For years now, I’ve been searching high and low for decent vegan fast food options in New York City. From the bland mush of KFC’s vegan fried chicken to the sluttiest vegan burger I’ve ever had a one night stand with, I’ve tried a variety of faux meats, faux dairy, and real messy hot dogs.
But even in the grand metropolitan that is New York City, I felt limited. The big chains just aren’t really committed to high-quality vegan fare in the US. I knew that if I wanted to continue writing vegan food reviews, I’d have to do something drastic. I’d have to go to Veganuary’s source, the country that started it all… Eng-a-land.
Food was one of the things I was most excited about when I moved to the UK, believe it or not. The vegan options in the UK are far and away more plentiful, and—dare I say?—tastier than in the US, especially when it comes to chain restaurants, a concept that the British have embraced with gusto. Literally everything is a chain here. The coffeehouses are chains. The pubs are chains. The restaurants are chains. There’s even a chain of “fine art” dealers that just opened a location across the street. I think I agreed to turn Night Water into a chain without realizing it when I entered the country.
It’s a bit absurd, but it’s honestly been nice having that consistency—knowing that we can go pretty much anywhere in the city and there will probably be a vegan option close by. It takes a massive load off your mind, being able to go out without planning your whole day around where you might be able to eat.
The wildest thing, though, is that some of the best vegan fast food available is at American chains, which are seemingly keeping their incredible vegan options a secret from their US headquarters. To shame.
So, in the grand Night Water tradition, let’s go on a Veganuary fast food tour together across London. Will any of these vegan menus be enough to convince a carnivore to go meatless, or to convince a vegan to move to the UK? There’s only one way to find out.
I’ll start with a British institution: Costa Coffee, the largest coffeehouse chain in the UK and the second largest in the world. This year for Veganuary, Costa has teamed up with the boys at Bosh, a YouTube channel turned vegan media empire based in Sheffield, on a full line of vegan sandwiches and sweets. From what I can tell, the line is a permanent addition to Costa’s menu and not just a Veganuary fluke.
I tried three out of the eight (!) new menu items: the Saucy Fajita Chicken Wrap, the Crackin’ Ham and Cheeze Toastie, and the Double Chocolate Cookie.
Let’s start with the wrap, which I only purchased because my local Costa was out of the toastie that day. Featuring faux chicken, roasted red peppers, and a spicy tomato and herb sauce all wrapped in a tomato tortilla wrap, the Saucy Fajita Chicken Wrap was serviceable, good even. Nothing special, but solidly good. The biggest knock against it was that it was small, and at £4.75, I wouldn’t say it was particularly good value for money.
I got a Double Chocolate Cookie along with the wrap, and it was tasty, if a bit too rich for me. At £2.45, was it a good value? I actually have no idea what a good cookie costs these days, so let’s just say, based on Costa’s other products: no.
When I returned to Costa the next week, I went early enough to ensure that I could snag a Ham and Cheeze Toastie. I’ve been told that a ham and cheese toastie—a whimsical British word meaning “grilled sandwich”—is a staple menu item at coffeehouses here, so I appreciate that Costa has gone out of their way to bring vegans into the fold.
My toastie actually had a nice melted cheese effect, rare in vegan contexts. I think the “cheeze” was more like a thick sauce than a faux slice, which helped achieve that texture. I don’t think I tasted the fake ham slice—and it really was just a slice—at all. At £4.15, I don’t think the Ham and Cheeze Toastie was good value for money. Knock a pound off the price and maybe, but if I was in a pinch and needed something quick for breakfast, I’d turn to Greggs before Costa.
Our next stop on the tour is Subway. This American sandwich shop is the second most plentiful fast food chain in the UK—Greggs only surpassed it last year. One would assume that they must be doing something right to be so popular. I’m not quite sure what it is, though! It’s also possible the vast proliferation of Subway locations is just a money-laundering scheme. After visiting a Subway location, that somehow seems more plausible to me.
First, I’ll admit my faults. For starters, I didn’t actually go to Subway during Veganuary. I thought I’d be clever and get a head start on the tour by visiting in December. But when I went, there were no vegan-default subs on the menu. There were plenty of vegan options, including plant-based meats, but nothing that I could just point to and say “that.” Also, it’d been a while since I visited a Subway, and I’d forgotten just how many questions they ask you. I wasn’t prepared ahead of time with knowing what options were vegan, what I wanted, or how they would all taste together. My own failure to prepare is not the fault of Subway, I suppose, but it would’ve been nice if I could’ve just said “the vegan one” and avoided an interrogation.
I ended up with a six-inch sub adapted from the “Meatless Philly”—it had vegan steak, plant-based cheese, teriyaki sauce, red onion, lettuce, and tomato. It did not look particularly appetizing, as evidenced by the above photo—Subway definitely won’t be hiring me as a product photographer anytime soon. But it was a decent enough sandwich. If you’ve ever had a Subway sandwich, it tasted exactly as you would expect, which is probably the highest compliment that I could give it. The vegan steak had a good texture, the cheese slices were inoffensive, and you can’t be mad at vegetables. At £5.59—I didn’t add a drink or chips or one of their vegan cookies, which are much cheaper than Costa’s—I thought it was a tad pricey. I think they charged a premium for the plant-based meat, which I inherently disrespect as a pricing tactic.
Let’s jump over to Krispy Kreme as a sweet, mid-tour palette cleanser. Krispy Kreme’s UK division is doing some great work in the vegan department. In addition to certified vegan flavors like original glazed and strawberry iced, they have a good number of “accidentally vegan” donuts as well—donuts that don’t have animal products in the ingredients but are not certified due to possible cross-contamination at the factory. Regardless of your comfort level there, Krispy Kreme has a delicious sweet treat for you.
For Veganuary 2024, Krispy Kreme created two limited edition “cookie indulgence” flavors, both of them vegan: Cookies and Kreme and Chocolate Cookie Crunch. I tried the latter while transferring between National Rail and the bus at London Bridge.
Let me just say: this donut is stacked. There is so much shit on this donut, man. When I was a kid, Krispy Kreme was a special little treat when we were traveling because there were no locations anywhere near where we lived. When we did indulge, I felt like I could pack down two or three of these little fried rings at a time and be invincible. Now, as an adult, I eat a single one and think, holy shit, what did I just put in my body? It’s tasty as heck, don’t get me wrong, but it just sits in your stomach like a block.
In general, I think vegan Krispy Kreme donuts are just as good as their non-vegan counterparts, and this Chocolate Cookie Crunch donut was no exception. I enjoyed it very much, though it did singlehandedly make me pre-diabetic.
Given the size and limited edition nature of the donut, I think it earned its £3.40 price tag. Did I feel good about spending £3.40 on a donut that I ate hurriedly in a train station? No. But you can hardly blame the donut for that.
Long-time Night Water readers will remember that my friend Thomas and I visited Burger King to try their Impossible Whopper on my very first Veganuary fast food tour. I walked away from that burger thinking that it was pretty standard, pretty dry, pretty unremarkable. Maybe a good option if you got stuck at an airport for a few hours, but not something you’d crave. But Burger King UK is playing a whole different ballgame, so I had to visit my local to test out their unique offerings.
First up, the Vegan Royale, a faux chicken patty with lettuce and vegan mayo on a long bun, and the vegan chicken nuggets, both of which have been on the menu for a few years. To my delight, they were absolutely delicious. The sandwich, while simple, delivered big on flavor and texture. The nuggets were a touch too bready, but still flavorful. It was all good enough that I had to seriously rearrange my thoughts about Burger King. Was it less a last resort and more a destination? As long as they keep the Vegan Royale on the menu, a small part of me will always be tempted to pay tribute to the King.
I went back to Burger King two weeks later to try the new Ultimate Bean Burger, back on the menu after being discontinued several years ago. I’ll admit: I was tempted to just order the Vegan Royale again, but I thought for the sake of this journalistic endeavor, I owed it to Night Water’s readers to try the bean burger.
I’m glad I did! The vegan version of this burger (there’s a vegetarian version with cheese, but both are listed separately on the menu) features a black bean patty topped with vegan mayo, fried onions, lettuce and tomatoes, and just a dab of ketchup. The whole thing was packed with flavor, and the texture of the patty was perfect. It was the ideal bean patty, just falling apart in your mouth and providing a rich, meaty flavor to the whole bite. It was worlds away from the Impossible Whopper, so much so that it was hard to believe it came from the same chain.
On their own, both the Ultimate Bean Burger and the Vegan Royale are £5.99, with options to upgrade to meals with a drink and fries (which are always cooked vegan). I got a 6-piece nugget for £4.39, though you can also grab a 9-piece (£5.39) or go hog wild with a 20-piece (£6.99). As the tastiest items on this year’s fast food tour, everything is, without a doubt, good value for money.
I couldn’t resist throwing in a cheeky Nando’s, though it’s not really fast food in the sense of these Veganuary tours, since the food is served on a plate. It’s the small touches that matter.
Despite primarily being a chicken restaurant, Nando’s has multiple vegan options, including “The Great Imitator,” a plant-based version of their peri-peri chicken, available in a wrap, burger, or pita. I got it in a wrap, along with sides of garlic bread and broccoli. The wrap on its own would be £7.75, and with two sides the price shot up to £13.25, putting this meal squarely in fast casual territory.
Overall, the taste and texture of the faux meat was good. It didn’t blow me away, but as part of a cheeky little meal, it served its purpose. The real star of the show, surprisingly, was the garlic bread, which didn’t lose any flavor in the translation to plant-based ingredients. If Nando’s had a to-go window just for garlic bread, I’d be stopping by every other week.
Unlike past US-based Veganuary fast food tours, I feel like I just barely scratched the surface of all the vegan menu items available to me here in the UK. I missed burger joints like Honest Burger and LEON, American chains McDonald’s and KFC, and a whole slew of pizzerias. I’m telling you, nothing prepared me for how many pizzerias there are here. I’m surprised there weren’t questions about my pizza-eating habits on the visa application.
I’m happy I got to enjoy a variety of foods across a wide spectrum here, ranging from the most depressing Subway sandwich you’ve ever seen to the addictive Burger King chicken patties. You can’t throw a rock in London without hitting a solid, on-the-go vegan option, and this city will prove to be fertile ground for Veganuary fast food tours for many years to come.