Good Enough to Eat Off Your Pants

There comes a time in every man's life when he enjoys a hamburger only to have its contents slop onto his pants: an inglorious, embarrassing moment, especially when it happens in front of a hot chick. That faux pas happened to me only recently, as my gal and I enjoyed a late dinner at Veggie Grill in Irvine.

Up to that point, everything about the new vegan eatery—located across the street from UCI in the same shopping plaza as Edwards University—exceeded expectations. Veggie Grill is the brainchild of Ray White, one of the founders of Costa Mesa's esteemed vegan eatery Native Foods. White deconstructed Native Foods to the appetizing essentials for his new venture. Gone is Native Food's hippie-dippy vibe; in its place is a sleek design—IKEA-style tables and chairs, a hip-hop soundtrack, gleaming white counters and a wall made of cushions—more appropriate to clubs. Instead of offering rather-pricey grub, Veggie Grill's cost is reasonable, no doubt to guarantee a starving-student clientele. There are no self-righteous slogans on the walls praising the virtues of veganism, no magazines with articles about the virtues of soy or CD reviews of the umpteenth Enya wannabe—just the food, ma'am.

More crucially, Veggie Grill eschews fancy entrées or obscure Asian specialties in favor of sandwiches—classic, old-school, glorious American sandwiches. Granted, Veggie Grill uses meat substitutes for its sandwiches: seitan (otherwise known as wheat meat), tempeh and something called Chillin' Chicken, an exclusive-to-Veggie Grill “protein blend,” as the menu describes it. Scary-sounding, yes, but a bite into a Veggie Grill sandwich reveals delicious, spot-on simulacra for every meat they ape.

Before enjoying the sandwiches, though, we started with some down-home appetizers: sweet potato fries and a bowl of chili. Too many restaurants offer bland sweet potato fries, but Veggie Grill nails it: firm, crispy, sweet enough to qualify as dessert, accompanied with a regal chipotle ranch dip. The chili wasn't spicy, but it didn't matter: fat white beans and a garnish of onions complemented the tomato-y broth to create a great winter antidote.

Next came the sandwiches. My gal couldn't decide between the Don't Be a Chicken and the Righteous Reuben (note to Veggie Grill's owners: drop the cutesy names, pwease), so she asked a waitress to choose the better of the two. “Oh, they're both so good—they're my favorites!” she exclaimed. The waitress suggested we flip a coin, and so I did. Heads for the chicken; tail for the Reuben. Heads. I chose the Texas Hold'em, a fake barbecue sandwich.

The fake chicken in my gal's tasted like . . . well, chicken, and was soaked in more of that delicious chipotle ranch dressing, along with a sweet vegan mayo. My Texas barbecue sandwich, meanwhile, was gooey and robust like a great 'cue sandwich should be. I could've done with fewer bean sprouts, but I chucked them in favor of the tart slaw that came on the side. The whole-wheat bun was sturdy and sweet, and the chunks of marinated wheat meat could've been smoked over wood chips for hours for all I know—they were that intense.

Then came the night's only culinary disappointment—the carrot cake. Though the piece was big and fluffy, the soy cream cheese frosting was so bland that my girlfriend called it “chalk cake.”

I laughed, she laughed—and then my Texas Hold'em exploded. My fault: I squeezed the bun a bit much, and the wheat meat squished out as a result. I tried to stuff the glistening contents back into the burger, but the burger was already stretched beyond capacity. Plop went the wheat meat in my mouth. Disgusting? Hey: you haven't munched on the Texas Hold'em yet.

Veggie Grill is a work in progress—it had only been open a week when I visited, and White and his financiers plan to work out all the kinks in their Irvine location before trying to franchise it nationwide. But if the Veggie Grill guys can already create a mock-hamburger delicious enough to make guys eat off their pants, its success is secured.


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