We check out three veggie/vegan brands so you don’t have to
A whole lotta carbs and a bit of veggie/vegan protein from, left to right, Taco Bell, Leeann Chin and Noodles & Co.
As more restaurants add vegetarian and vegan options, few seem as well positioned as Taco Bell. Its “Fresco-style” options cut out the meat, dairy and mayo-based sauces and substitutes them with pico de gallo. We drove to the nearest Taco Bell during lunch and ordered a Fresco-style Doritos Locos Taco at $1.99, a Crunchwrap at $3 and a bean and cheese burrito at a mere dollar to analyze the appeal of these healthier options. Two out of three arrived with meat and cheese—the staff apologized and quickly brought out replacements. Two bites in, and Beth Ewen dryly said “OK, this is just rice pilaf in a stale tortilla.” Nick Upton disagreed, adding, “It’s hard to radically change Mexican food.” The meatless Doritos Locos was an unexpected hit, tastier than its orange shell suggested. “I don’t care if I have orange powder on my lips when I go back to the office,” Ewen added. Editorial intern Laura Beier seconded the feeling, calling the de-meated taco “a delightful combination of all the junk foods into one item.” Our Crunchwrap looked promising, but wasn’t nearly as gooey as the mistake that came with the meat, cheese and sour cream. Fake-out aside, the Fresco variant didn’t feel like a difficult compromise. “I’m not missing the meat at all,” said Beier, the only vegetarian in our midst.
The upshot: Taco Bell doesn’t offer magic bullets with its Fresco options, but they’re an easy, affordable way to cut out meat, dairy and calories—provided the restaurant gets the message.—TK
I am a huge fan of the various inline Chinese restaurants that serve up Americanized, indulgent fare. Few things make me happier than some salty, crunchy fried wontons and sweet, spicy and goopy orange chicken. So when I took a bite of Firecracker Tofu, $7.59 at Leeann Chin, it was familiar. The heavily sauced, slightly spicy morsel of fried tofu felt a lot like any of the other options, but replacing meat with tofu. I was expecting something more modernly vegan: lots of colorful veggies, unique spices or a novel, health-forward take on the typical inline Chinese food. At least it could be lighter; something like the mapo tofu I get on the rare occasion orange chicken is just too much. The Firecracker Tofu, however, creeps right up to the same caloric load as sweet and sour chicken. I don’t understand how concepts can swap in tofu and call it innovation, nor do I get trying to mask tofu under a blanket of the same old indulgent goop.
The upshot: I am obviously not a vegan, so I asked one for her opinion. While it wasn’t her favorite Chinese food, it was just that—an option. For a vegan in the Midwest where Leeann Chin operates, maybe that’s enough for now.—NU
For a vegetarian experience described as “paradise” compared to our other destinations, the FT Undercover team headed to Noodles & Company for a spin on their classic: zucchini noodles. Though rather damp and not the prettiest presentation after we dug in, the noodley franchise’s “zoodles” were quite pleasant and tasted, looked and otherwise acted as their starchy counterparts. A nice effort appealing to gluten-free, vegan and otherwise noodle-objecting consumers, the al dente zucchini didn’t attempt to be anything but its crisp, healthy self. We dug into the Truffle Zoodle Mac, $7, and the Pesto Cavatappi with zoodles, $6.26, both savory and delectable though a bit over-sauced. We noticed the surprisingly normal-looking noodle impersonators avoided potential mushiness. As a vegetarian who doesn’t like zucchini, I was surprisingly happy with Noodles’ veggie-focused alternative to traditional proteins. Today you can’t be sloppy with your vegetarian meals—or we’ll out you.
The upshot: For the same price and probably fewer calories, Noodles & Company’s Zoodles are a fresh spin on their savory classics, and even if you despise zucchini, are worth a try.—LB
Ever wonder how consumers feel about your franchise? Editorial staffers Laura Michaels, Nick Upton, Tom Kaiser and Beth Ewen check out three brands in a different genre each issue, and report back.