If you’re hungry for lunch and pull up to the strip mall at the corner of Huebner Road and Floyd Curl Drive, near the San Antonio Medical Center, you’ll be spoiled for choice. There’s Indian food, tacos, ramen, and sushi. And then, at the corner of the building, there are two fried-chicken joints right next to one another: Mr. C’s Fried Chicken & Waffles and Project Pollo.
But the two stores aren’t really in direct competition. While Mr. C’s serves regular ol’ chicken, there is nary a bird involved at Project Pollo. The fast-casual spot, which opened last August as the San Antonio–based chain’s fifteenth location, is fully vegan. Everything from the shakes to the ranch dressing to the breaded and fried “chick’n” is made from plants.
The first time I walked into Project Pollo, I was struck by the extent to which the store seemed built for people like me: those who eat meat but aren’t repulsed by their chicken sandwich missing the “chicken” part. The store doesn’t hide that everything is plant-based, but it’s not presented as veggie food for rabbit people.
I’ve long understood the arguments for veganism—environmental, ethical, et cetera—but I’ve struggled with a particular obstacle when attempting to adopt the diet: most staples are things I just can’t make myself enjoy eating.
I’ve tried mushrooms sautéed by fine chefs, I’ve eaten them on my favorite pizzas, I’ve snacked on them breaded and deep-fried—and they still gross me out. I don’t like the smell, the taste, or the texture. Beans don’t do it for me either. I can eat tofu with a grim determination when it’s in front of me, but it’s never brought me satisfaction. I’m not opposed to vegetables, rice, or quinoa, but one can’t exist on greens and grains alone.
Thus far, my solution has been to keep eating animals while feeling a little guilty about it. But the past few years have brought a sea change in options for alternative meats and dairy. So I decided to eat as many meat and dairy substitutes as possible for a week to find out if I can eat vegan without feeling like I’m making huge sacrifices along the way.
For decades, the idea of living in a society that was no longer quite so obsessed with eating animals was a fantasy among vegan activists. These days, you can get an Impossible Whopper at a Burger King in Giddings; you can pick up brats for the grill that look and taste like animal meat at the
H-E-B in Victoria; you can take your family for vegan fried chicken sandwiches they might not even realize are bird-free at Project Pollo. While Texas isn’t unique in this aspect, it’s critical to the industry: if you can make plant-based meat work here, you can make it work anywhere.
Replacing dairy is easier than ever, too. If you can tell a baked good was made with mung-bean-based JUST Egg instead of an unfertilized chicken embryo, you’ve got a more sensitive palate than I do. Even vegan cheese, which used to fail on every level outside of its color, has seen incredible advances in the past few years. It melts now!
Given these breakthroughs, it seemed like a good time to reconsider my omnivorous ways. Was the post-meat utopia that vegan activists had long dreamed of finally here? Was it possible, finally, to eat vegan without forcing yourself to include things you’ve never enjoyed? Are we already in the midst of the revolution?
Once, finding meat alternatives at the supermarket meant driving to an expensive part of town and making choices based on sheer hope. Brands such as Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms sold veggie dogs, garden veggie burgers, and chick’n nuggets—but most of them required a powerful imagination to pass as the real thing, like they do in the food fight scene in Hook. A veggie burger might satisfy the emotional needs of a committed vegan or vegetarian, but it wasn’t trying to pass as beef. It was just a collection of things you might grow in your garden, cut up and pressed into a patty.
When the Impossible Burger launched in 2016, it was marketed with the same game-changing hype as the Apple Watch or the first Teslas. It wasn’t available to home cooks, only to restaurants, like Austin’s Hopdoddy burger chain. It looked like beef, cooked like beef, smelled vaguely beefy, and utilized a miracle molecule called heme to get it to bleed and taste more like it came from a cow. Even the name—“Impossible”—told the story that we were entering a new world of fake meat. And it worked pretty close to as advertised. When prepared well, an Impossible Burger tastes a whole lot more like a hamburger than a veggie patty does. Bangarang!
In the years that followed, Impossible Foods and its closest competitor, Beyond Meat, went from being luxury brands to something more affordable and readily available. They’re sold in grocery stores now, and cost around $6 for a twelve-ounce package. At around 50 cents an ounce, they’re comparable to the higher-end grass-fed beef packaged and sold by H-E-B (though still priced well above the cheaper ground-beef products). Since 2019, Impossible Burgers are also available at Burger Kings and White Castles around the country.
The quality of the products varies a lot based on how well they’re prepared. An Impossible Burger cooked to medium is a juicy, brownish-red patty that smells like beef, while one that’s been overcooked or under a heat lamp too long turns into a dry gray disc. Hopdoddy (which switched to Beyond Meat a few years ago) can keep the quality consistent, but a Burger King often isn’t quite so fastidious. Still, the allure of these types of products was clear, and soon others in the meat-alternatives space took notice, and emphasized how Impossible’s and Beyond’s products were nearly indistinguishable from animal products in their marketing. Even MorningStar Farms began rebranding some of its products, moving away from green packaging with the word “veggie” featured prominently in favor of a subtler “INCOGMEATO” label.
Browsing most large supermarkets, you’ll see that marketing has changed from telling vegans and vegetarians these products are made from vegetables to persuading meat-eaters they won’t even notice this stuff is made of plants.
I am susceptible to marketing, so at the start of my experiment with vegetable-free veganism, I loaded up on these products. I bought Mind Blown shrimp and Thrilling Foods Bakon that promised “all of the sizzle, aroma, taste, and texture of bacon without the cruelty.” I received something called Juicy Marbles, distributed out of Austin, from a publicist. The 1.6-pound log looked more or less like a beef loin and vowed, with great self-awareness, to be the “biggest, most insulting piece of plant meat ever conceived.” I loaded my fridge with Califia Farms Barista Blend oat milk creamer, Earth Balance vegan butter, JUST Egg, and vegan mozzarella from Miyoko’s Creamery. I stopped by Rebel Cheese in Austin, the quaint, artisanal vegan dairy deli that makes most of its cheeses in-house, to pick up a few ounces of plant-based parmesan and smoked cheddar.
Kirsten Maitland, who opened Rebel Cheese with her husband in fall 2019, told me the secret to vegan cheese is the same as the secret to milk-based cheese: being precise and preparing it with care. “You can’t just throw everything into a blender,” she told me before explaining how they carefully measure temperatures in the caves they use to age their cashew-based brie, the company’s top seller.
All of this is more expensive than the animal-based items I was used to purchasing. Feeding a family fake shrimp that costs $12 for a 7.5-ounce package isn’t practical, but replacing your half-and-half with a vegan alternative should only add a couple of dollars to your monthly grocery bill. For most of the staples—butter, creamer, eggs, meat—the vegan markup is around 25 percent. But with the high inflation we’ve seen over the past few years, prices for everything are in flux. Soy, the chief ingredient in many plant-based products, more than doubled from its pre-pandemic price, but in the years to come, as soy costs come more in line with animal products and as the companies that make plant-based meat scale up, the price you pay at the supermarket could well drop below the cost of beef.
When Project Pollo opened its first store in San Antonio in September 2020, the company appeared to be facing an uphill battle. It was launching a vegan restaurant in San Antonio—where founder Lucas Bradbury lives—in the middle of a pandemic. But rather than wait and see if the business would prove viable, Bradbury began quickly expanding. By November 2020, the company had opened its first Austin store, and Bradbury declared he’d be opening a new location every 34 days. Not long after, each city had four locations, with additional restaurants in Dallas and Katy. When Bradbury appeared on Shark Tank in May 2022, the show’s judges praised the product (judge Kevin O’Leary declared it “the best fake chicken sandwich [he’d] ever eaten”), but expressed concern about its breakneck rate of growth.
When I sat down with Bradbury at the Huebner Road location, he said the rapid growth strategy was essential to the long-term sustainability of the business. Scaling up lets him lock in costs years in advance so he can meet his goal of keeping prices within 15 percent of what customers will find at Chick-fil-A. “That’s how we’re able to do it,” he said. “We grew big enough that we were able to keep everything competitive.”
Bradbury has been vegan for many years. Early in the pandemic, he challenged his family back home in Kansas to try a vegan diet for a month. Even though they were open to the idea, he got some feedback that became the core of Project Pollo. “My family was not well off, they weren’t going to cook every day, and there was no fast-food option for them,” he recalled. “There were sixteen-dollar burgers they couldn’t afford.” That was the flash of inspiration, in his telling of the story—the moment Newton got bonked on the head by the apple. When the first restaurant launched, Bradbury said, the chicken sandwich cost $5.50.
But the key to Project Pollo is that, while Bradbury is a longtime vegan, his customers don’t have to be. He told me he hears from his dedicated vegan customers that they’d happily pay more for the product, but he doesn’t want to compete with higher-price-point vegan restaurants—he has his sights set on Chick-fil-A and Raising Cane’s. He said the customer research they’ve done indicates as much as 75 or 80 percent of Project Pollo’s customers are omnivores. Not everyone who walks through the door even realizes they’re in a vegan restaurant at first, he said. “When those guests do come in here, it’s our goal to educate them on what the whole concept is about, and if they say, ‘Oh, actually, that’s not for me,’ we’ll go ahead and pay for that meal,” he said. “We’ll say, ‘Order whatever you want; if you don’t like it, no hard feelings—if you do, we hope that you’ll come back.’ ”
All of that leads to the critical question: How does all of this stuff taste? Is it satisfying to simply swap out your regular meals for the fake-meat equivalents? It fills me with deep regret to say the answer to that question, at least in my experience, is a qualified no.
That isn’t to say any of these products are bad, though some are a bit uncanny. Impossible Burgers taste very good. Bakon is surprisingly delightful, satisfying in the way it sizzles and crisps in the pan and fills your kitchen with smells of maple and pepper. It wouldn’t pass for pork, but if you told me I was eating turkey bacon, I’d believe you. You don’t need to squint too much to convince yourself Project Pollo’s chick’n is the real thing, especially in its breaded-and-fried form (the chick’n wings flew a bit too close to the sun). And the “insulting” Juicy Marbles plant-based beef loin—a $60 monstrosity that can be sliced into filets, roasted whole, sliced and stir-fried, or pulled and sauced onto sandwiches—was an unlikely hit. Its fibrous texture was more reminiscent of beef than the compressed loaf of vegetable protein it actually is. But eating this stuff every day, for virtually every meal, is no way to live.
I asked Summer Anne Burton, the Austin-based former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct online vegan magazine Tenderly, what she thought of all this. “Doing this as much as you are, I wouldn’t enjoy it,” she told me. “I integrate these products into my diet, but they’re much more spaced out. I think there’s a sameness, whether it’s marketed as pork or chicken or beef, when you start to eat a lot of this stuff. It’s like, this is a different shape, but it’s still a soy-based lump.”
When I’m eating meat, I’m experiencing variety. A cheeseburger, roasted salmon, and pollo asada are all animal products, but that’s where the similarities end. During the week I spent eating vegan without vegetables, my diet consisted almost exclusively of soy protein concentrate, with a little bit of soy milk solids, wheat protein concentrate, and maybe some palm oil shortening. I may not have eaten meat, but I also ate considerably more processed food than I normally would.
On the other hand, learning that one can’t exist on processed soy products alone isn’t such a bad lesson. I now know there are dozens of potential vegan meals I can enjoy. There’s long been an all-or-nothing approach to veganism, but there’s relief in the idea that eating vegan can be downgraded from a full-on lifestyle into more of a consumer product choice. For someone like Burton, veganism is core to who she is, and the appeal of most of the fake meat products is philosophical. As an activist, she’s for them, but as a person who eats food, they don’t do a whole lot for her. It’s a weird world when many of the exciting advances in mass-market vegan food are not intended to appeal to capital-V Vegans—but it’s the one we’re rapidly headed toward.
That touched on something Bradbury revealed to me toward the end of our conversation. Throughout the interview, he made references to the advantages of being “plant-forward,” rather than “plant-based,” in appealing to new customers. I didn’t know if he meant that in a branding and marketing sense, or as a change in the company’s direction. As it turns out, it was both. In February, he announced the launch of Side Chicks, a second concept where the buns, sauces, shakes, and fries would still be made without animal products, but the plant-based piece of protein between the bun would be swapped out for regular old bird-based chicken.
He expected some of the vegans who currently eat at his restaurants would be upset, but explained it was furthering his company’s mission. “Last year, we served a million people fully vegan meals,” he told me. “I couldn’t be more proud of that, but what’s better: serving a million people only vegan options, or serving eight million people options where eighty percent of the menu is all vegan and they don’t even notice?”
That’s an ethical dilemma his vegan customers will have to answer for themselves. But if the dream of a fully vegetarian society is still far off in the future, then merely reducing the amount of meat folks eat might be as good as it gets. The divisions between vegans and meat-eaters can be left to the hardliners, while the 99.5 percent of Americans who still consume animal products get more options for our Meatless Mondays, and maybe Wednesdays and Fridays, too. It may not be a revolution, but it’s a start.