Ditching meat? Where to find alternative proteins at fast-casual restaurants

A sky-high plant-based deli sandwich does exist. This is the Mrs. Goldfarb's Unreal Reuben from Mendocino Farms.
A sky-high plant-based deli sandwich does exist. This is the Mrs. Goldfarb’s Unreal Reuben from Mendocino Farms.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

A decade ago, when you wanted a veggie burger for dinner, you could probably find a restaurant serving a patty made from mashed beans, rice and mushrooms. There were no menu items listing plant-based chicken or deli meat.

Now, a growing number of companies are offering alternative proteins made with peas, soy and other ingredients, designed to truly imitate actual meat, and restaurants are taking notice, with more plant-based versions of traditionally meat-centric dishes. Vegan pepperoni, deli meat or tuna? It’s out there.

Here’s a list of fast-casual restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange counties serving alternative proteins. (Since vegetarian and vegan burgers are readily available at most restaurants, we omitted them from this list.)

Veggie Grill tuna melt

Tuna melt from Veggie Grill.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In late 2020, the Santa Monica-based vegan restaurant chain started offering a plant-based “tuna” melt made with Good Catch tuna. (The protein is actually a blend of peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, faba beans and navy beans.) Good Catch received more than $30 million from General Mills and a host of other companies in 2020, and celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Lance Bass and Shailene Woodley invested as well. For the tuna melt, the alt-protein is mixed with diced onion, capers, celery and fresh dill, blanketed in a piece of melted vegan American cheese, and topped with pickles and tomato on toasted rye bread. The tuna is on the stiffer side and eats more like chicken salad, with flakes of meat. There was a tuna-ish aftertaste (most likely from the algal oil or seaweed powder added to the protein blend), and with all the usual tuna melt ingredients present, it’s a passable version of the classic.

Little Caesar’s Planteroni Pizza

The vegan pepperoni at Little Caesar’s is purely there for aesthetics. Made with Field Roast pepperoni, the rounds are crumbly and similar in texture to Play-Doh that’s been left out for a little too long. The pepperoni is a combination of wheat gluten, pea protein and potato protein. Cayenne, paprika and fennel also are listed among the ingredients, but they were hard to detect. The dominant seasoning was salt — as in, the pepperoni was very salty. There will be no Pinocchio miracle, even if you repeat “I am eating a real pepperoni pizza” in your head over and over again.

Dunkin’ Donuts Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich

The Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich from Dunkin' Donuts.
The Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich from Dunkin’ Donuts.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Select locations of the doughnut chain offer a breakfast sandwich made with Beyond Sausage, from Beyond Meat. Like its Beyond Beef cousin, the sausage is made with pea protein. And the plant-based version of a pressed and formed sausage tastes pretty much like a pressed and formed sausage. To keep your sandwich entirely plant-based, be sure to ask for vegan bread (like the English muffin), and steer clear of the American cheese and egg.


California Pizza Kitchen BBQ “Don’t Call Me Chicken” pizza

The plant-based BBQ chicken pizza at CPK is the restaurant’s signature pizza but with slightly rubbery plant-based chicken swapped in for the real thing. The company launched the “BBQ Don’t Call Me Chicken” pizza in October 2020, using Worthington Foods’ Don’t Call Me Chicken product, which is made primarily from wheat and soy. It smacks like the original pizza, with sweet barbecue sauce and smoky gouda. If you’re thinking about cutting back on meat but haven’t fully pulled the vegan trigger, this is the pizza for you.

Mendocino Farms’ Mrs. Goldfarb’s Unreal Reuben

Mrs. Goldfarb's Unreal Reuben from Mendocino Farms.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

It may seem impossible to replicate the experience of a sky-high deli sandwich stacked with thinly sliced meat, but the plant-based Reuben at Mendocino Farms comes pretty close. The key is the corned beef, made by the L.A.-based company Mrs. Goldfarb’s Unreal Deli. It’s a blend of “high wheat protein,” beets, tomatoes and chickpeas flavored with soy sauce, maple syrup and apple cider vinegar. According to the company, high wheat protein is the “high protein part of the wheat grain.” The “meat” is soft, pliable and salty. What the sandwich lacks in corned beef flavor, it makes up for in Reuben accouterments, with good apple and celery-root slaw, Thousand Island dressing, sweet pickles and melted cheese on rye bread. To make it vegan, ask for the plant-based smoked provolone cheese instead of the havarti.

Chronic Tacos Beyond Beef Chronic Fries

The Beyond Beef tacos at this chain, which originated in Newport Beach, use the most chameleonic of what I like to call the fake meats: Beyond Beef. It’s made by Beyond Meat, one of the two alternative protein giants (the other is Impossible Foods), widely available at stores. Beyond Beef is made with pea protein, rice protein, potato starch and dried yeast with a host of other ingredients thrown in for texture and color. At Chronic Tacos, you can use the alt-protein in any of the restaurant’s build-your-own-adventure dishes, but I’d recommend the Chronic Fries. The fries are the good, skinny kind that stay crisp. They are served with a couple of scoops of the Beyond Beef, broken up into small nubs that resemble ground beef. If there’s seasoning in the meat, it was lost on me. After you add rice and beans, chopped onion, cilantro and hot salsa, the meat — like so many of the alternative protein products — is there for the idea of meat more than anything.

Blaze Pizza vegan chorizo

Vegan chorizo pizza from Blaze Pizza.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

This is another build-your-own-pizza chain, where it’s possible to create a fully vegan pizza with vegan cheese and the restaurant’s plant-based chorizo. Unhappy with what was on the market, Blaze co-founder and Chief Culinary Officer Brad Kent decided to develop his own version. The non-GMO, soy protein-based chorizo has a fair amount of spice with a punch of paprika and onion, and it crumbles like the real thing. (You can add plant-based cheese and chorizo to any pizza.)

Monty’s Good Burger Charlie’s Chickɘn Sandwich

The fried chicken sandwich craze has crossed over into plant-based territory. Monty’s Good Burger is now offering a sandwich that mimics the fast-food classic, simply dressed with vegan mayonnaise and pickles on a bun. The restaurant developed its own chickɘn product with seitan (wheat gluten), for a texture that’s similar to chicken breast. It’s battered and fried with a satisfyingly thick and crisp coating. Just about anything dipped and fried in that batter would taste good, and the chickɘn is no exception.

Dog Haus Beyond Sausage Brat and Beyond Sausage Italian

The Sooo Veggie with Beyond Sausage from Dog Haus.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The Beyond Sausage Brat at the Dog Haus chain, made by Beyond Meat, was thick like a bratwurst and smelled like a hot dog, but the meat was soft without any real pronounced flavor. The Italian had a little more bite to it, with soft, grainy indiscernible bits that I imagine were meant to mimic the marbling of a course-ground sausage. It was by no means hot, but there was a faint tingle of heat. If you put enough condiments on either sausage, you’ll feel like you’re eating a hot dog. It should be noted that the restaurant’s signature sweet rolls are not vegan, but you can order your dog on a French roll (vegan) or in a lettuce wrap.

Tocaya pea protein picadillo

Pea protein picadillo tacos from Tocaya Modern Mexican.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

More than any of the other plant-based meat products, the pea protein used in the picadillo at Tocaya most resembled the flavor and texture of ground beef. Maybe it was the fact that the pieces were loose and small like sloppy Joe filling or that the “beef” was well seasoned like taco meat. After a couple of bites, I was convinced it was actual meat. The restaurant developed its own recipe, made with pea protein, carrots, zucchini and potatoes. (You can add the picadillo to any of the restaurant’s dishes.) If you’re looking to up your actual vegetable intake, try one of the bowls with cauliflower rice. Yes, cauliflower rice.

Fresh Brothers’ chick’n tenders

Plant-based chick'n tenders from Fresh Brother's.
Plant-based chick’n tenders from Fresh Brother’s.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

My 5-year-old godson, whose diet consists almost exclusively of all forms of fried poultry, approved of the Fresh Brothers’ chick’n tenders. I can’t think of a better endorsement. The restaurant chain uses Gardein Chick’n made with enriched wheat flour and soy protein isolate. The tenders are baked instead of fried, with a “seven grain” crust. They look like tenders, but they aren’t actually crispy. Think a giant chicken nugget in a sealed container after a long drive home. But it’s nothing a quick dip in the air fryer won’t fix.