Baguette Charm – Loving Hut, Matlock Rd., Arlington, TX

Baguette Charm, Loving Hut, Arlington TX

Loving Hut is a 100% vegan chain of restaurants with locations across the nation. That is a wonderful reality. The question of, “is it hard to be vegan?” should be eliminated from our dialogue. A short drive from our home base in Austin to Frisco for a game of Major League Soccer included a stop at the chain’s Arlington location, located in a strip mall across from a placed called “Sports Burger.” The juxtaposition was delicious, but not as delicious as the Baguette Charm, Loving Hut’s answer to the cheese steak sandwich.

The sandwich boasts succulent soy protein, bell peppers, onions, homemade veganaise and melted vegan cheese on a toasty baguette. It succeeds because it aims so low; often, vegan cheesesteaks are too ambitious, forgetting that the joy of an omnivorous cheesesteak is in its corruption, in its badness. A “good” cheesesteak, as defined by popular culture, involves enough grease to seep through a brown paper bag. Vegan cheeseteaks emphasize taste — the Baguette Charm emphasized a smoky flavor with sticky, molten hot cheese. Despite being homemade and vegan, it tasted bad for me. This made the sandwich extremely good. It’s a tricky line, and possibly one born from a childhood lived in poverty.

The true stars of the meal were the side dishes, vegan cole slaw (a rarity, at least in this style) and potato salad. They were perfection by any taste’s definition.

Veggie BBQ Sandwich – Mr. Natural, East Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX

Mr. Natural's Veggie BBQ Sandwich

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.

Vegan BLT – The Cove, W. Cypress, San Antonio, TX

San Antonio’s The Cove wears many hats. It is a car wash. It is a coin laundry. It is also a locally owned and operated eatery that began as an ice cream and hot sandwiches amongst those operations and expanded into a full-fledged restaurant offering everything from fish tacos to homemade vegan dishes. The ambiance will be either your greatest detriment or biggest complement — my meal was eaten amongst peers at a picnic table just outside the eatery’s back doors, between the car wash and a playground.

For a vegan, especially one who has never enjoyed the sticky guilt of bacon, a well-made, filling BLT can be Heaven. The Cove’s offering sports tofu bacon topped with an organic spring mix and tomato, as well as the Texas standard, chipotle mayonnaise. The bread is cut from a fresh, rustic loaf. It was exceedingly simple, as you may have gathered from the photo, and would’ve been an excellent experience were it not for two important points — one, that the ratio of tofu bacon to sandwich was not substantial, leaving me hungry, and two, the price point of nearly nine dollars. This is surprisingly expensive for a restaurant wedged into the side of a laundromat, especially when you realize the advertised fresh cut fries are not vegan, and you’re stuck with a fun size of Sun Chips.

Vegan sandwiches without french fries are like birthday parties without cake. It is inexcusable for a restaurant with a fresh garden and the slogan “Eat Well, Live Well” to prepare their fries in an unhealthy manner. I digress, as this is not a french fry review, and reiterate that the sandwich was pleasant, if not ultimately satisfying.

Smokey “Mozzarella,” Pesto, Spinach & Tomato Sandwich – Counter Culture, E North Loop, Austin, TX

Counter Culture Special, Austin TX

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.

Allie’s Vegan ‘Wich – Kerbey Lane Cafe, Hwy 183 N, Austin, TX

Allie's Vegan 'Wich, Kerbey Lane Cafe

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.

Grilled Vegetable – The Steeping Room, The Domain, Austin, TX

Grilled Vegetable, The Steeping Room, Austin TX

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.

The Mitch – Spiral Diner & Bakery, West Magnolia Avenue, Ft. Worth, TX

The Mitch vegan club, Spiral Diner, Ft. Worth, TX

If I had been lucky enough to be a part of the “On Sandwiches” endeavor when it was first set upon, I may have had more influence on the “finest sandwich I have ever eaten” link at the top of the page.  My contemporary has a refined, almost ethereal sense of taste; however, differing opinions on the consumption of meat occasionally lead to creative conflict.  This being said, I hope not to question the finest sandwich in America, but to raise up Spiral Diner’s “The Mitch” alongside it as the finest sandwich I have ever eaten.  At the very least it is the finest meatless sandwich in America, and no vegetarian or vegan in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area worth their salt should miss it.

Named in honor of the irreverent humor of late comedian Mitch Hedberg (“I order the club sandwich all the time, but I’m not even a member, man. I don’t know how I get away with it.”), Ft. Worth’s Spiral Diner & Bakery adheres to the tropes of the classic club while reconstructing and enhancing it for a vegan palate.  Grilled tofu is topped with lettuce, tomato and surprisingly effective bacon bits both above and below the sandwich’s “special extra piece of bread.”  Served with an impeccable potato salad, preferable to chips, The Mitch is actually so good that it detracts from the remainder of Spiral’s challenging and adventurous menu — more times than not, my peers are dissuaded from a tasty vegan meatball sub or the avocado-laden “Simpleton” not because of the sandwiches themselves, but because they would so miss the taste and experience of Spiral’s Mitch.

The only negative to The Mitch could be the Texas area’s over-reliance on chipotle mayo for vegetarian sandwiches when a mustard or standard, eggless mayo would suffice.  It is a valid criticism — vegan variety is sometimes taken for granted in the cultural oasis of Central Texas — but one can only imagine that those sandwiches bear a similar taste in an attempt to draw glory from The Mitch.  They do not succeed.

I have learned the rule the hard way.  Order The Mitch, or spend your afternoon chewing through diced seitan, wishing you had.

The Classic – green Vegetarian Cuisine, North Flores Street, San Antonio, TX

The Classic, vegan sandwich at Green Vegetarian Cafe, San Antonio, TX

green Vegetarian Cuisine & Coffee came to San Antonio in 2006, and remains the area’s only totally vegetarian eatery. Searching Texas for a high quality vegan sandwich outside of the Keep Austin Weird ideological bubble can be challenging, but green chef Mike Behrend prides himself on being the exception, boasting on the restaurant’s website about how he is “anxious to show people just how good vegetarian cuisine can be.”  green’s name is purposefully in lowercase, and Behrend grows everything he prepares in a garden in its front yard; two things that should appeal to vegans.

A restaurant that has been in operation for only five years may be making a dubious claim by labeling their signature avocado, cucumber and sprouts sandwich as “The Classic.”  The sandwich, served between two slices of delightfully thick whole wheat bread, walks a fine line between disappointment and satisfaction, offsetting a misrepresentation of ingredient portioning with a delicious taste that can hardly be described.  Listing avocado as the primary ingredient was the first misstep, as avocado exists only as a textured spread and rendered almost non-existant by a heavy dose of chipotle mayo.  Sprouts dominate the body of the dish, bound up and twisted, pushing the bread so far apart that the presentation seems open-faced in spite of itself.  My dining guest was unable to enjoy the sandwich because of this, referring to it as “nothing but sprouts.”

Despite these criticisms, I found myself enjoying the sandwich more and more as it continued, and while the avocado and chipotle mayo began confusing themselves with each other, I found their mingling intoxicating.  As a vegan, I sometimes share my colleague’s skepticism in regard to fake or “false” meats.  Because of this, a mouthful of sprouts became a journey, offset once and again by the crispness of a homegrown cucumber.

The final verdict on the sandwich is a positive one, though green’s definition of “classic” seems positively niche.  As a related note, I enjoyed mashed potatoes as an unconventional side dish, choosing it from a list of choices; however, I was disappointed to find that many side staples, such as french fries and onion rings, were only available at an increased price.  Perhaps a sense of propriety should be grown alongside the sprouts.