Let’s rewind a few years, before green juice became a thing: Veganism was a fringe diet, associated with yogis and ascetics, a tie-dyed Woodstock throwback. People routinely likened vegan fare to rabbit food, bark, or, worse, flatly dismissed it. Let’s face it — vegans have had a steep hill to climb, both in public perception of what their diets mean and how they taste. And then there’s the inconvenience factor: It’s easy to pick up a $3 burger at a drive through, but you won’t find that kind of ease and speed with food made purely of plants. At least, not yet. Things are changing so quickly that 2016 might just be the year that going vegan goes mainstream. Stars have led the way for years, with Ellen DeGeneres and Natalie Portman singing the praises of their meat- and dairy-free regimens for years, and Beyoncé and Jay Z threw a megawatt spotlight onto the plant-based way of life when they took a well-publicized 22-day vegan challenge back in 2013. Now, game-changing vegan purveyors are creating a consumer landscape that every average Joe and Jane can also get in on. With disrupters like Hampton Creek, Roy Choi’s Loco'l, and restaurants like L.A.’s Crossroads, it's easier than ever to find animal-free products. Along with improvements in taste, cost, and convenience there's the emergence of a new subclass of vegan consumers — those who embrace plant-based eating part-time. It’s catching on: A 2012 Harris poll found that 47% of American diners ate at least one vegetarian meal per week, and the popularity of books like former New York Times food writer Mark Bittman’s VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 show that Americans are interested in making vegetables the main event, rather than a side dish. “This is a discussion we would not have been having five years ago — how Americans are going to get more plants into their diet,” says Bittman, whose recently announced Purple Carrot is home meal delivery service that caters to full and partial vegans. “The answers are everywhere: supermarkets are carrying different things, fast foods are changing, and people’s attitudes are changing.”
Take Crossroads Kitchen, a perpetually packed restaurant in West Hollywood, where chef Tal Ronnen toys with texture and psychology to turn hearts of palm into crab cakes and artichokes into oysters. At a recent dinner there, those crab cakes were the stars of the show. Breaded and fried, they crumbled very much like their crustacean counterpart, and a dollop of horseradish made the mimicry an edible masterpiece and mindbender. Mid-bite, I said to my friend across the table, "How can hearts of palm taste this much like crab?” The restaurant’s look and feel — soft leather banquettes, chandeliers with amber bulbs — give it the air of a steakhouse rather than a salad bar. “We want to have food that pushes the envelope, and we want to have food that’s familiar for the guy that comes in that doesn’t want to eat a kale salad,” said Ronnen. “We want people to feel comfortable regardless of their diet. Most of the diners here are not vegans and vegetarian, they’re just foodies.” Crossroads’ prices are not for everyone. A plate of three macaroon-size crab cakes costs $15. But the future promises more affordable options such as Roy Choi’s Loco'l, a healthy fast food chain with locations planned for San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Detroit. While Loco’l won’t serve solely vegan foods, they’re developing a veggie burger and tofu and vegetable rice bowl that sounds a lot more exciting than a baked potato side. On the west coast, Veggie Grill serves more than a dozen bowls, salads, and burgers under $10 — proving vegan food can be quick, wallet friendly, and delicious. Other services are also trying to make vegan meals as easy to get as a Big Mac. Lighter delivers vegan groceries and meal plans across the country, customizing recipes to suit subscribers’ existing cooking skills and appliances. A typical meal clocks in at an affordable $4 to $6. Lena Dunham and Gwyneth Paltrow are fans of Sakara Life, a meal delivery service that zips prepared dishes, like Turmeric Tikka Masala and Chia Coconut Waffles With Hot Cardamom Syrup, to homes on the east and west coasts. A five-day Sakara plan, with three meals a day, can cost $420, depending on your location and meal preferences.
The jury is still out on how beneficial veganism is to those who practice it — and the world at large. One huge National Institutes of Health-sponsored study of various diets linked vegan eating to lower mortality rates, but another found that going meat-free may not be as good for the planet as previously thought. But judging by the plethora of products, services, and restaurants dedicated to plants and the ways they can be consumed, however, one thing is clear: The demand is there.
Still, a lot of vegan food purveyors run into the same challenge: the inevitable comparisons between their stuff and the “real” thing. At Vromage, a vegan cheese shop in Los Angeles, Youssef Fakhouri doles out wedges of dairy-free Brie, Camembert, and pepper jack to a seemingly endless stream of eager customers. Popularity and good taste aside, it’s a stretch to compare Fakhouri’s concoctions of fermented nuts and seeds cheese to actual cheese made with cow’s milk. When I sampled them recently, his Brie-Camembert had the mouth feel of Jell-O; the Brie tastes like yogurt and lacks the heft and richness of the real dairy variety. Fakhouri knows this. He’d prefer to think he’s creating another category of food, and sometimes asks regulars to help him name new blends. “I’m not making cheese,” he says. “I’m making something delicious, nutritious, and hopefully I want it to taste better than cheese." That’s not the case with all vegan substitutes, however. Hampton Creek’s vegan cookie dough has been described as better than the butter laden version, and their eggless Just Mayo is regularly showered with five-star reviews on Amazon. The way Bittman sees it, we shouldn’t be pitting vegan cheese against the contents of the dairy aisle, or judging soy burgers by how much they grill up like beef burgers. “I think the goal is to eat less meat, and the goal is to eat more vegetables,” he says. “I don’t think the goal is to eat more processed foods.” He’s crafting recipes for Purple Carrot to show people that veganism transcends kale salads and roasted Brussels sprouts.
“I just had someone say to me, “I never would have thought of making a mushroom pho,” Bittman says. “What we’re finding is that people find this food exciting, that they did not expect that we could come up with the kind of stuff we’re coming up with. And by the way, we can go much further than we’re going.” Indeed, for me, an avowed non-vegan, it’s fascinating to find out how far plant-based foods have outgrown the salad bowl. But while chewing on a slice of pepper jack at Vromage, and noticing how the red pepper separates from the cheese-like base in a way that Trader Joe’s version never would, one phrase stuck in my mind: “Nice place to visit, but wouldn’t want to live here.” At least not full-time. I’m all for eating more vegetables and never met a Persian cucumber I didn’t like. But I’ll choose real meatballs over the grainy “vegan field loaf” version served at Crossroads Kitchen every time. There simply isn’t enough evidence to convince me that abandoning animal products altogether is going to help the world. But this vegan-once-in-a-while thing? I like the idea, and food entrepreneurs are finally helping me to substitute in vegan fare without feeling deprived. “Part time vegan seems to be as good a description as any,” says Bittman, who counts himself in this category. “Whatever name you want to put on it, it’s clearly a trend that’s here to stay.”