When I first announced that I was planning on leaving the East Coast for Phoenix, quite a few of my friends wondered how I planned to survive as a vegan. "Is there anything there that you can eat?" more than one person asked. In the popular imagination, apparently, this city is nothing but an endlessly sprawling array of steakhouses and carne aside joints — like Oklahoma City but with more taco trucks.
For a state whose economy was built partially on cattle ranching, though, Phoenix has a surprisingly good selection of vegan dining options. The vegan Mexican scene is flourishing thanks to places like Mi Vegana Madre and Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva. You can find vegan maple-glazed doughnuts at Nami and plant-based brownies at Treehouse Bakery. And when I go out for dinner with friends, I'm usually able to find at least one thing on the menu that I can eat — and not a dressing-free garden salad.
While I truly appreciate that restaurants are trying to be more inclusive of vegan diners, I do have a few requests:
1. Chill with the jackfruit already.
Over the past few months, I’ve been subjected to jackfruit fries, jackfruit tortas, jackfruit ramen, jackfruit bao, and one truly bizarre jackfruit calzone. It’s like every trendy-casual restaurant in town formed a cabal with Big Jackfruit and made a covert agreement that their sole vegan menu option would feature an obscure southeast Asian fruit that briefly had a moment in 2016.
I get it. Shredded jackfruit has a “meaty” texture. It kind of looks like pulled pork. But guess what? It’s also bland as hell. And slathering it with barbecue sauce doesn’t help. If you go to any of the really good vegan restaurants in town, you will notice that they do not have jackfruit on the menu. There is a reason for that. Please stop.
2. Stop ruining perfectly good Mexican food by adding random, inappropriate vegetables.
Contrary to popular belief, Mexican food is really easy to make vegan. All you have to do is leave out the meat and the cheese, and make sure there's no lard in the beans or chicken stock in the rice. I eat a burrito with rice, beans, avocado, and pico de gallo almost every day, and it never gets old.
That’s why it’s deeply distressing when restaurants try to “veganize” burritos by adding zucchini, mushrooms, or — most egregiously of all — broccoli. If you’re going to do this, at least please train your servers not to give me a weird look when I tell them that I want the veggie burrito but without any of the veggies. And, while I love hummus as much as the next vegan who can’t eat anything else at the party, hummus does not belong in tacos.
Putting hummus on a taco is a hate crime. (Looking at you, Taco Guild.)
One major exception to this rule: The deep-fried cauliflower tacos at The Coronado, while not exactly traditional or authentic, are a treasure.
3. If your only vegan option is a portobello mushroom burger, just don’t even bother.
Have you ever woken up craving a giant mushroom cap that’s been lightly warmed and placed on a dry hamburger bun? Cool, neither has any vegan, ever. Whoever told that you that flavorless, oversized fungi makes a great substitute for meat was lying.
Honestly, I would rather eat a microwaveable Gardenburger patty that's been sitting in the back of your freezer for years than another one of these stupid portobello "burgers." At least that way I won’t look like an idiot trying to bite into a enormous mushroom that’s been awkwardly sandwiched between two buns.
You know what else I’d rather eat than a mushroom burger? A burgerless burger from In-N-Out. If you ask for a veggie burger, they’ll make you a burger without the beef patty. Yes, it’s just a bun with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions.
Yes, this is an incredible scam.
But the lettuce is crisp. The tomatoes are fresh. The onions are sweet. The buns are always perfectly toasted. It’s weirdly good. The lesson here being: Just use decent ingredients, and don't worry so much about trying to "replace" the meat.
4. On that note, vegan restaurants need to stop relying so heavily on fake meat knockoffs.
There are more alternative meats than ever on the market these days. Some can actually be pretty tasty — the Big Wac at Green or the vegan Colombian hot dogs at Simon’s Hot Dogs in Scottsdale being two notable examples. But a lot of what's out there — such as vegan "shrimp" curry, "chicken" wings, and "fish" sandwiches — is creepy and weird. Just because you can mold textured vegetable protein into the shape of a scallop doesn't mean you should.
The vegan community tends to be divided on whether these meat substitutes are good because they help people transition away from a more carnivorous diet, or bad because they're so heavily processed that they're not really that much better for your health or for the environment. Personally, my main complaint is that relying on fake meat is uncreative, and, nine times out of 10, pretty unsatisfying.
Instead of slapping soy "beef crumbles" and soy "mozzarella" on a roll with some tomato sauce and calling it a "meatball sub," why not focus on making good food that also happens be naturally vegan?
5. Please clearly label your menus so that I don't have to guess what's vegan.
Let me preface this by saying that if I’m going to a small, immigrant-owned restaurant, I definitely don't expect them to cater to me and my dietary needs. Before I show up, I’ll do my own research by trying to find pictures of the menu online and googling “vegan Somali food” or “vegan Peruvian food” so that I’ve already figured out what I can eat.
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Sometimes this method backfires — for instance, the time that I ordered something that was described as a Yemeni tomato and fenugreek stew at YS Mandi Restaurant in Tempe and it turned out to be a bubbling pot of meat. But that’s a risk I’m wiling to take.
If I’m going to a place that charges upward of $10 for an appetizer, though, I don’t want any surprises — such as discovering that the meal I ordered actually contains fish sauce or comes sprinkled with cheese. And when your menu descriptions are just a random list of pretentious-sounding nouns — i.e. "bee pollen, citrus, shishito pepper" — I'm forced to guess how the food is being prepared and whether butter is involved at any step of the process.
I'm well aware that I can ask my server this question. But I’d like to have figured out what I'm going to eat before they come around to take my table's order, so I don't have to hold up everyone else's lunch while they run to the kitchen and double-check whether the Israeli couscous is cooked with chicken stock. There's a simple solution for this: Just to add a tiny (V) or (VG) after the description to indicate whether something's vegan or vegetarian.
I promise, it won’t completely ruin the aesthetics of your minimalist letterpress menu.