese and I guarantee most will be pleased.
This is why the perfect vegan recipe takes so much trial and error. The quiche at Totum didn’t happen overnight. Properly developing a vegan recipe is paramount.
The Spectrum of Vegan Burgers
But clearly, making a satisfying vegan burger is really fucking important.
These same principles of texture and flavor, along with the amount of salt, sugar, and fat, especially apply to the veggie burger.
For me, veggie burgers (and many other vegan imitations) exist on a spectrum.
On one end is the vegetable burger, that in no way is trying to imitate meat nor hide its vegetableness, but is intended to satisfy in the way a burger does. The best example I can think of is my favorite “vegetable” burger from Viva Burger in Madrid.
Read more: Ultimate Vegan Guide Madrid
On the other end of the spectrum is the meaty plant-based burger:
This is a more recent development in vegan history, as nostalgic vegans and animal consumption reducers look for plant-based meat replacements.
These are usually quite processed, probably require a laboratory to design, and the end goal is to mimic the “mouth feel” and taste of animal flesh.
The best examples are the Impossible burger and Beyond burger. These are great products, but it all depends on being properly prepared. One can overcook these. Most I’ve tried are overcooked and this is the main reason many people are often so unimpressed. We’ve tried properly cooked ones and they were amazing.
There are trade-offs depending on where a burger is on the spectrum from very vegetable to muy meaty.
Vegetable burgers may taste great, but either lack a chewy texture or easily fall apart. Faux meat burgers can be too chewy, altogether too alien (or too much like the real thing for some), and sit heavy in the gut. I’ve never had one that combines the good and does away with the bad on the vegan burger spectrum.
That’s until I ate the burger at Totum.
There are many ingredients, with just as many secrets. For one, everything is laboriously done by hand. Even the cheese slice on the burger is homemade. I can’t tell you what they’re doing exactly, but I can tell you exactly how delicious it was.
It doesn’t feel like you’re eating meat at all and I don’t think that’s their goal either. But it’s incredibly satisfying. It has a nice chunky texture and a savory taste factor that’s off the charts. It’s one of their most popular dishes, and the majority of their customer base isn’t actually vegan (they’ve done surveys to confirm this). Quite the testament to quality indeed.
There’s a time and place for every vegan food, whether it’s junk food, comfort food, Buddha bowls, or salads.
But the vegan restaurant experience needs to be about more than just making a salad for you. If it’s going to be a salad, it needs to be a salad you couldn’t make yourself. That salad needs to taste so good that you (and your non-vegan friends) want to come back for more.
Vegan restaurants need to serve food that everyone can enjoy, not just vegans who have grown accustomed to eating boring, mushy, and under seasoned food.
I’m confident that this can happen, as the growth of vegan food and quality has been enormous in just the last couple decades.
Read more: Top 10 Vegan Friendly Cities in Europe
I remember laughing at my mother’s weird and bizarre plant milks when she became lactose intolerant when I was a teenager. Now, I’m overwhelmed with the quality and sheer variety at supermarkets.
Cheese wasn’t made overnight – it took millennia.
I’ve had amazing artisan vegan cheeses that have appeared in less than a decade. And I’m an ex-cheese fiend – I know what I’m talking about. It’s a testament to human creativity, and just how very possible it is to make great vegan food.
If we want the world to start eating fewer animals, we need to start making vegan food just as satisfying as meat or dairy – or better.