Wordless Wednesday: I’ve Gotta Hand It To ‘Ya

Rebel Cheese – Pub Cheddar Chowder

Rebel Cheese – Jalapeno Melt

Plow Bao – Brunch Bowl Tacos

Pho Please – Tofu Rice Paper Rolls

Nada Moo – Build Your Own Sundae

Nada Moo – Cookies and Cream Milkshake

Li’l Nonna’s – Beetaroni and Olive Pizza

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.

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.

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