Wordless Wednesday: Fast Food All Day

Lick It Up – Breakfast Burrito, Gorditas, and Migas

Project Pollo – Fried Chicken Caesar Wrap

The Corn Dog Guy – Elote Fries and Corn Dogs

Closing Time, 2021

Saying goodbye is never easy, even if it’s a temporary parting of ways. Considering how often we practice, you’d think it gets easier, but the grief is still the same.

Today, as the sun sets for the final time in 2021, I’d like to honor the restaurants we’ve lost in Austin, Texas this year, as is annual tradition. It’s been another turbulent 12 months that has tested the will, spirit, and patience of everyone, especially those in the service industry. Those “essential workers” that kept food on our tables sometimes ended up with empty plates themselves. Before we look ahead towards better days, we must look back to honor their memory, and not let their demise befall others still with us, hanging on by a thread.

Barrio Verde did not go gentle into that good night, fighting to overcome the devastating winter storm that ravaged businesses across the state. Surviving without power or water is hard enough as an individual, but for a business with perishable assets in limbo, revenue literally rotted on site. Though out of commission indefinitely, this won’t be their last stand. New ideas are in the works as we speak, so hopefully 2022 will see the return of those marvelous elotes and so much more.

Bruja’s Brew announced a temporarily closure during spring break, but never reopened again. The trailer is gone, but the booch lives on, now pouring at a select few restaurants and bars around town. Word is that it may one day be available in cans, but nothing will compare to the magic of getting an icy glass on a hot day, edible glitter sparkling in the sun.

Lo Pan’s Kitchen made a big splash onto the scene as the only 100% vegan source for Chinese American takeout staples. Sadly, they burned out just as fast. After two moves in just five months, the woks came off the fire for the last time. Rumor has it that the trailer has been repurposed as another Plow Burger outpost up north in Denton, TX. Occasionally, you can still catch a few of these comfort food classics as specials on the Brunch Bird menu, though like the source itself, they’re always gone in a flash.

Mission Street Burrito stepped up to the plate in a town known for tacos, delivering tortilla torpedoes as big as your head and nacho boxes that seemed to be bottomless. No one else could wrap up a mega meal like this, loaded with all the plant-based meats and cheeses you could crave. Disappearing in mid-June, social media accounts claim that the trailer is hibernating, but at this point, there are no signs the beast will ever awaken.

The Abundant Vegan was with us so briefly that it seemed almost like a waking dream. They weren’t even established long enough to set up an official website of their own. Serving traditional Mexican plates on East Caesar Chavez for less than a month, all that’s left now is a vacant trailer and a litany of unanswered questions.

Bone-a-fide Vegan isn’t totally gone, per say, but pivoted in September to become Theano Vegan, switching from southern BBQ to Greek delicacies. As a radical departure from their original menu, their soulful smoky pulled jackfruit and plant-based brisket will surely be missed.

Even though these poor souls have turned out the lights and locked up for the last time, tomorrow is a new day. New, brave chefs are stepping up to the plate, even in the midst of such uncertainty and unrest. An incredible number of fresh faces have clocked in already, launching new eateries all throughout the pandemic, despite the odds. To a brighter, better, and more delicious future, cheers to you. Let’s make the new year a time for all of us to thrive, together.

Five Dollar Feasts

Heraclitus once said, “the only constant in life is change,” but when it comes to the cost of living, that change is always going up. This is especially true of big cities like Austin, Texas, where newcomers including myself have been flocking in droves. Natives tell tales of $600 rent for a one bedroom apartment downtown, which is utterly unthinkable, if not downright laughable, in the midst of the current housing boom.

Despite these rapidly rising expenses, there’s still a wealth of wildly flavorful, incredibly affordable gems to be found within the burgeoning plant-based restaurant scene. For $5 or less, you can find a veritable vegan feast.

Originally devised as an weekly in-person event to bring the community together, Wheatsville‘s $5 Thursday dinners have shifted to prepared takeout plates for the time being. Not even a pandemic could stop this force of nature that brings hefty portions of protein and two sides to countless tables. Offering a different meat and meatless option every week, I eagerly await the monthly menu to see what’s in store. From shawarma to southern fried, Thai curry to Indian masala, there isn’t a single bad option on rotation.

Fluffy yet filling, the steamed veggie buns at Bao’d Up ring in at $2.95, and you can even add a $1.95 matcha red bean bite for dessert, without going over budget. However, the only thing better than cheap is free, and your first meal could be on the house. You just need to download their app and create an account (use my referral code 2271, please!) to get 500 points, which is enough to redeem three free full-sized bao! Don’t forget, they use vegan mayo in their slaw, so you could very happily round out a meal with veggies for $2.50, pickles for the same price, or spicy Sichuan fries for $3.50. You’ve got lots of cost-effective options here.

While full-sized New York-style thin crust pizzas will cost at least $15 at Big Nonna’s up north or their counterpart Li’l Nonna’s down south, the Sicilian slice will more than satisfy the appetites of the budget-conscious. Each thick, square cut slab of gently blistered dough is slathered in rich San Marzano tomato sauce and housemade vegan mozzarella. One generous piece is a meal in and of itself, bearing the minimal price tag of just $4.

You won’t find a single dish over $7 at Bodhi Viet Vegan, a Vietnamese food truck staffed buy nuns and volunteers from a local Buddhist temple. Most notably, all appetizers, bao, bánh mì, desserts, and drinks are only $3.50 each. Pull together a few friends and you could very well try the entire menu without breaking the bank. The biggest problem with this amazing hot spot is they’re only open for limited hours, Thursday through Saturday. Go early to make sure they don’t sell out of your favorites first!

Though it may not look very vegan-friendly at first glance, rest assured that Biscuits & Groovy has plant-based alternatives to everything listed on the menu. That means bacon, eggs, cheese, gravy, and of course, those fluffy, buttery biscuits are all within reach! The best bang for your buck is the Mc Hammer, which comes with one biscuit, tofu scramble, cheese, and your choices of meatless sausage or bacon all for $4. Don’t forget to ask for gravy on the side, free of charge.

In addition to some knock-out tacos and basic bagels, the wraps in particular are an absolute steal at Opera Cafe. There are four flavorful options all for $5 each, but my personal favorite is the bacon & v-eggs that comes with sauteed onions, crisp cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce. It has that perfect balance between rich breakfast comfort food and fresh, healthy ingredients.

Taco Tuesday is always a time to celebrate, especially at The Vegan Nom. Migas tacos are only $2 each, so you can grab two and still walk away with change to spare. Even a single order of these soft flour tortillas stuffed with scrambled tofu, tortilla chips, cheese and tomatoes is pretty darned filling. Best of all, the patio is dog-friendly and you can get a free beer with purchase all day, any day!

Food snobs: avert your eyes. Taco Cabana is not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, ranking just a step above Taco Bell Quality, but this homegrown fast food chain is pulling out all the stops when it comes to cheap eats. Let me just start with the $2 margaritas, available all day, via pickup, dine-in, delivery, AND drive through, available in at least 8 flavors with many seasonal variations. Food options are a bit limited for vegans, but with Beyond Meat on the menu, quite substantial with a little modification. You’ve got basic soft and crunchy tacos, the cabana bowl (which is like a taco salad), and my favorite, the nachos. Just ask for Beyond Meat nachos, no queso and no sour cream, add guacamole. Even with the extra guac, it still rings up under $5. I don’t remember exactly how much it costs because… Did I mention those $2 margaritas?

Though officially listed at $5.50, the People Project fried chicken sandwich at Project Pollo is actually a pay-what-you-can offering to those in need. The real price is whatever you can afford. If you do pay the full amount, it’s akin to a donation that will cover the meal for two more people seeking assistance. No matter what’s in your wallet, your stomach will soon be filled with a crispy fried vegan chicken patty swaddled in a soft brioche bun, topped with pickles and creamy mayo. Now that’s mutual aid in action.

In a world of over-hyped, overpriced dining disappointments, these staples will never let you down. Rich or poor, vegan or omnivore, no one in this town should go hungry, no matter what.

For anyone truly struggling to make ends meet, please visit one of the many free fridges or pantries sprinkled throughout the city, or find the pop-up emergency relief food distributions hosted by the Central Texas Food Bank. No judgement, no questions asked; we’re in this together.