As the first month of the year, January is saddled with a lot of expectations. You're going to stop drinking, spend more time with family, save money, stop using your phone so damn much, find a new job, and so on. And usually by February, you're Bugs Bunny looking despondent while holding an old-timey pistol, which is to say:
Consistently, the most popular New Year’s resolutions are around health: lose weight, eat healthier, exercise more. Which makes January the perfect month to attempt veganism, vegetarianism, or just a mindful effort to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet. There’s a whole charity and movement based on this idea—Veganuary, natch—and a big part of what they do is encourage big restaurant chains to develop and carry vegan options.
Last year, I went on a tour of three fast food chains with vegan options: Burger King, Chipotle, and KFC. Despite KFC’s Beyond Chicken being borderline inedible, the food tour was a success—it was a joy to be able to get solid vegan options at chains with locations across the country.
But 2 out of 3 of the menu items I reviewed were only available for a limited time. That’s fine for Veganuary, but how is anyone expected to make plant-based eating a consistent habit if plant-based items aren’t available year-round?
Even worse, what if they don’t even keep their plant-based menu items through the end of January? Panda Express was on my original list for 2022’s fast food tour, but they discontinued the Beyond version of their popular orange chicken before I could trial it.
So instead, this year’s fast food tour includes smaller chains—still with locations in multiple states, but not necessarily nationwide quite yet—that have permanent vegan options on their menus. In fact, I did you one better: two of these chains are completely vegan year-round.
Are the vegan menus at these chains good enough to attract carnivore clientele? Could they go head-to-head with the reigning meat-based fast food empires? Will this tour provide even more refreshing Night Water content than last year’s? Let’s find out together.
There’s an episode of Scrubs where J.D. convinces Elliot that in Cincinnati, they greet each other with a jovial “Hey, slut!” Slutty Vegan is kind of like Cincinnati in that regard. No sir or ma’am here—everyone’s a slut in this vegan burger joint straight from Atlanta.
In fact, when I went earlier this month, I was the Lucky Slut of the Day. I showed up right at opening and found myself first in line, earning me a free meal and this incredible photo:
As other people joined the line, the greeter outside shouted “Let’s go slut!” If it was someone’s first time visiting, their cashier announced over the loudspeaker that they had a virgin in the building. We ordered sandwiches with names like Sloppy Toppy, Hollywood Hooker, and Ménage à Trois.
If you are a virgin, it might be a bit overwhelming, but if you’re down to get sluttified, it’s one of the most fun and unique restaurant experiences you can get.
I got the One Night Stand, a burger with bacon, cheese, cartelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and their patented Slut Sauce on a Hawaiian bun, along with a side of Slutty Fries (seasoned with slut dust). Besides the fact that it was all vegan, it was a classic fast food burger. The patty itself is thin and flat, just like your favorite meat-based burger joint, and while the sandwich is packed with ingredients and flavor, it was very manageable and easy to bite into. You could present a slutty carnivore with one of these burgers and they would be none the wiser that they were eating a plant-based meal.
I’d love a Slutty Vegan in every city in the country, but at the moment, they are primarily Georgia-based, with other locations in Alabama, Brooklyn, and soon, Harlem.
In terms of environment and atmosphere, if Slutty Vegan is on one end of the spectrum, &pizza is so far on the other end that it’s falling off. Their locations are lifeless and soul-sucking, with bright artificial lighting slowly burning a hole in your cornea. It reeks of VC funding, with its own over-designed website, barely-working app, and marketing emails that drop like a non-sequitur in your inbox.
Unfortunately for the haters (me), their pizza is good. An &pizza is an elongated personal pan pizza, stretched out into an oval shape. When you order in person, you can pick your toppings like you’re building a Chipotle burrito and watch your pizza go down a little conveyer belt through the oven. They have plenty of veggie options, plus vegan sausage and pretty good vegan cheese. Bad vegan cheese can be an absolute buzzkill on a pizza, so it’s nice that this chain has pulled it off at scale. (One ding against them—they discontinued their Daring chicken topping!)
While the pizza is good, their vegan garlic knots are out of this world. Stuffed with roasted garlic, mozzarella, grilled onion, and sausage crumble, the vegan knots are a meal unto themselves (seriously—one order is over 1200 calories, according to the website, and has 126% of your daily sodium value).
I stuck with just a pizza for my fast food tour—spicy tomato sauce, mozzarella, a roasted garlic drizzle, spinach, grilled onion, mushroom, and a sausage crumble, with red chili pepper flakes to finish it off. Topping distribution is a little off—the ends of the oval don’t get as much love as the middle—but overall, it was a satisfying lunch.
Despite the restaurants feeling a bit like a dentist’s office waiting room, I wouldn’t mind if &pizza slowly replaced all of the Domino’s and Papa John’s out there. Right now, you’ll find &pizza on the eastern seaboard, with most locations in the DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia), with a few in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York City.
For my final stop on the fast food tour, I solicited the help of my friend, book cover judger and Day Soda subscriber Thomas Baldwin, who originally joined me last year to test the Impossible Whopper. While we had intended to head to Panda Express, the ill-timed discontinuation of their Beyond orange chicken thwarted our plans. Instead, we headed to my backup location: PLNT Burger, a plant-based burger chain that, like &pizza, hails from the DMV.¹
We tried two sandwiches, the Patty Melt and a Crispy Chik’n Sandwich, with potato fries, green bean fries, and a cheeky 8 piece of “Lil’ Dippers” chik’n nuggets.
The Patty Melt was the superior sandwich in my eyes—it had a nice BBQ flavor, and while Thomas didn’t like the cheese at first blush, it blended into the rest of the sandwich once you had a full bite (Thomas also complained that the Texas Toast was a bit thin for a patty melt).
The cheese was a letdown on the Crispy Chik’n Sandwich as well—just a bit rubbery—but the rest of the sandwich was fine, if nothing to write home about. The real stand-out were the Lil’ Dippers—the texture of these little nuggets was fantastic, and probably the closest to real chicken I’ve seen in a fake nugget. Next time, I’ll skip the burger and load up on Dippers and green bean fries.
How about the atmosphere? Pretty standard—in the middle 50% of the spectrum, but closer to &pizza, as there isn’t really a personality to PLNT Burger. I don’t think PLNT Burger is enticing enough for the carnivores among us, but for a flexitarian or plant-curious consumer, it’s a decent option for a quick bite. Outside of the DMV, you can find PLNT Burger in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York.
Unlike last year’s fast food tour, I enjoyed all of the food that I ate. I was blown away by Slutty Vegan, enjoyed &pizza, and was satisfied by PLNT Burger.
As the big chains fail to innovate with plant-based menu items, there’s a big opportunity for smaller players to enter the market with plant-based options or entirely vegan menus. Retail sales of plant-based foods continue to climb to record highs, showing a growing appetite for animal-free products. Don’t be surprised when you see some of these vegan fast food chains start to spread outside of big metro areas—they’re ready to eat the big players for lunch.
Why is the DC metro area a breeding ground for vegan fast food chains? An investigation for another time. ↩