Who has the power to make the pious go vegan? Maybe only God.
On Fridays during Lent, which starts on Wednesday, L.A.'s millions of observant Catholics are restricted from eating red meat and poultry. Fast Food joints, or Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs), can't afford to turn their backs on their Catholic customers (particularly in L.A., with more Catholics than any other city in the country). As we learned last week, McDonald's Filet-o-Fish sandwich, the original non-meat fast food alternative, was created to entice Catholics during Lent.
Fast food itself is changing, with a movement towards prioritizing freshness and health over taste and convenience. The old guard fast food restaurants, like McDonald's and BK, are including healthier options on their menus, while new restaurants, so-called fast casual places such as 5 Guys and Chipotle, have that freshness built into the project.
We sampled Lent-friendly options at L.A.'s finest fast food restaurants, and arrived at a list of dishes that best illustrate the state of non-meat fast food. The list includes both traditional fast food restaurants (Taco Bell, In-N-Out) as well as “fast casual” restaurants, as costs in the latter category differ by surprisingly minuscule margins.
Here are nine dishes that can give Lent-observers a meat-alternative fast food for the six Fridays of Lent. The list is not exhaustive. We tasted the widest variety of Lent-friendly dishes possible, but we obviously couldn't taste them all.
9. Taco Bell's Cantina Veggie Bowl
Abandon all hope, ye who order the Cantina veggie bowl. It's components, pico de gallo, corn, creamy cilantro, black beans, lettuce, pepper sauce and “guacamole” (if you can call that tiny glop of pale green gel “guacamole”), add up to a mushy mess. There are remnants of that college-nostalgic Taco Bell taste that keeps people coming back even into their adult years, but not as much of it as we would have liked. What's confounding is the complex process Taco Bell goes through to make their non-fresh food – a line of complicated stainless steel machines zap vacuum-sealed meat and plastic cheese into something resembling hot food. When a Chipotle burrito is only a dollar more, it makes us wonder, why not just make the real thing? $5.22 after tax (also available as burrito).
8. Del Taco's Crispy Shrimp Taco
Sometimes the underdog is an underdog for a reason. Scrappy Del Taco brought back its crispy shrimp taco for Lent, and we were excited to give the old staple a try. Each taco is five fried shrimp, pico de gallo, cabbage and “special sauce,” thrown loosely into a
piece of printer paper flour tortilla. The shrimp are tiny and hard as diamonds. The copious “special sauce” is mayonnaise, the only shock being that Del Taco hasn't figured out to call it “aoli” yet. That said, there is a certain proletariat charm to Del Taco and its spunky shrimp taco, which, despite its small stature, still manages to satisfy the craving. $2.45 after tax, or two for $4.36.
7. Wienerschnitzel's Sea Dog
Local favorite Wienerschnitztel's Sea Dog probably should be made out of Venice canal tiger shark, but it's not. What kind of fish it is made out of, however, is unclear, as the counterperson responded to “What kind of fish is this?” with “Alaskan.” Every year for Lent Wienerschnitzel re-releases the Sea Dog as part of the UnDer the Sea Trio, which also includes fish & chips and the Fish Wrap. The Sea Dog is basically a Filet-o-Fish hammered into the shape of a hot dog, but where McDonald's succeeds in creating a new and delicious form of food disconnected from our antiquated conceptions of “fish,” Wienerschnitzel's offering is a little too reminiscent of the real thing. The fast-food-fried sweetness is there, but it's almost eclipsed by the all-too-real fishiness of the meat, and the slathering of tartar sauce doesn't offer much help. $2.70 after tax.
6. Five Guys' All the Way Grilled Cheese
Five Guys' vegetarian offering includes two slices of American cheese, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, mushrooms, ketchup, mustard and mayo all on an toasty inverted bun. It may look scrumptrulescent, but unfortunately the taste payoff doesn't entirely match up. While far from terrible, there's still an intrinsic blandness to the loaded grilled cheese – the combination of fresh ingredients mixes to a vague brown. It tastes half like your mom's pan-fried grilled cheese (delicious), and half like the soggy remnants of a Saturday BBQ (delicious only when stoned). Vegans can opt for the non-cheese Veggie Sandwich, which replaces the cheese with green peppers. But, in either case, you really miss the high-quality Five Guys burger meat. $4.25 after tax
5. Yoshinoya's Grilled Tilapia Bowl
Never set foot in Yoshinoya? You're not alone. The orange logo of this 100-year-old Japanese QSR has a way of blending into the L.A. scenery like a palm tree or an American Apparel ad. Since it's easy to forget about, we were surprised by its cheap, legitimately tasty offerings. The new Tilapia Bowl, generously portioned with a large filet, rice and a mound of coleslaw, is shockingly tasty. The fish, frozen but then thawed, marinated and grilled to order, is as tender and flakey as you could possibly expect for $6. The rice, garnished with sesame and green onion, tastes like the garlic-butter-infused rice at Benihana. All in all it's a hearty and possibly healthful meal for a mind-bogglingly low price. $5.98 after tax.
4. Baja Fresh's Veggie Burrito
Just how much Baja Fresh represents new school fast food is illustrated by one very simple fact: Baja Fresh restaurants don't have freezers. Their premium on good ingredients is reflected in Baja Fresh's food, particularly their vegetable-based dishes. The veggie burrito comes with a tasty stew of fresh peppers and onion, beans, pico, and sour cream (or fresh guacamole), with chips and your choice of salsa from the free salsa bar. The tightly-wrapped cylinder delivers explosion after explosion of delicious freshness, without falling into a drippy mess like Chipotle. (Comparing Baja's massive veggie burrito to the veggie burrito at Taco Bell, is like comparing a Ferrari to a Razor Scooter.) $7.07 after tax.
3. In-N-Out Burger's Grilled Cheese Animal Style
Those looking to blaspheme In-N-Out for lack of a good veggie option, look elsewhere: The grilled cheese is as holy as it gets. Lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, mustard fry, pickles and spread sit beneath a thick slab of perfectly melted yellow cheese. No lie, it tastes exactly like the classic Double Double, in all of its melty, gooey glory. In-N-Out's grilled cheese is proof that it's often the fixings, not the meat, that makes a sandwich delicious. There's also a veggie burger option that's just a bun, sauce and veggies, without the cheese. But it's a drier, much less magical experience. $2.23 after tax.
2. Chipotle's Sofritas Burrito
Sofritas, a vegan stew of tofu, chilis, poblano peppers and spices, might be the best thing that's ever happened to Chipotle. Be honest, are Chipotle's burritos today as tasty as they were in the beginning? Sure, there are all the same ingredients, but somewhere along the way Chipotle 'ritos lost their savory soul. Most non-vegetarian trips to Chipotle lead to disappointment – cold hunks of corn, lettuce and sour cream drip out all over the place. You try to salvage the disaster with frantic shakes of the Tabasco bottle.
Sofritas return us to those spicy, decadent flavors that once made Chipotle's massive, aluminum-covered rocks such a naughty indulgence. The texture of the imitation meat is perfect, not too grainy and not too gooey, and the flavor recalls burrito filling from an actual taco truck. Chipotle hasn't made something so satisfying in years.
There are two downsides, however. First, Sofritas are only available at half of all Chipotle locations, so make sure to call ahead. Second, just because you're not eating meat doesn't mean you'll avoid the ol' Chipotle 'Itis – Sofritas Burritos produce the same ZZZquil effect as their meat-based counterparts. $6.81 after tax; $8.88 with guacamole.
1. Veggie Grill's Entire Menu
There is a place where even the most religious Catholics can chow down on fast food cheeseburgers, steak sandwiches, tacos, and buffalo chicken sandwiches with impunity: That place is Veggie Grill.
Veggie Grill operates almost entirely like a meat-centric fast food restaurant, but without the meat. Instead, their “meat” – a mixture of organic, non-GMO wheat, soy and peas – arrives in bulk, at which point their chef whips it into astonishingly convincing imitations of chicken, steak and fish. It is literally unbelievable how well their “meat” mimics meat.
The veggie burgers and BBQ “steak” sandwiches are straight bomb. The best item on the menu might be the Buffalo Bomber Chickin' Sandwich, which involves fried stuff that feels like chicken slathered in hot sauce and ranch, and served on a soft whole wheat bun. Does it taste exactly like it's real-meat counterpart? Of course not. It's different – but it's good different. As we learned from the OG, the McDonald's Filet-o-Fish, the key to great fast food isn't to imitate existing flavors, but to create new ones. $7-10.