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A Summertime Vegan Fast Food Tour
On the grand timeline of plant-based foods, I am a sweet summer child, a naïve toddler moving through the world of vegan options and cutting my head on the corners of tables. For as long as I’ve been eating vegan, there have been scientifically generated meat and egg replacements, Michelin star rated vegan restaurants, and a plant-based Whopper at Burger King. I never lived through the bad old days of bland tofu hot dogs or eating a plate of lettuce on a night out. Who am I to complain about today’s vegan fast food?
Ah, but complain I must, for that is my lot in life.
At the start of every year, fast food joints around the world celebrate Veganuary—January, but make it vegan—by introducing vegan menu items (that then often disappear into the ether). In years past, I’ve taken fast food tours across New York City to sample some of the best (and worst) plant-based options out there. I’ve eaten KFC’s almost inedible faux-chicken nuggets, munched on Chipotle’s spicy vegan burrito, and was called a slut while ordering the One Night Stand at Slutty Vegan.
But winter isn’t the only time to see what this city can offer its vegans, and this year, I wanted to find some summertime delicacies. Tonight, we’ll take a trip out to Queens for some baseball, head back to Brooklyn for a sweet treat, and then make our way into Manhattan to beta test a unique new menu item.
Hopefully, I won’t complain too much.
Vegan City at Citi Field
I’m not a big baseball fan. I don’t really get it—there are too many players, it takes too long, there are too many games, too much math, and fantasy baseball is too much work. But I couldn’t resist tagging along with some friends to the Subway Series here in New York—an interleague matchup between the Yankees and Mets—primarily to visit Vegan City, a vegan concession stand down by section 106.
Vegan City has a robust menu full of vegan versions of popular baseball fare—namely, hot dogs and burgers. There’s also a cheesesteak and nachos for some reason. Personally, I wouldn’t have gone for two items that rely on vegan cheese when devising a menu for a ball field concessions stand, but I guess there’s a reason the Mets organization does not pay me the big bucks.
I traveled down from the cheap seats about half an hour into the game. While Vegan City is in a kind of food hall area, it’s been relegated to the back, away from the other concession stands. Maybe they’re ashamed of it, or they’re trying to protect the vegan fan experience from meat smells. The line was short—go figure—and I collected my Vegan City Dog and a tall boy of Budweiser in record time. I was back to my seat in about fifteen minutes; just another benefit of eating vegan.
The Vegan City Dog comes with a jackfruit chili and vegan cheese fondue sauce on top, though it doesn’t really taste like a chili dog. While the jackfruit was nice, the cheese sauce was too runny to be enjoyable. I would’ve much preferred adding my own ketchup, mustard, and sauerkraut. Vegan City does offer a Beyond Sausage with onions and peppers that you could then dump ketchup and mustard on, but while a hot dog is a sausage, a sausage is not a hot dog.
Another big detractor? No French fries.
I have to give Citi Field considerable props for having significant vegan options at all. But I’ll give them the opposite advice I’d give any other fast food joint: be a little less ambitious. A meatless hot dog and some ketchup would be just fine.
I love ice cream. You could say that it’s because I grew up in a dairy state famous for calling soft serve cones “creemees.” But I think I was indoctrinated by my father, who loved a good drive out around the lake with an ice cream cone in hand.
Luckily, thanks to there being way more people with lactose intolerance than there are vegans, non-dairy ice cream is relatively common here in New York. And one of my favorite options is Van Leeuwen, a chain with locations across the US that started here in New York as a roving ice cream truck. My local Van Leeuwen is situated in Fireboat Station down in DUMBO, having replaced the Ample Hills when that chain went bankrupt last year.
Van Leeuwen doesn’t just have one or two vegan flavors or a fruit sorbet (not ice cream!)—they have a whole vegan menu that’s almost on par with the dairy section. Recently, I’ve been sticking to cookies and cream caramel swirl, made with cashew milk, but their peanut butter brownie honeycomb flavor is also delectable.
One big drawback at Van Leeuwen? The waffle cones are not vegan, and their sugar cones are just a little too small for their scoops. They desperately need to expand their cone repertoire to at least include cup cones, if not vegan waffle cones.
In addition to the scoops shops, you can find Van Leeuwen’s vegan ice cream (and ice cream sandwiches and bars) in grocery stores and online.
Unlike baseball and ice cream, there’s nothing inherently seasonal about Taco Bell—a Crunchwrap makes just as much sense on Christmas as it does on July 4th.
A Crunchwrap Supreme, for the uninitiated, is a beefy wrap with nacho cheese, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes, and a hidden corn tortilla—kind of like a Mexican Tootsie Pop. And thankfully, Taco Bell didn’t wait until Veganuary to test out the vegan version in three cities last month.
Technically, you could already eat vegan at Taco Bell by swapping out dairy and protein ingredients with tomatoes, beans, and potatoes. (Vegetarians were pissed during COVID when Taco Bell dropped potatoes from their menu—luckily, potatoes returned in 2021.) But the vegan Crunchwrap Supreme is the first time Taco Bell has made a fully vegan menu item with no swaps required.
I trekked out to the Taco Bell Cantina on 36th Street with my wife and a few friends to take part in the grand vegan Crunchwrap experiment. Like its beef counterpart, the vegan Crunchwrap had lettuce, tomatoes, and proprietary plant-based beef, nacho sauce, and blanco sauce that Taco Bell says have “been in the works for years.” Along with the hidden crunchy taco shell, it’s all bundled up in a wrap.
The proprietary vegan ingredients were pretty good—the cheese tasted like fast food cheese, the beef tasted like fast food beef. My non-vegan friends thought it was a very similar taste to the non-vegan Crunchwrap. Unfortunately, whether it was the result of walking home with our take-out or an inherent flaw in the taco shell, our vegan Crunchwraps were just not crunchy. As we bit down into our wraps, we had nothing to do but wait… wait to die, wait to live, wait for a crunch that would never come.
But overall, it was a totally serviceable little meal. Would I go out of my way to this Taco Bell just to get it? Absolutely not. Which is why I hope Taco Bell expands the vegan Crunchwrap nationwide and doesn’t wait until Veganuary to do it. We should all be eating vegan Crunchwrap Supremes on Christmas.
Right before press time, I went to check out the Vegan Night Market in Central Park, which is running every Tuesday through October. It was an embarrassment of plant-based options—I had two tofu chicken wings, some chop suey, and chocolate “cheese”cake. The only downside was that it was overlooking CityPickle at Wollman Rink and my ears were subjected to the endless dinks down below.
All that is to say—summer is a great time to be vegan in New York City, even with all my complaints. I love being able to grab a vegan option on a normal night out at the ball game, or down on the piers, or in the midtown location of a fast food Mexican chain, not to mention the special events celebrating the wide variety of vegan cuisines available. And we didn’t even touch barbecues…