Flipping the Bird

When I was a kid, the closest thing I ever had to fried chicken was the sporadic nugget or tenders at Friendly’s, eaten as the obligatory protein that would unlock the gates to dessert. Meat was never a feature for me, so I had no problem making the switch to veganism, even in those early days when eating the plant-based alternative meant whipping up a pot of beans. Things sure have changed in recent years, accelerated by technological advances and the quickening drumbeat of climate change. It’s not just the compassionate choice, but simply the most sensible one for the planet.

That’s all to say that I’m fortunate enough to have expanded my palate since going vegan so many years ago. Rather than feeling the constraints of a restrictive diet, pledging to try anything plant-based has opened up my eyes to a bold new world of food, quite literally. Though fried chicken isn’t exactly the pinnacle of culinary achievement, it’s still quite a marvel to behold, for the beautiful simplicity of the art form.

Shatteringly crisp, a properly fried, greaseless crust should give way to quick, sharp bite, revealing tender, juicy flesh within. Meaty, but not sinewy, firm but yielding to the tooth, that texture is where 90% of the experience lives or dies- And in this case, nothing should have to die to fulfill that craving. Some are made of soy, some gluten, others pea protein, and still others use a combination approach to achieve plant-based prowess. Luckily, my only intolerance is to animal cruelty, so Austin is my vegan oyster when it comes to exploring these deep-fried delights.

Stunned by the breadth and depth of options suddenly at my disposal, I decided to embark on a noble quest to find the best vegan fried chicken in this fair city. Even as I ate, watching the plates pile up, even more restaurants opened with hot and fresh new options. Thus, this critique is forever a work in progress. At this rate, seeking out vegan fried chicken may soon become as relevant as hunting down vegan hummus; though it’s possible to go astray, you’d have to try very hard to mess that one up.

This is far from an exhaustive list, presented in no particular order; the rapidly evolving restaurant scene makes it impossible to keep a complete catalog of options. Rather, it’s my little black book of favorites, featuring plant-based renditions to do proper justice to the breaded bird. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve excluded fully vegetable-centric versions, buffalo wings, and barbecue, focusing on complete proteins, simply seasoned and fried only.

Exemplifying the greatest manifestation of the concept, The Beer Plant serves different types of fried chicken delights for every meal of the day. At brunch, it turns up on top of cavernous Belgian waffles and dripping in real maple syrup. Come lunch and dinner, the Chicken Caesar Salad is quite simply the stuff of dreams, with resoundingly crunchy lemon-pepper seitan and Violife Parmesan showering crisp greens. Dotted with briny capers, almost like pickled confetti, each bite pops and sparkles with bright flavors. You can have your deep-fried delights and feel assuredly wholesome for eating your vegetables, too.

Sundazes specializes in fried seitan sandwiches, the likes of which could give KFC a run for its money. The NFC (No Frickin’ Chicken) comes fully stacked up with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onions; it tastes like pure childhood nostalgia on a soft white bun. It’s got that classic, unmistakable fast food flavor, without the meat, in the best way possible. Bite-sized nuggets are also available for a straight-up crispy chicken experience, with optional sauces for coating and dipping, to spice things up as desired.

New to Austin but already well established in San Antonio, Binge Kitchen has recently expanded from it’s original home to spread their meatless marvels farther afield in this great state. Covered in a shatteringly crisp, immaculately fried batter and lovingly tucked into a thick blanket of savory gravy, the Southern Fried Chick’n dinner is impossible for me to resist, though I’d implore you to save room for the sides. Each entree comes with your choice of three sides from a long list of comfort food masterpieces, but I can’t stand to deviate from my standard order. The buttery cabbage, fried okra, and creamy mashed potatoes themselves would make a deeply satisfying meal.

Known originally for poultry alone, Happy Chicks has broadened their range to include meatless options for all. My experience has been a bit mixed, due to takeout under less than ideal circumstances, yielding a comparatively soft texture, more evocative of an elongated processed chicken nugget than that of a genuine chicken tender. Dine in if possible and eat immediately for best results.

Based on the name alone, Possum Pizza may not be the first place you’d think to hit up for fried faux fowl, but their sides could rival the superlative pies on offer. The Crispy Fried Chk’n Wings, complete with a sugarcane drumstick, are a truly worthy accompaniment, and the Possum Popplers could convince you to forgo a slice altogether. Battered and fried with a savory, vaguely creole-style seasoning, the side of ranch isn’t strictly necessary for complete satisfaction, but isn’t an unwelcome inclusion, either. Though coated in spicy buffalo sauce by default, I like to keep mine classic; even fully naked, they’re brilliantly flavorful as is.

If you fancy your fried chicken festooned in edible gold, unicorn confetti, fresh flowers, and lit sparklers, well, I’ve got just the thing for you, too. HapPea Vegans has sent shock waves through the entire Austin food truck scene with their outrageous, unrestrained, recklessly creative dishes, illustrated in bold colors by the inimitable Cluck Norris. A literal tower of fried chicken, “crack mac,” hot takis, onion rings, and thick-cut fried pickle chips, this is not a meal for the meek. For an unforgettable splurge, you can special order this spectacle with advance notice, or show up for their daily crowd-pleasing staple, the Bluto Sandwich, to keep things [comparatively] simple.

Another new import from San Antonio, Project Pollo is on a mission to make affordable, accessible plant-based fast food for the masses. Unflinchingly targeting mainstream heavyweights, their fried chicken can genuinely hold up to scrutiny against conventional sandwiches. The Original Project is their signature sandwich, though I’m partial to the Pico de Pollo, a slightly jazzed-up version with Credo cashew queso and fresh tomato salsa, all set atop a buttery toasted brioche-style bun. Most sandwiches suffer from an excess of bread, but not so here; more than a mere vehicle for filling, this one melts in your mouth, a perfect foil to the flawlessly crisp breaded breastless patty.

Going for an old-school approach, Tender Thighs reaches for locally produced Flying Tempeh Brothers to headline in their Tempting Tempeh platter. It comes with French fries and a choice of sauce, though only the herbaceous, verdant chimichurri is vegan. For late night fried chicken cravings, this is the place to beat, since they’re open until 2AM everyday.

Soul food does a body good, at least when it’s plant-based. That’s why the mere concept behind Ol’ Soul Creole is a soothing salve to apply directly to the stomach. If you can possibly resist the jambalaya and po’ boys, the Chicken ‘n Waffles are worth holding out for. Fluffy, slightly chewy waffles support an assortment of fried tenders and nuggets. Showered with coarse sea salt and powdered sugar, it walks that fine line between sweet and savory with admirable grace. The real clincher is the spicy maple syrup served on the side, spiked with a signature blend of cayenne, oregano, paprika, basil, thyme, and pepper. Ask for a second serving of that golden elixir, because once you get started, just one little cup won’t cover all your drizzling desires.

You’d be forgiven for dreading the drive all the way out to Dripping Springs to get your hands on food from Dipping Springs Tender Co., but this trailer is actually parked in East Austin, conveniently located in the Eastciders Taproom parking lot, no less. Their kettle chip-crusted Tempeh Tenders stand out for their resoundingly crisp coating and soft, subtly nutty interior. The combination of old-school ingredients and new-school technique creates a perfectly balanced wholesome junk food experience; healthy enough that you don’t need to justify the indulgence, but decadent enough that it satisfies those fast food cravings. Pair it with one of almost a dozen vegan dipping sauce options, and check out the collard greens to get in a serving of vegetables with you meal.

You’ve gotta be quick to catch the Chick Fil Ain’t at Revolution Vegan Kitchen, because it’s only available as a randomly recurring special. I’ve heard rumors that if you beg and plead enough, the cooks at the helm can be convinced to bring it back on board, though. That shouldn’t be such a difficult feat considering what an addictive dynamo this one is. Don’t call it a copycat; the original inspiration only wishes it was this stacked. The thick, meaty patty, almost comically oversized perched atop its toasted bun, comes dressed with juicy sliced tomatoes, pickle chips, and secret sauce. Each massive meal comes with waffle fries, as if that meatless behemoth wasn’t enough.

To think, mere months ago, I wasn’t sure there would be enough options to have a diverse round-up of vegan fried chicken to share. Between new establishments and fresh innovations, menu rotations and culinary experiments, one could eat a different spin on the old bird everyday. At this rate, we’ll have a whole flock of new dishes to try in no time. Meatless renditions aren’t just winging it; compared to the bold flavors and satisfying textures of these “alternatives,” conventional poultry doesn’t have a place on the plate anymore.

11 thoughts on “Flipping the Bird

  1. what an enjoyable read! I’m not vegan, but eat little meat. When my garden behaves I’m practically on a raw diet, but with purchased avocados and, there is always cheese. Which is why I’m not vegan. I tried seitan and tempeh. Not for me. But your food photos are beautiful.

    1. I do understand! Happily, meat alternatives are evolving rapidly, getting better and better with every passing year (if not month, at this rate.) I’m hopeful that there will be something that everyone can enjoy soon!

  2. They all look so crispy and yummy:) I am not vegan , (I was for a few years though.. ) but I don’t eat meat, and never liked red meat , even as a child. But I did like chicken and turkey, but I don’t miss them at all, as there really are so many plant based alternatives aroung these days. Have a great week Hannah:)

    1. Yes! I do feel so lucky that for any cravings I might have, there’s a wholly satisfying vegan option now. :)

  3. Wow those are really good looking vegan alternatives, they look like the real thing. I had tried something similar in HK and I can say I would never miss meat when I had those

    1. It really is incredible how far they’ve come! I remember when I first went vegan, the most “realistic” mock meat was just tofu carved into the shape of a bird…!

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