Living throughout the country during my lifetime has allowed me to keep a shifting expectation for food. Although I was born in southern Virginia, where hot dogs can have mayonnaise and “gourmet cooking” usually constitutes stew cooked communally in the backyard, I’ve spent time in locations as diverse as south Florida, suburban Ohio, and now Texas. I do not go into a BBQ sandwich expecting one definition of barbecue — I am able to adapt with my surroundings and judge the dish on its own merits, outside of preconception. This is an enlightened view of food; I did not develop it by choice.
Mr. Natural is a 100% vegetarian, 100% natural eatery located in the outskirts of downtown Austin, staffed with smiling faces and a humorous expression of language. The Veggie BBQ Sandwich, for example, is advertised as “wheat protein sauteed in barbecuse sauce.” The sandwich itself is a disasterous masterpiece, falling out from within itself before you’ve even taken a bite, requiring a steady hand to finish without incident. At Mr. Natural, barbecue comes with lettuce and tomatoes, sprouts, and pickle chips. It is by no feasible definition a “barbecue.” Even the name of the sauce is merely an approximation. However, taken without preconception, the unusually sweet flavor and crisp, fresh vegetables add up to a delightful sum.
Should I find myself in another region of the country, I will surely find a vegan barbecue option that surpasses Mr. Natural’s efforts, but I will not forget the uniqueness of the effort, nor its degree of difficulty.
Food trucks are an interesting concept. In theory, eating from a classically unsanitary source such as an immobile vehicle seems sketchy, as does the idea of trusting someone in what amounts to a heavily-windowed van to prepare high-quality vegan food. Somehow the food trucks trend has exploded amongst the more liberal parts of our country, and Austin is leading the way with trucks like “Counter Culture,” where the curiously named “Sue Purr” prepared one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable sandwiches of my life.
In addition to sandwiches on the menu (including a garbanzo “tuna” and a Philly seitan), Sue whips up a daily special — while I am classically paranoid about venturing into specials, I was drawn in by the Smokey “Mozarella” Sandwich, with nearly every ingredient represented in its name. I’ve come to terms with vegan cheese, and I’ve learned to love it. Counter Culture’s handmade soy and cashew based cheeze redefined that truce and shattered it, opening my mind to where vegan sandwiches can go. With a side of black bean and corn quinoa, the Smokey Mozz entered my mouth and was listed amongst my favorites before it hit my stomach.
Vegan food from a truck. A tattooed-Austinite spun kitschy vinyl hits from turntables near Counter Culture’s outdoor picnic benches. Sue had to light two different anti-bug candles to keep the flies from ruining her creations. A drunken man danced in circles, kicking up dirt. I’m learning to love these new places I’ve seen, and the foods they give me.
Kerbey Lane Cafe makes the ethical choice of veganism accessible to those of us who grew up in decidedly non-vegan environments and hold close to our hearts the need to eat low-quality food at any random point in the evening. The 24-hour restaurant chain has been a staple Austin eatery for over thirty years, and though I can only admit to having participated in roughly eight months of that time, I have grown accustomed to discovering the ins and outs of the diner-cum-family-restaurant’s menu.
One of the selling points of KLC (as it is colloquially known) is the rotating seasonal menu. After a disappointing Winter with only a vegetarian chorizo sloppy Joe as an option, I was drawn in at the promise of vegan queso and surprised by the addition of something called Allie’s Vegan ‘Wich. The sandwich (as I purposefully refrain from using the playful abbreviation ‘wich whenever possible) is a crisp combination of tomato, cucumber, hummus, avocado and spinach on my choice of bread. Texas toast was recommended to me by my server, and I took their recommendation. This proved to be my downfall.
Having no concept of what the sandwich would be outside of the ingredients, I was greeted with a sandwich boasting absolutely nothing more than its ingredients. While the spinach was crisp, the avocado homegrown and the hummus tasty as always, I became disheartened the more I thought about how easily this sandwich could have been prepared at home. Nothing was here to make the sandwich memorable; nothing that would awaken me from slumber with a rumble and carry me up I-183 North in the middle of the night. It was simply tomato on top of avocado on top of hummus on top of spinach. Competent, certainly, but without a spirit. In all honesty, much of this disappointment was due to the Texas toast, which was not toasted and served stale, rendering it simply a Texas bread.
As a hopeful aside, the vegan queso featured a touch of chili powder and was delightful. I will come back to Kerbey Lane, as I often do, and each time I will hope that Allie has taken a second look at the statement of her ‘wich.
Austin’s The Steeping Room operates in the most manufactured, globalized area of a city that prides itself on being “weird.” To its left – a Starbucks. To the right – the Apple store. In between is a closet-sized nook hoping to bring exotic teas and delectable cuisine from the Eastern hemisphere to customers more concerned with the logo on the bag than the items inside of it. However, in the outdoor mall “The Domain,” where vegan menu choices are limited to overpriced sushi and selections from the California Pizza Kitchen, it is a refreshing hideaway.
After a disappointing experience with a lukewarm ginger tofu sandwich, I took the recommendation of my company and enjoyed The Steeping Room’s piping hot Grilled Vegetable. Roasted butternut squash mixes with eggplant, caramelized onions, arugula, walnuts and hummus standing in for goat cheese. The most shocking revelation the sandwich offers is the thought that hummus can be enjoyed hot. It loses the signature identifiers of classic Lebanese hummus and becomes adhered to the ciabatta bread, not only serving as a replacement for the cheese, but acting to fill the expected highs and lows of milk fat and proteins. As always, field greens drizzled with balsamic vinegar provide the perfect accompaniment. All in all it is a fantastic first bite that leaves you with an unusually warm aftertaste.
This sandwich enthusiast recommends ordering your Steeping Room selections to go, to avoid the lethargic cooks and hit-or-miss service. Nothing destroys the ambiance of a classy tea room faster than an uninformed Austinite who can’t remember what you ordered, when you ordered it, or if you have ever spoken before. I apologize for the facetious tone.