My fiancée and I became vegan in January 2020–at first, just for the month, and then, permanently. The pandemic, in a weird way, helped us keep it up—since we couldn’t really go anywhere for months and were making all of our own meals, the lack of vegan options at restaurants didn’t become a temptation for us.
The concept of going vegan in January—Veganuary, natch—has been big in the UK for a few years, in part thanks to the Veganuary charity that organizes the annual challenge. It’s only more recently that it’s caught on in the States—just like credit card chips and contactless payments, we’re about 5 to 10 years behind the UK in the vegan department.
While the majority of Americans are not going fully vegan anytime soon, more and more are becoming “flexitarian,” meaning they are primarily plant-based but don’t completely cut meat or animal products out of their diet. New plant-based meat replacements from companies like Beyond, Impossible, and Just Egg help flexitarians and vegans alike eliminate their reliance on animal products.
A big part of Veganuary’s campaign is encouraging businesses to introduce vegan products and menu options. And, given the scale, some of the most noteworthy vegan menu options are introduced at fast food chains. Vegan fast food is a lightning rod for controversy and Twitter discourse—some claim that these options aren’t really vegan because they’re cooked in the same oil or on the same equipment as meat, while others would rather just not patronize businesses that cause incredible amounts of harm to people, the environment, and animals.
The first point does not matter to me, personally. Vegan is not an allergy; accepting some amount of cross-contamination is a personal choice, and you won’t lose any vegan points in my book by sharing kitchen equipment. On the second argument: fair enough! Fuck these companies, really. But for a lot of people, fast food or national restaurant chains might be some of their only real options. If their plant-based options help a few budding vegetarians, vegans, and flexitarians out there, then I’m all for it.
So, I decided to take a Veganuary fast food tour, hitting up three fast food restaurants to test out their vegan options. My primary goal was to make refreshing content for Night Water, of course, but I was also just curious. Would any of these options actually hold a candle to meat? Could they convince an omnivore to become plant-based? Are they good enough to make me desire fast food?
Impossible Whopper, Burger King
Burger King launched their Impossible Whopper, which uses a plant-based burger patty from Impossible Foods, back in August 2019, so I’m a little late to the trend. The Impossible Whopper is not vegan by default—order without cheese and mayo and you’ll be left with pickles, onions, tomato, and lettuce on top. Burger King fries are vegan, so feel free to make it a meal.
Two weekends ago, my friend Thomas and I went to the Herald Square Burger King—accessible from the subway station—for a quick Impossible Whopper before seeing The Conversation at Film Forum. It was my first time eating at Burger King since getting stuck at the airport in Portland, Maine for a few hours. The experience here was comparable.
The Whopper itself was a pretty standard fast food burger—a little dry, but otherwise a very serviceable burger. It likely could’ve been improved by some kind of replacement sauce for the mayo, perhaps a mustard. I think the Impossible patties that I’ve purchased myself from the grocery store tasted better than the Burger King patty, but I’d probably say that about the meat Whopper as well.
If it was the middle of the night and I was drunk and Burger King was my only option, the Impossible Whopper would likely taste like mana from heaven. But for sober hours, I’ll save the Impossible Whopper for the airport.
Plant-Based Chorizo, Chipotle
Chipotle launched their plant-based chorizo at all of their locations this month after testing in select markets last year. It’s actually their second vegan protein option after the tofu-based sofritas. Since it’s attempting to mimic a beloved and highly seasoned meat product, Chipotle’s chorizo has bigger shoes to fill than the sofritas.¹
Unlike Burger King, I do actually visit Chipotle on a somewhat regular basis—I have the app installed on my phone, if that tells you anything about me. My regular order is a sofritas burrito. For my test, I just swapped in chorizo, pairing it with brown rice, black beans, fajita veggies, guac, and three kinds of salsa.
The chorizo was surprisingly spicy. I generally like some heat in my Mexican food, but the taste of the chorizo overwhelmed the other flavors. The texture was also not as firm as I had hoped—it was soft, like the sofritas, and didn’t bring a meaty texture to the burrito at all.
While I appreciate the chorizo option, I think I’d prefer the sofritas in my next burrito. For flexitarians, the fact that there’s no competing meat-based chorizo on the menu may make the plant-based version an attractive enough option to take the plunge.
Beyond Fried Chicken, KFC
Convincing plant-based chicken seems like the next frontier for Beyond and Impossible after conquering beef patties and sausages. But if Beyond’s collaboration with KFC is the best that they can do, then they have a long way to go.
Chicken is a tricky beast. The meat doesn’t have much inherent flavor, so when it’s literally the only component of your meal, the seasoning has to do a lot of work. And, to be fair to KFC’s Beyond “Fried Chicken”—just call it a nugget, Colonel, that’s what it is—the seasoned breading is absolutely the best part. It’s just that the dense, chewy interior tastes like shit. The nuggets are bland and unpleasant to bite into. It doesn’t help that none of KFC’s sauces—which could’ve helped mask some of that bland taste—are vegan.
While it’s been over a decade since the last time I ate at KFC, eating these nuggets instantly brought me back—I could feel heartburn developing before I even finished swallowing the first bite.
I wasn’t blown away by any of the vegan options on my first annual Veganuary tour, but the only item I’d tell you to actively stay away from is the KFC Beyond Chicken. To say it’s inedible is a bit of an overstatement, but biting into a nugget did feel a bit like gnawing on a breaded block of old chewing gum.
Given how horrible vegetarian and vegan meat-replacements used to be, and the fact that they just didn’t exist at all in most restaurants, all of the options I tested are leaps and bounds ahead of where we used to be, and meat replacements are only going to get better from here.² If you’re a flexitarian looking to cut some meat out of your diet, the Impossible Whopper and Chipotle’s options are great places to start. If you’re a sadist looking to truly punish your taste buds, consider KFC’s Beyond Nuggets.
I was somewhat surprised that Chipotle didn’t try to compete more directly with Dos Toros, another Mexican fast food spot, which partnered with Impossible on a plant-based ground beef filling. Chipotle is spinning their chorizo as “real” food as opposed to food made in a lab, in line with their primary marketing message, but I’m not quite sure that passes the sniff test. ↩
There was a man on the G train this past weekend who kept yelling “lab meat” every minute or so, letting the car know that it’ll be the only meat we’ll see on shelves in 5 years and that “it’ll taste just like real meat, too.” I think he was angry about it, but it sounded great to me. As he left the car, he implored us all to do our own research. ↩