BBQ Jackelope Sandwich – Native Foods Cafe

nativefoodsbbqI eat more vegan/vegetarian cuisine than your average person for whom it is not a lifestyle. I think a lot of it is pretty tasty stuff, but given that I also consume a fair amount of meat I tend to be less impressed with it than my vegan or vegetarian associates. Much as I malign bacon around here, faux bacon is a sad, sorry copy of the real thing. That’s likely to be true no matter how tasty faux bacon is, and in my estimation that’s too bad. I’ve had more than a few things that probably would have been more enjoyable if I didn’t have an unfair comparison to make.

Which brings us to Native Foods, who, for this particular item, steer clear of the issue. Elsewhere on the menu it gets a bit problematic, but this here just lets jackfruit be jackfruit, and I’ll be darned if I wasn’t seriously impressed. The jackfruit has a real body to it, a good chew, and smothered in a smoky sauce and paired with an Asian slaw it makes for a fine sandwich. There’s some filling creep, but nothing beyond what you’d expect from the style, and the bun is soft enough that you can press down enough to keep most of it together. There aren’t many faux-meat sandwiches that are unqualified successes, but I’m very glad to have found one.

Grilled Sweet Potato and Cherry Salsa – Made at Home

sweetpotatoAs any enthusiast knows, a great many sandwiches start with leftovers. I’d happened to make some grilled sweet potatoes with cherry salsa, going by a recipe I happened upon when looking for something delightful but vegetarian. The potatoes were grilled and then tossed with lime zest, cumin and chili flakes, while the cherries were combined with scallions, fresh ginger, a dose of lime juice and more zest. It was delicious, and a few days later I pulled the leftovers out of the fridge with a sandwich in mind. It would have been simple enough to just toss the two onto some bread and be done with it, but in my mind leftover sandwiches don’t end with whatever you have in the fridge, you start there.

The flavor profile already had plenty of sweetness from the potatoes and the cherries, and there was more than enough brightness from the lime. Not bad, but it all lacks depth. A deeper richness would really round things out, and for that two ingredients occurred to me. On the left above there’s a layer of peanut butter on the bottom bun, and on the right I went with avocado. Both are creamy and have plenty of fat, bringing that richness I felt was lacking. The salsa also hadn’t been as spicy as I’d like, so some hot sauce went on both sandwiches.

Ultimately, these weren’t spectacular. They were good, but some of the sandwiches I’ve made have really knocked me over, so it’s hard not to be a tad disappointed when something doesn’t gel completely. Maybe a different bread might have helped, the whole wheat kaiser rolls I had on hand were a bit dry and not so flavorful. Some sandwiches are a bit tricky to figure out, but luckily doing so is plenty rewarding.

The Club – Real Food Daily, Santa Monica, CA

real food clubWe’ve featured a vegan club sandwich here at On Sandwiches before, more than once, but this is a different non-animal. Where those were tofu and tempeh, respectively, this one is seitan. Joining the replacement protein are lettuce, tomato, avocado, and tempeh bacon.

There’s a bit of a hitch in being a non-vegan reviewing vegan food, namely that I both know what the actual sandwich tastes like and don’t mind eating it. That leaves a sandwich like the above struggling to get over the “good for what it is,” hump, held down by the soft bigotry of low expectations. Tempeh bacon is a good example. It’s tasty enough, and miles above soy bacon, but it hardly comes without shouting distance of the real thing. (If turkey bacon is ordinary bacon photocopied on to very heavy cardstock, soy bacon is a photo of turkey bacon screen printed onto a paper bag.)

By its own merits, this was a good sandwich. The construction was tidy (no surplus of veganaise), the flavors meshed well and overall it was quite tasty. I’m sure any of my vegan associates would be delighted with this sandwich, but for me it suffers from the same problem that plagued the Mendocino Farms not-so-fried chicken sandwich: it can’t escape being a reminder of a sandwich I’m not eating. I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat this  sandwich, far from it, just don’t eat it because you’re craving a club.

Vege Smoked Duck & Vege Pepper Steak – Love and Haight, Haight St, San Francisco, CA

The smoked duck sandwich at Love and Haight is not actually made of duck. Similarly, the pepper steak sandwich involves no actual steak. They are meat substitutes, products where soybeans and other such things are processed to resemble meat. I’ve considered such things before, and ultimately I concluded that they say more about meat than they do about soybeans. (The short of it is that it says an awful lot about cold cuts that you can mash a bunch of soy together and get something that is more-or-less as good.) But what of the things in themselves?

If we consider the most basic question, I should say that the sandwiches are a success. They taste good. The pepper steak was tasty, and the duck was particularly choice. It had a deep, smoky flavor, and the success of the sandwiches definitively credited to how good these flavors were. The accompanying ingredients were lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onions, mayo, mustard and, in owing to the location and the style of the place, sprouts. That’s a classic deli sandwich, but if the main ingredient fails there isn’t much there for backup. In further evidence of the reliance on the fake meat, if one is going to attempt to pass off a facsimile as hey-I-guess-it’s-good-enough, one does not attempt duck. It’s not a fake-it-and-hope-nobody-notices move. That’s important to note, because it points at the whole problem with the sandwich.

I think there’s a framing issue at work here, and while both sandwiches were quite good I’m far from convinced they were everything they could be. Food isn’t just a question of taste and smell. We eat with our eyes, the atmosphere matters, the context has an impact. There’s a lot going into each meal, even if we’re hardly conscious of most of it. What I found myself wondering at Love and Haight was whether I would have enjoyed these sandwiches more had they not been pitched as fake meat. The fake duck was good enough that I was happy to be eating it, but it was a far cry from real duck. Smoked duck is juicy and tender, a product of abundantly fatty tissue. There are a lot of ways to make soybeans delicious, there are very few that will turn them into duck.

Above I asked what was the value of the things in themselves, and I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. I cannot consider them in a context apart from fake meat, they don’t exist in any other context. I don’t know what you would call it, and I don’t know whether I would have ended up there eating it if it wasn’t trying to emulate meat. Those are difficult questions, and I don’t have answers for them. It light of that, I cannot help but think I haven’t given these sandwiches the full consideration they deserve.

Vegetable Sandwich – Le Petite Bistro, Philadelphia International Airport, Philadelphia, PA

“Le Petite Bistro” barely exists. If I had to wager it, I would say “Le Petite Bistro” is the most common and least creative name for a restaurant in the world. Information about the eatery online is sketchy; some say “Petit”, some say “Petite”, some add an “Express”. Regardless, sandwiched between a wall of windows and a Dunkin’ Donuts in Philadelphia International Airport’s D Concourse is Le Petite Bistro, and when you are vegan in a restaurant, it is a blessing.

I’ve never been as uncomfortably hungry as a vegan as I have in airports. Charlotte’s airport has a California-style burrito place in their foot court, which is nice. Usually I am limited to Alternative Baking Company cookies and classic Lay’s. The Bistro provided a strange, reclusive jump away from that feeling while never quite removing it, presenting fresh vegetables and crisp, wet lettuce from behind a glass cafeteria case, served to me by people wearing rubber gloves. The vegetable sandwich (which was known both as “roasted” and “grilled” depending on the sign) was what airport food almost always is — exceedingly “all right”, pushed up to “tasty” by virtue of it being there in your hands.

The bread was unremarkable. The vegetables were fine, but tasted as though they could’ve been squirted from a Del Monte can moments before. The only vegan side dish offered was a banana, and it is not a far jump to think this fruit had lived a previous life in a wax bowl. Unfettered, I scarfed it down. I cannot remember how my stomach felt on the following plane ride. That may be the theme for this sandwich, and Le Petite Bistro. I’m happy it was there, but thinking back I can only truly remember how badly I wanted it.

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.

Philly Chicken Cheese Steak – Govinda’s Gourmet To Go, South St., Philadelphia, PA

Philly Chicken Cheese Steak, Govinda's Gourmet To Go

“Hing” can be a scary thing. It has an unpleasant, pungent smell in the raw and tastes of leeks when cooked. The spice’s real name is even scary: Asafoetida. Is that something you can eat? It’s the dried resin of a tree. Is that the most stereotpyical thing an ethical vegan can request on a sandwich? Something that is literally the essence of a tree?

Philadelphia’s Govinda’s Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant is almost always closed, but its sister establishment, Gourmet To Go, offers up classic Philly food with the least-classic imaginable accoutrements – hing, soy chicken, and, if you’re smart, a bowl of yellow split pea soup. The Philly Chicken is one of Gourmet To Go’s signature sandwiches, and one of the most palatable for first-time visitors, standing in stunned silence as they glance across a menu of kofta ball subs, grilled soy mackeral and something called “Chicken Queasily.” The chicken imitates without simulating; the bread stays crisp-into-softness, even when dipped in the dahl. Rainbow peppers are a delightful addition, and a more seasoned wordsmith might find more than a taste delight at their end.

I have dined at this South and Broad eatery on several occasions, and during nearly every visit I am accompanied by an omnivore. They never leave unhappy. While initially shocking in lieu of its deceptively simple name, Gourmet To Go manages to distill the essence of mid-Philadelphia cooking and leave the pungent smell at the door.

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.