Gentle readers: Behold the debut of our latest column, The Root, written by Charisma Madarang. Biweekly, she’ll regale us with all things vegan, vegetarian and plant-based in this great county of ours.
My hands were thick with maple syrup and milkshake. I used a napkin to wipe it all off, tugging at my fingers until the paper was soaked with the sweet, sticky residue. Then, I sat back and stared at the remnants of my lunch—an empty plastic tray—as I reminisced about it all.
After a while, chef Sky Tanksley asked me how it was, and I slowly replied, “I’m still thinking.”
It’s rare to find a menu in which each dish indulges your senses. It’s also rare to find a menu in which each dish is heavy with nostalgia. It’s alarming (a good thing) when the two are achieved by a completely vegan restaurant.
The concept was a natural one for Tanksley, who first ventured into plant-based fare in his own kitchen, cooking up meals for himself and a handful of friends. Soon, those friends would tell other friends, and he was taking orders for cars lined up outside his house. Pop-ups quickly ensued, as they do, and within seven months, he, along with his partner, brother and best friend, opened the first all-vegan establishment in Santa Ana’s McFadden Public Market.
But Munchies Diner is more than just vegan-diner shtick. A quick glance at that glorious menu will tell you it’s much more ambitious than that. Beyond the pancake stacks is a formidable offering of vegan takes on fast-food favorites, including the Western Bacon Shroom Burger, the Human-Style Fries and the VcGriddle.
It’s the VcGriddle that brought back Dad’s red Chevrolet Suburban, road trips in the middle of the burning-hot summer and the obligatory pit stops at the golden arches right after traversing the Grapevine. Munchies’ interpretation of the original is uncanny, yet also more than that. The pancake buns are pillowy and the scrambled-rice eggs perfectly fluffed, and when they meet the crispy bite of seitan bacon laden with melty cheese and tender, savory sausage dripping in thick maple syrup on a chunky foundation of hash browns, the whole thing becomes almost visceral. There’s no hint of plant cheese or faux meat thanks to the smartly spiced patty. Somehow, the breakfast sandwich tastes and feels better for the lack of animal.
If you prefer to ease into a menu, go for the Cheeseburger Deluxe with bacon. The sesame bun is light and simple, letting you enjoy the distinct meatiness of the touted Impossible Burger topped with the same marinated seitan bacon and cheese used in the VcGriddle. The pizza fries—crispy potato sticks doused in sweet marinara sauce and topped with little breaded barrels of mozzarella—are highly snackable. If you’re lucky enough, Munchies might be serving the Brunchwrap Supreme, which tastes like a smokey fajita wrapped in a crunchy tortilla.
Ending the meal with a milkshake is mandatory here, and you’ll want to get the s’mores version, even though Wally Vu, the man behind the bar, might insist you try the peanut butter and banana, which is also superb. For the s’mores shake, chocolate syrup coats the inside of the cup, which is then filled with a soft, creamy almond-and-oat-milk-based ice cream from Hug Life. Cinnamon-crunch cereal from Cascadian farms floats atop the shake like jagged, brash ice. The creation is finished with another helping of chocolate.
Wiping away the last of the savory and sweet remembrances of my meal, I finally have an answer for the chef, but Wally beats me to the punch and says, “That Munchies Diner drip is different.”
Munchies Diner, 515 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (657) 699-3076; www.munchiesoc.com.