Wordless Wednesday: Simply Stuffed

Mr. Natural – Tamales

Konarq – Samosa

Taqueria La Venganza – Carnitas Burrito

Four Brothers – Vegan Arepa

Fonda San Miguel – Enchilada Con Hongos y Coliflor

Timeless Coffee & Bakery – Chocodile

Fast Food Survival Guide, Vegan Style

Fast food is frequently scorned for serving vast amounts of empty calories to those most susceptible to the temptation, and yet, it not only persists, but continues to thrive. The fact of the matter is that fast food, specifically designed to be hyper-palatable by hitting all the pleasure centers of the brain for salt, fat, and sugar, is the definition of comfort food. Love it or hate it, it speaks to human nature and the desire to eat what tastes good, sometimes to the detriment of health and harmony.

Why Should Anyone Care About Fast Food?

While I didn’t grow up eating fast food nor did I seek it out as an adolescent, it still holds a strange intrigue, if only because it’s omnipresent no matter where I go. There will almost always be a better option nearby, especially in a big city where restaurants flourish in abundance and diversity, but that isn’t the case across the board.

  • Sometimes in food deserts, on road trips, or simply stranded out in middle America, you’re lucky enough to find a place serving food that isn’t shrink-wrapped and shelf stable.
  • Maybe it’s a crime of convenience, if you’re without proper transportation and can only travel on foot to the nearest strip mall. Let’s not forget that these quick service establishments tend to be most accessible in under served neighborhoods, where public transit may or may not connect.
  • It could very well be that you’re working the night shift, leaving few sit-down restaurants with the lights on when you finally clock out. Many chains are open into the AM hours, with some returning to a full 24/7 model.

While I wouldn’t advocate for making fast food a regular staple, it does serve a purpose. There’s a time and a place where it makes sense, so the key is learning how to make it work for you.

Eating Vegan At Fast Food Restaurants

Vegan meals will always be limited at best at nationwide chains, but slow advances in awareness and shifting market demands have brought us better options in many ways. Each establishment will have their own unique way of processing foods, ingredients, and possible contaminants, so it’s essential to research further information when in doubt. As a general guideline, here’s what you can expect when getting vegan fast food from most American chains.

  • French fries: Yes, of course, the dependable, omnipresent fried potato. They’re a staple for any place serving burgers and are typically just spuds, oil, and salt.
    • Pitfalls: Frying oil is typically shared with non-vegan ingredients, such as battered items that contain dairy or eggs, and meat or fish as well. If allergies are a concern, this would be off the menu. In rare cases, such as McDonald’s, the fries may be cooked in beef tallow or oil that has added beef extract for flavor.
  • Hash browns: Just another form of crispy potato, this is one you can eat for breakfast! Get creative and ask for them on a sandwich instead of a burger patty, topped with vegetables and ketchup if you’d like, to make it more of a meal.
    • Pitfalls: Breakfast is often served only until 10 or 11am, so you’ll have limited opportunities to take advantage of these ‘taters. They share the same other issues with French fries regarding cross-contamination and potential beef additives in rare instances.
  • Salad: Don’t expect a lush, fresh combination of flavorful vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats, but it’s nice to just get some greens on the go. Basic iceberg, carrot shreds, and cherry tomatoes are about the extent of it.
    • Pitfalls: Always ask to remove the cheese and croutons, and avoid all creamy dressings. Balsamic vinaigrette is your best friend! Italian might do the trick, but sometimes includes Parmesan cheese, too.

    • Burgers: Thanks to the widespread acceptance of Impossible and Beyond Meat, plant based burgers have become more common. Look for them at Burger King, Carl’s Junior, White Castle, among  many others.
      • Pitfalls: Always ask for these burgers without cheese and mayonnaise which sometimes come as the default build. Again, they’re cooked on shared surfaces and could end up containing small amounts of animal products by accident. If you’re concerned and ask very nicely, some places may microwave your meatless meal separately.
      • Additionally, some old school vegetarian “veggie burgers” are still made with eggs or cheese mixed directly into the patty. When faced with protein made in-house or from an unknown brand, always ask for more information to get the full ingredient list.
      • The buns may be another cause for concern. They may contain eggs and dairy, and while some establishments may be able to offer you a different type of sliced bread without animal products, there are no promises. Again, when in doubt, ask for your burger wrapped in lettuce, on a bed of lettuce, or just naked.

  • Hot and cold beverages: Drink up! Most choices on the soda fountain will be refreshingly worry-free. Soda, lemonade, iced tea, and of course water are perfectly fine for sweet hydration. Black coffee, without creamer, is clutch for an early morning visit.
    • Pitfalls: The Coca Cola company has confirmed that all their soda options are free of animal products and derivatives. However, Pepsi is much less forthcoming about their ingredients and can only confirm that original Pepsi and Pepsi Max are completely vegan.
  • Fruit: Don’t expect an array of lush, seasonal cut fruits, but you can finish your meal with a healthy dose of unrefined sugar through cut apple slices or applesauce in most cases.
    • Pitfalls: None! There’s no prep and it’s typically a single-ingredient situation. Apples are cheap and abundant, so you can count on them to be available in most places.

Best National Vegan Fast Food Restaurants

Given the luxury of choice, there are many better places to stop for plant-based meals. Taking only classic burger joints into consideration, many more upscale chains will offer a wealth of more flavorful, creative, and health-conscious options. It would be impossible to cover all of them, but a few of my favorites include:

Next Level Burger

Found inside of Whole Foods Markets across the country, this 100% plant-based burger joint is making waves. You can get everything from a classic cheeseburger to a fanciful Blue BBQ Burger, Ghost Pepper Popper Burger, and more. Don’t forget the dairy-free shakes, blended up in 8 to 10 different flavors.

Veggie Grill

From the vast array of completely vegan bowls, sandwiches, salads, and sides, the burger remains an irreplaceable best seller, with options for a Beyond patty or house-made black bean and mushroom mixture. I’d always stop at Veggie Grill if they could expand to cover more of the country! For now, they remain stationed in California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and New York.

Umami Burger

Though no longer the transcendent, truffled experience it once was, Umami still offers the Impossible Burger to swap in for any other build. I’m sad that the menu has changed and no longer includes vegan cheese, aioli, or milkshakes, but they do proper justice to the patty with a skillful sear, at least. Plus, their thin fries are some of the best around; order two, especially if you’re sharing, since a single serving is tiny.

Fast food shouldn’t necessarily be synonymous with bad food. Depending on the time, place, and circumstances, it may just be the best sustenance you can get. To keep it vegan, you just need to remain calm, carry on, and be unafraid to ask questions.

Wordless Wednesday: Memorable Meals

Beach’n – Tofu Scramble and Breakfast Burrito

Millennium – Cauliflower Steak and Peach BBQ Maitake Mushroom

Old Thousand – Spicy Cabbage Pickles and Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts

When we sit at the table, there is more going on than satisfying hunger. It is sad to think of those who eat simply to satisfy their hunger and who do not permit themselves to linger under the many spells offered by a good meal – the satisfaction of our hearts, our minds and our spirits.   –Leo Buscaglia

Tex-Mex Meets Veg-Mex

For a city with no shortage of exceptional Mexican and Tex-Mex fare, it’s a struggle to name one single greatest example of the art. However, it’s not hard to make a concise recommendation that covers all cravings. Nissi VegMex is the first place newcomers should visit, regularly winning praise from eaters from near and far. Authentic, bold flavors crafted from scratch with traditional methods are applied to plant-based proteins, so nothing is lost in translation.

Parked in Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, this modest trailer offers a short menu of top hits. Every entree is a knock-out so even if you come late and discover, for instance, that the very popular birria tacos are sold out, a second, third, or even fourth choice still won’t disappoint. True, it’s hard to match the Mexican version of au jus, pairing crispy tacos with sweet, sour, slightly spicy, and deeply savory stew for dipping, but you’ll forget all about it with one bite of any dish.

The “cheekā€™n” flautas were my first order and remain a nostalgic favorite. Served with well-seasoned rice and beans plus a refreshing little side salad, these crispy rolled tortillas come smothered with an artful drizzle of crema and avocado sauce. It really is a perfect meal, satisfying without over-stuffing, checking all the boxes for varied textures and tastes. Even my dad, a lifelong omnivore, declared that if all vegan food was like this, he could easily ditch meat for good.

Limited hours of operation are their greatest downfall. There’s no such thing as Taco Tuesday when orders are only accepted on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Delayed gratification is tough to contend with, but worth the wait, even if there is a considerable line during prime time. Real food made from scratch isn’t ready in an instant, so grab a drink from the bar or enjoy an icy glass of hempchata (that’s hemp-based horchata) and enjoy the scene. If you’re lucky, there might be a band playing on the stage to the right, luring other bystanders out to dance.

Where should you go if you want genuine Mexican food? What if you’re on a budget? How about vegan, or gluten-free option, too? Want a taste of true Austin in just one night? Nissi, Nissi, Nissi, and Nissi. If anyone says different, they must not be from around here.

Nissi VegMex
1106 East 11th Street
Austin, TX 78702