‘This Isn’t Chicken’
The newest Veggie Grill is good enough to fool (almost) everyone
Veggie Grill aims to change our minds one veggie-steak sandwich at a time, and at this rate, it just might. The 2-year-old start-up that began across the street from UC Irvine—serving as a vegan student’s reprieve from the dorm-cafeteria salad bar—is now marching into the mainstream, sprouting two additional stores since its debut. The latest just opened at the Irvine Spectrum, where the Cheesecake Factory still draws crowds.
And Veggie Grill has the right formula to be competitive: uncomplicated, crowd-pleasing food by chef Ray White; a color-splashed, seat-yourself dining room that feels like a classed-up Jamba Juice; and prices comparable to its carnivorous fast-casual rivals. Most important, it never puts its philosophy before flavor, and it isn’t above using onion rings over sprouts—here, the deep fryer is put to good use more than a few times.
To broadcast this message, an employee is routinely sent outside with a plate of sweet-potato fries, offering free nibbles to anyone passing by. In them are the perfect ambassadors to communicate the restaurant’s mission: to take pretentiousness out of vegan food. Since the fries are as addictive as any you’ve had before, they’re a convincing argument, especially dipped in their tangy chipotle ranch.
Once you’re reeled in, you’ve got the meal to consider. There are sandwiches, salads or soups, all karmically formulated with no animal products, but made with the knowledge that human palates crave meat.
The carne asada is a Mexican torta, plain as day. The veggie steak that makes up its bulk exists in tiny, browned morsels kissed with char and brightened by cumin and lime juice. Though it doesn’t have the resilient, connective-tissue chew of real steak, it actually tastes like beef. Your mouth will never be more content being so blatantly deceived. Also, it’s spicy—not enough to dampen your brow, but enough to titillate.
For the spice-averse, the veggie steak is also featured in the Stack, a messy, sauced-up, two-fisted affair with greasy onion rings, pickles, Thousand Island dressing, lettuce and tomatoes. It rivals any onion-ring-stuffed burger Carl’s Jr. has assembled. Or you can forgo the mock-meat and opt for the Portobello mushroom sandwich, which is even more flavorful. This time, the onions are wilted until almost melting and so sweet they taste like they’re made of sugar. A lone roasted garlic clove, pesto and more of the chipotle ranch distract from the fact that you just ate a salad in a bun.
Only Indonesians and experienced vegans should attempt the Bali Bliss, which will be hard to swallow for anyone else. It uses tempeh—the dense, slightly tart traditional Indonesian fermented-soybean cake that has become an American vegan staple. Although my mom would cringe if she saw how it has been made into a sandwich, Veggie Grill’s tempeh is pretty darn close to what I grew up eating. Still, it begged for some sambal (Indonesian chili paste).
The tempeh appears in easier-to-manage doses in a salad called Chop-Chop Chef, in which it’s joined by mock-chicken and the clear, jelly-like granules of a protein-rich grain called quinoa. Despite them, the better salad is the Chinese Chickin’. All the obligatory components—Mandarin-orange wedges and strips of fried wonton skin—are present, tossed with a zingy sesame-rice vinaigrette and served on a huge plate that might as well be a hog’s feeding trough.
But somehow, the Baja Fiesta salad seems the right way to go—a salad in its truest sense, without the fakery. In it lies Veggie Grill’s most compelling proof that there are plenty of tasty things in the vegetable kingdom to satisfy human hunger: papaya, avocado and the juiciest cucumbers you’ll ever crunch.
You don’t notice the absence of meat in the bean-heavy chili or the rich tomato-basil soup, either. The latter could stand up to anything an Italian trattoria simmers. And though their gumbo is lacking in the lip-smacking poultry goodness of chicken broth, the fried chicken fingers are tasty enough to please the Happy Meal set. Though when we took a particularly discriminating 4-year-old, he proclaimed, “This isn’t chicken” after one bite. Yet he still finished it—for all he knew, we were at Burger King.
Veggie Grill, 81 Fortune Dr., Irvine, (949) 727-9900; www.veggiegrill.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Meals, $6.75-$9.50.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.