Bay Area Plant-Based Meat Reviews
Eight vegan/vegetarian restaurant options.
By this point you’ve probably tried Impossible Burgers, and you know that restaurants can do some pretty impressive things with them. But there are so many interesting meat dishes - what if you want something other than a burger? This market is still developing, but I live in the Bay Area, which is probably its epicenter. And I’m mostly-vegetarian, so I have no choice but to try it out.
I tried eight restaurants which offered unusual plant-based meat dishes. Here are my reviews. Unlike many other food critics, I freely admit I have no taste. There’s nothing about subtle flavors or quality ingredients in here, because I would get that stuff wrong. This is just about whether I, a mostly-vegetarian person who likes the taste of meat, felt like these plant-based meat options succeeded at resembling animal products.
(yes, I’m deliberately mocking myself by publishing this the day after the post on classism)
A “vegan delicatessan and bakery” in Berkeley. According to the website:
The name The Butcher’s Son is based on the idea of the modern son of a butcher, who was raised eating animal products. When he grows up and opens his own business, he strives to create healthier and more sustainable options that still satisfy his cravings for the foods he grew up with.
Fact check: false. Neither of the founders (a brother-sister pair) are related to butchers. It’s just some whimsical daydream they had. Their father actually owned a vegetarian restaurant (a different one). I admit “The Vegetarian Restaurant Owner’s Son” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
(the same two people own another vegan restaurant called The King’s Feet, but they don’t explain which of their whimsical daydreams gave rise to this one. Probably for the best.)
I ordered a pastrami Reuben, and my date ordered a BLAT (a BLT with avocado). The Reuben was…good-ish. Good-adjacent? Tolerable. Tasted better than it looked!
The bacon was amazing. I have gotten some friends to try it, and they all agree it’s as good as real bacon. At least as good as real bacon. This is the best vegetarian bacon I have ever had. I would have expected bacon to be one of the hardest plant-based meats to get right, but Butcher’s Son has done it. They have solved plant-based bacon. There’s nowhere further to go from here.
Their restaurant is attached to a store that sells some of their plant-based meat in packaged form for people who want to cook with it at home. I haven’t explored this place as much as I want because getting delivery is complicated - they seem to use DoorDash kind of inconsistently.
4/5 stars: The bacon is amazing, everything else is okay.
This is a vegetarian Chinese restaurant. Their website doesn’t list any inspirational backstory or whimsical daydreams, so I assume they’re a front for the mob. I ordered their vegetarian takes on Mongolian beef, BBQ pork rice, and General Tao's chicken.
Chinese food is a good match for fake meat - their meat dishes are usually so slathered in sauce and intermixed with vegetables that any deficiencies in the meat are easy to hide with good performance on the sauce and veggie front. Also, American Chinese food meat seems inherently suspicious. Like those weird little puffy ball-like bits of chicken - what are those? They already seem weird enough that it's a small step from there to completely fake soy derivative product.
The Mongolian beef didn't put much effort into looking realistic, but it tasted better than it looked. It benefitted from great sauce and a bed of peppers, which gave it enough crunch and flavor to disguise any flaws in the texture. Aside from the appearance I was happy with this.
The pork BBQ rice had small enough pieces of BBQ pork that they were barely noticeable. It just tasted like normal rice. I can't remember the last time I ate real Chinese pork BBQ rice, but I assume this is faithful to the genre. Whatever.
The General Tao chicken was actually excellent! It looked so realistic that I did a double-take and worried they'd sent me the real stuff. The taste was 95% the usual sweet spicy sauce, and the texture was good enough that I found myself thinking back to the last time I'd had real Chinese chicken, trying to remember if it tasted different/better than this. I plan on ordering from here again and trying some of their other chicken dishes just to see if they're all this good [update: I did and they are].
I was briefly confused about whether General Tao was the same person as General Tso, or, like, his vegetarian brother or something. I looked this up and found that these are both acceptable Romanizations of the name of General Zuo Zongtang, a 19th-century Qing dynasty official from Hunan Province. He had nothing to do with the chicken - in fact, Tso's descendants had never heard of the dish. A Taiwanese-American chef with Hunanese roots invented the chicken in New York and named it after a hometown hero. Wikipedia also informs me that General Tso reconquered Xinjiang for China and ethnic-cleansed thousands of Uighurs and other Chinese Muslims, so maybe he needs to be cancelled.
On the other hand, if you believe that eating chicken might be a moral atrocity, maybe one moral atrocity should be named after another. Maybe I would feel less silly ordering from all these mediocre vegetarian restaurants if normal foods had names like “Idi Amin's hamburger special” or “Comrade Stalin’s lamb shank”. Maybe General Tso's chicken is the only dish that's doing it right.
Overall I was very happy with this restaurant, especially the chicken. 4.5/5 stars.
This is a vegan barbecue, so they're not making things easy for themselves. Their website autoplays a full-screen video when you go to it, so I got annoyed and didn't look into it too hard. At least they’re not a front for the mob - I assume real mob fronts try to avoid including “mob” in the name.
I ordered a combo plate of chicken breasts, chicken drumsticks, and brisket. The drumsticks were realistic-looking and had a realistic texture. They were covered in sauce, and the sauce tasted good, which is kind of like the drumsticks tasting good, although they weren't "juicy" in any meaningful sense. The breasts were kind of similar, except they didn't look much like chicken breasts or anything else.
The brisket was probably the best thing I had; it looked and tasted like real brisket, although again this was mostly because anything covered in enough sauce is going to taste like sauce. Still, I was impressed.
The French fries almost, but not quite, managed to taste like real French fries. I have no explanation for this. I have no reason to think that vegan restaurants make fake French fries. I don't even know what making fake vegan French fries would mean. Yet they were still slightly off. Maybe this is me having a high prior on anything I get from a vegan restaurant tasting weird, and my brain didn't think this one through enough before forming an opinion on the fries? Still, I cannot recommend them. The other sides were good, especially the beans.
I enjoyed this as an experience. It looks like a real barbecue plate! It successfully gives me the feeling of having a barbecue plate and getting to eat it! The food was good for what it was, but not going to suddenly convert any meat-eaters to vegetarianism. The French fries were from an alternate world where potatoes are animals. 3.5/5 stars.
I sit here, staring at my plate of vegan alligator nuggets, and wonder where I went wrong in life.
I have to admit, I've never tried real alligator. It’s not even about the ethics. It just seems totally unappealing, like eating a big scaly toothy log.
Yet here I am, staring at a plate of "It Ain't Gator" vegan alligator nuggets. Why did I order these? Something something would make a funny story for the blog review something? I remind myself that these contain no actual alligator, have never been anywhere near an alligator, probably they're the same processed seitan mix as everything else. Gingerly, I take a bite. They are not the same processed seitan mix as everything else. They taste weird in some hard-to-define way. I am displeased.
Later I look at the Souley Vegan menu more closely, and it says they are "diced Louisiana Hot Links and mushrooms battered in creole spiced mix". Mushrooms! That was the weird taste! But wait a second. What are Louisiana Hot Links? According to Google, they're a kind of beef sausage. This is, uh, some kind of fake vegan Louisiana Hot Links, right? Whatever. I am still displeased.
The Po' Boy sandwich tasted fine; on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise, I mostly tasted the lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. The fries were ruined by the transportation process, in the same way as all fries everywhere, but the garlic dip they came with was okay.
2/5 stars, but realistically I did this to myself by ordering fake alligator which I knew I would hate.
Not really a dedicated vegetarian restaurant, but they offered an Impossible Ceviche. I was intrigued so I ordered it, along with a burrito of "vegan al pastor" meat, and some "Cali fries" with guacamole, vegan al pastor meat, cheese, etc.
They did not include the Impossible Ceviche in my order, saying that it was unavailable. I guess I deserve this for ordering impossible food.
The burrito was terrible. The meat had some kind of weird flavor to it, I don't know if it was the taste of whatever meat substitute they used, something they added to disguise the taste of the meat substitute they used, or a real Mexican sauce gone horribly wrong. If they had Impossible Meat, I don't know why they didn't just use that (I mean, I guess they didn't have Impossible Meat, but...) The fries were terrible in the same way as all delivery fries, plus a little extra.
I will give them this - their spicy sauce was really spicy. I make this a point in their favor, because lots of restaurants are cowards and feel like their patrons can't handle actually spicy sauces. Canasta Kitchen are no cowards. I may have been writhing on the floor for several minutes, but I approve in principle.
Overall my least favorite place so far. To be fair to them: they're not a vegetarian restaurant, their vegetarian options seemed like kind of an afterthought, and for all I know their meat is amazing. To stop being fair to them, this is a vegetarian food review, I tried to order their vegetarian ceviche, they wouldn't give it to me, and so I am going to review what I got. 1.5/5 stars.
Ike's Love And Sandwiches is a popular Bay Area sandwich restaurant. Crave Subs is a suspiciously similar newcomer.
Ike's sandwiches have names like "Lex Luthor" and "Chester the Cheetah". Crave's have names like "Iron Man" and "Donald Duck". Both chains offer the same choice of French, sourdough, Dutch cruch, wheat, and gluten-free breads. Both give you a few free lollipops in the bag with every order. Also, Ike's is located at the intersection of Shattuck and Center Streets in Berkeley; Crave's is also located at that intersection, about 400 ft away.
When I first learned about Crave, I thought Ike's had just changed its name for some reason. I googled to figure out why and learned that no, this is just sandwich plagiarism. I can't piece together the whole story, but it looks like Crave is owned by a Muslim family who wanted a sandwich place with more halal options. Is that enough to justify calling the Ike's/Crave rivalry a religious war? Is this what's happened to Huntington's Clash Of Civilizations Thesis in an increasingly consumerist world?
I ordered Ike's Meatless Mike (vegan meatballs, marinara, and pepper jack), Handsome Owl (vegan chicken, wasabi mayo, and swiss), and Pilgrim (vegan turkey and cranberry). I ordered Crave's Charmander (vegan meatballs, marinara, and provolone), Goku (vegan chicken, BBQ sauce, and pepper jack), and Kim Possible (vegan impossible patty, Swiss, and mushrooms).
(I'm abstracting this as a head-to-head taste test, but it was actually over a few different meals, some of which were months before others)
The two meatball and marinara subs were a wash - I couldn't really stand either. I was able to finish Ike's and had to throw out Crave's, but I don't know if this was a real quality difference or if I was just in a less tolerant mood.
I really liked Ike's Handsome Owl. The wasabi mayo was an interesting taste, and the vegan chicken was somewhere between inoffensive and actually good. Crave's Goku impressed me less - either the BBQ sauce wasn't quite as good at distracting from the fake meat as the wasabi mayo, or their fake meat was lower quality. I'm reluctant to conclude the latter because then I'm going to feel embarrassed when I inevitably learn they order from the same supplier.
Ike's Pilgrim was great. I can't tell the difference between their veggie turkey and the real thing. I'm not sure a turkey and cranberry sandwich is really what I want, but insofar as it is, this absolutely satisfies that urge.
Crave's Kim Possible was also great. It's no longer really surprising that Impossible meat is good, but Crave is the first restaurant I've seen to incorporate it into a sub, they've beaten Ike's to this milestone, and they deserve credit for this.
I give Ike's 4/5 stars and Crave 3/5, though it's hard for me to decide how to award points for Crave having Impossible Meat and Ike's not having it. If you haven't tried plant-based meat sandwiches, you'll probably be impressed by either of these places.
Their website has ten different accessibility options, including "pause animations" and "dyslexia friendly", hidden in an unobtrusive corner menu. This is great. It seems to be courtesy of a site called UserWay, so check them out if you like user-readable websites. This is the most accessible site I have ever seen, which makes it ironic that it has no actual content. It's just a link to their UberEats/DoorDash pages, all of which are inaccessible as usual.
I don't really like Thai food, but a friend did a group order from here and I tagged along. I was really impressed by their menu. This is the only local restaurant I've found that takes the potential of Impossible Meat seriously - all of their meat dishes come in Impossible versions! You can get Impossible Panang, Tangy Thai Cashew Impossible, Gra Pow Impossible, etc.
I ordered the Panang and Thai Cashew. Both were okay. I don't really like Thai food, so I can't judge. You probably already know how Thai food tastes and how Impossible Meat tastes. There wasn't any kind of surprising nonlinear effect here. It just tasted like Thai food that used Impossible Meat.
I still give them 4/5 stars for their wide selection, accessible-albeit-useless website, and suspicion that people who like Thai food will enjoy it.
I wondered why "Golden Lotus" sounded so familiar, until I remembered that was what I called the creepy enlightenment speedrunning cult in my story Samsara. Whatever, probably this is a common name for Asian-associated things. Just a coincidence, right?
I ordered the Szechaun Pineapple Beef, Caramelized Chicken, Sweet Orange, and Spicy Ginger. I assumed that they'd just forgotten to add the word "chicken" after "sweet orange" and "spicy ginger". I mean, those dishes are traditionally chicken, and they have to be something right?
Wrong. The sweet orange and spicy ginger dishes somehow managed to be a fully generic food, a sort of everything and nothing all at once. It came in little rectangles and tasted like the abstract concept of eating something. They weren't bad - that would have involved having a characteristic - but I was creeped out by them and do not recommend.
The Szechuan pineapple beef came from the same school of fake beef that gave us the Mongolian Beef at the Nature Chinese place, but I was less of a fan of the pineapple sauce and so less willing to overlook its other flaws. The caramelized chicken was the only thing that made an attempt to have a texture and really seem foodlike; I give it a B minus. Maybe if I hadn't been so creeped out by the first two dishes I would be able to recognize these as decent attempts at solving the difficult problems inherent in vegetarian foodstuffs. As it is, I cut them no slack.
2.5/5 stars, and they're totally the creepy enlightenment speedrunning cult from the story.
If you’ve never tried plant-based meat before, and you have any interest - either because you want to reduce your meat consumption, or just for the lulz - where should you start?
If you’ve never had an Impossible Burger, start there. I like Umami Burger, but most restaurants can pull this off fine. You can even get one at your local Burger King.
If you’ve had Impossible Burgers and are looking for something more interesting, my favorite dish from this round of reviews was the chicken at Nature Vegetarian Restaurant. General Tao’s and Salt & Pepper were especially good.
If you don’t want a burger and you don’t want Chinese, I recommend Ike’s sandwiches, especially the Pilgrim.