Booze correspondent Whitney Filloon is experiment with going meat-free once a week. Here's her latest animal-fat-less dispatch.
"How can you hate on a joint whose tagline is 'We Love You'?"
This is what I thought to myself as I walked through the door at Oak Cliff vegan destination Spiral Diner. A hostess stand located right in front displayed menus and a "Please Seat Yourself" sign (Is it still called a hostess stand if there's no hostess?). I obediently grabbed a menu and slid into a booth, slightly terrified by what I had talked myself into.
I'm no vegetable hater, but the thought of strange meat substitutes didn't exactly excite me. Decorated in a retro palette of pastels and stainless steel, Spiral Diner has the look and feel of a classic 1950s diner, but everything is 100 percent animal-free -- no meat, dairy, eggs, honey (bees have feelings too, apparently) or refined sugar (because it's often processed with the char of animal bones). The employees definitely look pretty crunchy, and I spotted more than one pair of white-kid dreads, but the customers were anything but homogenized: older conservative-looking couples, groups of office workers, families with young children.
A friendly server explained that drinks are self-serve, but they'd take my order when I was ready, so I sidled over to the beverage station to pour myself a cup of Ethiopian fair-trade coffee. Various hippie condiments were on display: Bragg's Liquid Aminos (raw unfermented soy sauce), organic ketchup, nutritional yeast flakes. I gave my coffee mug a generous squeeze of vanilla agave nectar and settled in to decipher the menu.
There's a glossary in the front to define some of the more unusual terms that non-vegans may not be familiar with: tempeh is a mixture of fermented soy and grains, TVP stands for textured vegetable protein, and seitan is made from wheat gluten and (supposedly) has a texture similar to shredded chicken. Yum! I put in my order for a cup of the soup du jour and a veggie burger with a side of quinoa and sipped my coffee, content with the knowledge that no Ethiopian coffee farmers had been ripped off in the name of my caffeine consumption.
The soup du jour, butternut fennel, wouldn't have seemed out of a place in a regular, non-vegan restaurant. The natural sweetness of the vegetables was accented with herbs, and the soup was surprisingly smooth and creamy, a quality I'd normally attribute to the addition of cream or butter.
I had ordered the El Paso burger, opting for the "classic" soy protein patty (they also offer a nut patty made from sunflower seeds and brown rice, or a marinated portobello cap). The patty wasn't especially juicy -- that would be soy juice as opposed to meat juice, I suppose -- but it had a familiar meaty texture, and all the toppings harmonized: spicy chipotle mayo, pickled jalapenos, and delicious creamy guacamole, plus the usual LT&O.
I had politely declined the server's suggestion to add "cheeze" to my burger, having read on the menu that their cheese substitute is cashew-based. ("Nut cheese," it turns out? Not that appealing.)
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This was my first run-in with quinoa, and frankly I was a bit alarmed by the sight of it. It was cooked in the style of Spanish rice, and with the bright orange hue it resembled something akin to insect larvae. Luckily it tasted better than it looked, slightly spicy with a texture somewhere between rice and pearl couscous. I wouldn't order it there again, as I think it needs some other ingredients to break up the texture -- it would've benefited greatly from the addition of some dried fruit and toasted nuts for chewiness and crunch. I will, however, attempt to cook it at home soon, as quinoa is widely popular for being a complete protein (rare to find in a plant-based food).
My belly full of cruelty-free nourishment, I paid my bill at the cash register and couldn't resist something out of the bakery case. Vegan or not, Spiral Diner makes a damn good chocolate chip cookie. Soft, chewy and generously studded with rich chocolate, it reminded me of a Soft Batch or Chewy Chips Ahoy -- that is, obviously made with vegetable shortening or oil rather than butter, but I still inhaled it in under three minutes. (I came back the very next day for another cookie and a dairy-free chocolate milkshake, which was ridiculously good until I got to the weirdly artificial whipped "cream" on top. I'm slightly lactose intolerant so it was nice to indulge without worrying about wreaking havoc on my digestive system.)
Spiral Diner does a great job of making vegan food accessible and even appealing to the masses. I won't be rushing back for a plate of cashew cheeze nachos anytime soon, but I'll definitely consider grabbing a veggie burger and a milkshake next time I'm in the area. It's nice to know that I can have a tasty meal with minimal impact on both the environment and my cholesterol.
Note: Oddly, Spiral Diner is closed on Mondays -- I know, I know, but I observe my meat-free day later in the week so I can write a piece to run on Monday. Even though this one's running Tuesday, since the blog was off yesterday. The intention of the movement is more about the Meatless and less about the Monday, so enjoy your Tempeh Tuesday or whatever.