Considering that “granola” used to be a dirty word, it’s puzzling that some of the most innovative restaurants have been building menus around grains and vegetables à la Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy. We’ve reached a “clean-eating moment,” and fast-food restaurants have joined in on the trend. Watching meat palaces go through a vegetarian phase is as mesmerizing as the shifting phases of the moon. But concocting delicious vegan or vegetarian fast food is no easy feat. It’s one thing to make nourishing plant-based meals laden with flavors. It’s another to do it cheaply in an economy of scale. Today token gestures won’t cut it, says Mark Bittman—we have higher expectations. These days there’s plenty of deliciousness out there. Here are some of our favorite fast-food trends celebrating the plant kingdom.
You don’t have to book a ticket to Hawaii, or eat fish, to enjoy a poke bowl anymore. Poke is Hawaiian crudo dressed with enough sauces and seasonings to sing out from a bed of mix-ins and warm rice. Pokéworks offers a vegetarian take with tofu and a sweet Korean-style chili sauce. You can also build your own with heaps of vegetables and lacy, reddish-brown seaweed that bursts in your mouth with oceany flavors.
Where: Zoës Kitchen
The power grain bowl is a reminder that energy-replenishing grains and tendrils of vegetables have been with us all along. The bowl at Zoës Kitchen is grounded in lentils, quinoa, farro, and rice—and so loses none of its chew or evolving texture. The mound of earthy grains is lifted by bright, cooling tzatziki and herbaceous salsa verde.
Where: Beyond Sushi
If cooked too long, tender greens begin to sulk—plants, if treated badly, are unforgiving. But if done right, and seasoned well, vegetables are very much a golden miracle. Mini-chain Beyond Sushi builds vegetarian sushi on surprises like curried cauliflower and harissa-brushed charred corn. The vegetables are rolled in a layer of obscenely delicious (nutty, chewy, dense) Forbidden Rice. The sushi is thoughtfully priced, too.
Where: Toad Style
Who hasn’t written a love letter to the jackfruit, whose flavor “falls somewhere between a pineapple and a banana, with hints of mango,” according to Serious Eats. At Toad Style, the flesh of the exotic fruit is shredded until it resembles pulled pork, then smoked with hickory and lathered in barbecue sauce. The sublime mess (vegan) is piled high with grilled cabbage slaw on potato buns.
Where: by Chloe
The old parlor trick of making vegan desserts taste heavenly will make people laugh, clap, throw the baker a few coins. It shows very well how good vegan baking is an expression of magic. The chain by Chloe has allegiance to a completely vegan menu that includes creamy dairy-free ice cream, smoothies, and sweets like a raspberry tiramisu cupcake.
Where: Clover Food Lab
In time the chickpea may become more of a friend than the poor spud, which the kitchen has drawn and quartered. The nutty legume is dropped into stews, roasted and tossed with salads, and mashed to produce falafel and hummus. The chickpea fritters at Clover Food Lab are delicately crisp with a smooth beany interior.
Are you on top of the latest in “juice”? That newfangled trend called “cold-pressed juice” is a dense drink made from grounding mounds of fruits and vegetables into a fibrous pulp that’s pressed to extract every drop of nectar.
Is the cauliflower a versatile player? It is indeed. It’s deeply roasted and tossed into fried rice and salads. Or carved out into thick turmeric-dusted steaks. The chain Lemonade offers cauliflower curried in turmeric. Florets are cut into hunks large enough to add textural excitement: a subtle crunch is echoed by bites of almonds and golden raisins.
Where: Banh Mi Place
Sometimes meaty flavors turn up in surprising places, like Banh Mi Place’s vegetarian take on “ham” bahn mi. The faux ham is so disconcertingly greasy, salty, gelatinous that it’ll make you groan and settle deeper into your chair.
Where: Superiority Burger
A body, after devouring a burger at one o’clock, may start howling dreadfully to lie down. Want a lighter finish than a two-pound patty of ground chuck? At Brooks Headley’s masterful vegetarian fast-food restaurant, a New York Times Critics’ Pick, the house specialty is a superior-minded burger. The vegetarian patty is seared crusty brown for nicely dark flavors and garnished with glistening roasted plum tomatoes—so your taste buds register savory umami. Melted muenster and Martin’s potato buns make it a burger as good as any other.