The Great Shake Down

What makes a truly great milkshake?

Greedily drinking down my umpteenth test subject, I must ask myself this vital question. Why is this one superlative, crave-worthy at all times, while an equally priced, similarly composed competitor is more like a nuclear meltdown in a cup? With that, my quest to find the very best that Austin has to offer began in earnest.

Flavor, of course, is essential, though highly subjective. Judging objectively, it all comes down to texture, which encompasses a number of factors:

Viscosity– Thick enough to drink through a straw without great duress, just shy of being able to turn the cup upside-down without incident, but with more body and heft than a protein shake.

Smoothness– This is no place for gritty powders, but more importantly, errant chunks of unblended ingredients or coarse ice cubes should be considered a crime. There’s no excuse for that kind of neglectful prep work.

Temperature– If it’s not icy-cold, there’s something wrong. Though rich and indulgent, it should still be refreshing enough to take the edge off a sweltering summer day.

Ingredients– As with the components for any other recipe, quality counts. This is where I need to get a bit granular and disqualify anything that uses bananas as a base. Sorry kids, that’s a smoothie, not a milkshake.

First up, the reigning champ should surprise no one: Milky Way Shakes has it right in their name, after all. The only thing on the menu here are frosty blended beverages, with options for both the mild and wild of disposition. Taking inspiration from galactic sources, your kicked up classics are the Chocolate or Vanilla Eclipse, which both come adorned with a dark chocolate crescent moon, adorned with almonds and edible glitter. While I personally default to the Oreo Borealis which hits that sweet mint-chip spot thanks to homemade peppermint syrup, coarsely crushed sandwich cookies, and the critical garnish of star-shaped food-grade confetti, the seasonal specials are out of this world. In the frigid days of winter, it would be worth the chill to snag the North Star, a rich and creamy eggnog blend that’s topped with a genuine meringue snowperson. These nondairy masters go above and beyond the average options, while still churning out pitch-perfect nostalgic treats. You definitely don’t need to be vegan to appreciate the artistry and bold flavors happening in this tiny trailer.

On the same level of handcrafted indulgence, Sweet Ritual is a full vegan scoop shop preparing unique ice cream concoctions from scratch. The challenge for each visit is deciding whether you can forgo the decadent sundaes, cookie sandwiches, straight-up pints, or, of course, milkshakes. Unlike most parlors, opting to drink your calories is not a sad sacrifice here, where you get all the goodness of their bestsellers in semi-liquid form. Their signature coconut and soy soft serve can accommodate any flavor requests, though the Coffee Shake made with cold brew and crowned with a beguiling swirl of vanilla soft serve “whipped cream” is a top request, for obvious reasons. Nothing beats the bright, bold, and pure refreshing properties of the simple Mint Shake, though. No chips need apply to keep me coming back for more; thick and creamy, melting slowly even on a steamy sun-drenched afternoon, it satisfies my thirst and sweet tooth all in one luscious slurp.

Known for their coconut-based pints found in freezers nationwide, Nada Moo is rooted here in beautiful Austin where they can flex their creativity for us locals. Serving up more than the supermarket hard-packed products, your best bet is the DIY shake option, giving you full control over your particular mix-in masterpiece. The option of swirling your scoops with cereal milk is a standout offering that’s worth sipping at least once, but don’t let that dissuade you from going with a ribbon of chocolate or caramel sauce, applied to coat the inside of the cup like a luxurious lace blanket. For more hardcore cravings, though, you can never go wrong with the Death by Chocolate shake, which is every bit as dark and devilishly fudgy as it sounds.

Departing from the conventional custard creations, TLV blends an entirely unique base of 100% pure sesame tahini, date molasses, and almond milk into distinctly nutty, buttery shakes. It’s an unlikely foundation that proves unshakably strong in the face of any comparable rivals. Disqualifying the banana option for reasons outlined above, it’s delightful served up as is, or embellished to make a Chocolate or Cardamom-Turkish Coffee Tahini Shake. There’s truly no better accompaniment to a meal of crispy, freshly fried falafel or mushroom shawarma. Move over, French fries; the be-pita sandwich and tahini shake are the new power couple on the block.

Brand new on the scene, Project Pollo has finally launched their much-awaited oat milk shakes just this past weekend. Being that I rushed out first thing to get my fix, they deserve a bit of slack while still hammering out the fine details. While enjoyable, my inaugural Double Chocolate Shake did fall a bit short of expectations. More like vanilla soft serve with chocolate syrup, it was certainly thick, but not exactly drinkable, and quite pale compared to the advertised images. Also available in Strawberry Shortcake flavor which promises real strawberries and crumbled sugar cookies, I’ll check that one out next time, perhaps after a longer trial period. At least when you snag an order of loaded fries on the side, you won’t walk away disappointed.

When you find yourself at Next Level Burger, there are no two ways about it: You must order a “next level” milkshake, or be sorely disappointed by the “classic” flavors. The basics are one-note, bland, and too sweet, trying to compensate by adding more sugary syrup. Go big or go home with the Cookie Shake, however, and you’ll be rewarded with a cool contender blended with its namesake, topped with extra crumbles and chocolate syrup. The real trick is to ask for chocolate chips as well, for the best textural and most flavorful experience. Take your pick from a soy or coconut base, though I’ve tasted no discernible difference between the two. You can now get the same drinkable desserts through their ghost kitchen sister establishment, Next Level Clucker, too.

A trip to The Yard Milkshake Bar is not a journey to be taken lightly. By placing your order, you’re making a commitment to face down a frosty behemoth; there is no such thing as a small size, only big, bigger, and biggest, with “toppings” well exceeding the confines of the commemorative keepsake glass. The NOT MILK? is the sole vegan option, but even that will leave the most hedonistic glutton for punishment craving more. Chocolate soy milk blends with oat milk chocolate chunk ice cream, topped by either almond or coconut whip and crushed cookies. Vanilla icing acts as the edible spackling paste gluing more cookie pieces to the exterior, and thick rivulets of chocolate syrup stripe across the whole thing. Don’t forget the full-sized soft chocolate chip cookie that’s nearly hidden in that thicket of garnishes. If that sounds like a situation, you’re not wrong. Full embracing your milkshake and all the mess that comes with it is part of the experience. Fully prepared for this inevitability, each shop is equipped with an extra-large bucket sink to wash off your glass- and self- before slowly waddling home. It’s outrageous, it’s over the top, and it’s a must for anyone that wants a truly memorable milkshake.

To close out this roundup, I must offer an honorable mention to the Birthday Cake Smoothie at Nekter Juice Bar. Yes, we do have bananas here, but by some strange alchemy, you’d never know it from the taste. The flavor is that of unadulterated, unmistakable layer cake, frosting and all. Better yet, it’s tinted a festive blue hue thanks to the natural color granted by spirulina, and topped by pastel sprinkles. Don’t forget to request plant-based protein though, since whey is the default option.

Who makes the best milkshake on your block? Though you could easily hold that title yourself, what makes it such an illustrious treat is the luxury of having someone else make it for you. Everything tastes better when you don’t have to do the heavy lifting, or in this case, arduous blending, especially when you get genuine chefs and ice cream experts on call.

Breakfasts to Savor

A new day is dawning in the kitchen, jostling the soundest of sleepers awake. Far removed from the dusty boxes of cereal and granola bars, bold, bright aromas infused with spice and umami fill the air. Though the standard American diet leans heavily on sweets for the “most important meal of the day,” polls have shown that the majority of those chowing down before noon prefer a savory breakfast.

Skip the batter, forget the flour, and stick firm slabs of tofu straight into the waffle iron for a high-protein foundation to hold a deeply umami lashing of espresso-spiked gravy. Waffled Tofu with Red Eye Gravy provides a hearty, gluten-free vehicle for enjoying this thick, creamy sauce enriched with sautéed mushrooms without any regrets.

If dry cereal is more your speed, you’ll be bowled over by Curried Coconut Granola. Warmly spiced clusters of thick oats and coconut flakes are baked to golden-brown perfection with minimal added oil. They’re perfect for sprinkling over unsweetened yogurt, plain oatmeal, soups, salads, or simply eating out of hand.

Craving buttery pastries, flaky and crisp? Skip the sugary frosting and syrupy fruit filling with Cheesy Broccoli and Bac-un Toaster Tarts. White bean-based cheese sauce fills flaky pastry pockets along with smoky bites of tempeh bac-un and tender-crisp broccoli florets.

Some Americans consume eggs in the morning, but have you heard of the latest Indian street food sensation taking the world by storm? Bread Omelets wrap up a fusion of French toast, scrambled eggs, and an egg sandwich all in one neat package. My vegan version is made with chickpea flour seasoned with black salt for the same sensation, without the eggs or dairy.

South of the border, Chilaquiles have been an essential staple for using up stale tortilla chips but take on greater flavor when prepared fresh, from scratch. Homemade corn tortilla chips are baked and not fried in this take on breakfast nachos. Little prep or planning is needed to throw together fresh salsa, black beans, and diced avocado in a meal that can be scaled for one or one dozen.

Tall stacks of pancakes dripping with syrup may sound dreamy, but the sugar crash soon to follow isn’t quite as satisfying. For a substantial morning meal that will power you through the day, skip the sugary stuff. The breakfast revolution will not be sweetened.

Get all these recipes in the 2021 Issue 1 of Vegetarian Journal, and online at VRG.org!

Lettuce Feast

Don’t lose your cool as temperatures rise. There’s no need to sweat the details in the kitchen or the dining room when you could whip up an easy, breezy, no-cook meal in minutes.

Equal parts spicy and refreshing, each crisp bite will wake up your senses with an invigoratingly spicy, creamy almond sauce. Staying perfectly chilled with a refreshingly juicy, sweet and savory mango-tofu salad, the combination of tastes and textures can’t be beat.

Swaddled in fresh lettuce leaves, you don’t even need to break out the forks or knives. It’s a party starter, last minute meal, and relief from the heat all in one.

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Extra Virgin, Extra Special

One of the most important ingredients in my pantry, tied for a photo finish with salt, is olive oil. Always close at hand, in at least two or three varieties, it’s my top pick for baking and cooking, both sweet and savory. We’ve talked about the subject at length, but there’s still so much more to learn about such a historical, essential staple.

Reinvigorated by an inspiring Flavor Your Life Virtual Influencer Event, I’m taking another deep dive into this golden-green elixir. Assembled for the express purpose of sharing the rich, delicious heritage of authentic extra virgin olive oil from Europe, they’re on a mission to banish subpar, rancid blends from kitchens everywhere.

Extra virgin olive oil is the gold standard since it’s made simply by pressing olives without heat or chemicals, which makes it virtually free of the bitter acidity plaguing lesser, cheaper blends. A panel of trained, expert tasters test for defects, ensuring that each drop encapsulates a harmonious balance of fruitiness and spiciness. If the oil doesn’t have that signature essence, it won’t receive an Extra Virgin rating, no matter the painstaking processing methods employed.

Contrary to common belief, extra virgin olive oil has a high smoking point of 400°F, which is why it gets top billing in my cookbooks as a go-to for almost all recipes. The best dishes start with quality ingredients; there’s no two ways about it. That’s why I was so eager to put Le Stagioni d’Italia to the [taste] test.

Billed as having a robust flavor of artichoke and almond with a medium bitter, spicy aftertaste, as well as a green, ripe, fruity aroma, this powerful profile is a clear winner. Featured in a number of rice dishes during the online event, I was hungry for a piece of the action at home, with my own personal touches. Though the golden risotto was quite tempting, glowing luminously even on my dull computer screen, I had to go with cooler, more summery fare.

Sweet cherry tomatoes are slowly roasted to concentrate their natural sugars into tiny umami bombs, bursting with flavor across the landscape of plump carnaroli rice. Though these short grains are typically used for risotto or paella, they’re brilliantly tender yet toothsome once chilled, creating a more texturally satisfying salad than long grains that tend to get dry and brittle over time.

Amplifying the inherently rich profile of the oil itself, I decided to fold actual artichoke hearts into the mix, and instead of using cottage cheese as called for in the original recipe, finish each serving with a creamy dollop of almond ricotta. Infused with fresh herbs and zesty lemon peel, it’s bright, vibrant, complex, luxurious, and yet still approachable and comforting all at once. That’s the beauty of good olive oil; such versatility knows no bounds.

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Sundaes Everyday

If you’ve ever flipped through a new cookbook and thought, “Man, that recipe looks amazing, but I’m just too tired to start from scratch,” or “I don’t have all the ingredients here,” or “I just don’t have the time,” you’re not alone.

Even simple formulas can become daunting given the demands of work, family, and life in general. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just treat those glossy pages like a restaurant menu, ready to order on a whim?

For anyone living in the Austin area or craving some culinary tourism, June and July are your lucky months.

Sweet Ritual, esteemed vegan ice cream parlor and frozen dessert specialists, will treat your taste buds to limited edition specials based on the creations in Super Vegan Scoops!

Celebrating the launch of the book, you’ll be able to spoon into a Boba Tea Parfait or Elvis Banana Split without doing any of the prep work or cleanup afterwards.

Make your own custom boba masterpiece; take your pick from the full spectrum of milkshake flavors and add tapioca pearls to it. There’s no wrong way to swirl it up, though strawberry and coffee get top billing from the tireless tasters scooping it out as Sweet Ritual staff.

If you want to make like a banana and split, you can pick out two scoops of ice cream to perch upon a caramelized banana, house-made peanut butter shell, crunchy peanuts, and a spiced coconut bacon topping. It truly is fit for a king!

Once you’ve fallen in love with the flavors, you can pick up signed copies of Super Vegan Scoops! to take home with you, too.

Churning out premium dairy-free ice cream made with local suppliers and local produce to use real fruit, fragrant spices, and handmade baked goods in every scoop, Sweet Ritual should already be at the top of your list for a dessert fix. Getting my creations featured is genuinely a dream come true, so come visit, share about it on social media, and prove to me that it’s real!

You’ve got two months to indulge, starting right now. Ready, set, scoop!

Sweet Ritual
4631 Airport Blvd, Suite 125
Austin, TX 78751