City Lights: Going meatless at Chipotle

Years ago, I attended an outdoor festival organized by a vegan friend at which Veggie Grill had agreed to hand out food samples. One passerby tried something from the tray — a soy chicken strip, maybe — and remarked how delicious it was. "See?" my friend exclaimed as he walked on. "Meat is so unnecessary!"

Would that it were.

Well, let me qualify that statement. It is unnecessary for me — and for the 5% of Americans, if last year's Gallup poll can be trusted, who follow a meatless diet. People become vegetarians for any number of reasons, from allergies to ethics to a desire to lose weight. But I'll venture to say that few people switch to a plant-based diet because they outright don't like the taste of meat.

That's why, for those of us who detest cruelty but still fight back a dreamy smile when we pass a Kentucky Fried Chicken, restaurants like Veggie Grill offer a welcome compromise. Even if the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin' sandwich or the Veggie-Steak Tacos don't taste 100% like the genuine articles, they come remarkably close — the same way a Beatles tribute band can entertain even if the accents veer closer to London than Liverpool.

One of the benefits of living in Orange County is having so many near-meat choices available — at Veggie Grill, Native Foods, Au Lac and elsewhere. Now, a major chain has gotten into the game as well: Chipotle recently added a shredded-tofu filling called Sofritas to its Southern California outlets, having tested the product already in Northern California.

In the past two weeks, I've had Sofritas three times — in a burrito, bowl and soft-taco platter — and can say with assurance that it's quite good. It has a spicy taste, flavored by chilies, poblanos and more, and a not-too-rubbery texture that makes it dissolve between the teeth the way ground beef does. It's the rare vegetarian "meat" that I suspect could fool carnivores if I slipped it onto their plate unannounced.

And unannounced, for many, is probably the only way it would get there. Having been a vegetarian for years, I know that a suggestion to eat at a restaurant like Native Foods can bring any number of responses: "Don't be ridiculous," a nervous chuckle, even a cold stare. For those whose dining companions refuse to try a restaurant without meat, places like Chipotle offer at least a middle ground.

Like I said, it's a matter of taste — literally. I've known a great many people who cling steadfastly to a meat diet but still melt when they see a winsome dog on the street. Some have told me that they refuse to watch documentaries about meat production ("Earthlings," narrated by Joaquin Phoenix during one of his periods of sane public behavior, is among the more harrowing) simply because they don't want to be reminded where bacon and drumsticks come from.

There's been talk in recent years in the scientific community about creating meat without animals, which amounts, in one theory, to creating plate-ready products from stem cells. The day El Pollo Loco masters this technique, I will be camping out overnight for a burrito. But in the meantime, what are the options for those who want a humane alternative to meat?

Well, Chipotle is now one. Veggie Grill and Native Foods are others. Linx, a hot dog restaurant in Old Towne Orange, has a vegan dog that far exceeds any at Ralphs. Islands has one of the best veggie burgers around. And sometimes resemblance to meat isn't everything — the veggie burger I had at Mother's Market & Kitchen last weekend tasted more like a potato pancake than a meat patty, but that's fine if you like potato pancakes.

If the other options listed above grow more common, will meat become unnecessary? For many, no. But for those who keep "Earthlings" in mind, a product like Sofritas more than fits the bill. And considering that the OC Fair has a Beatles tribute band in its main concert series this year, sometimes an imitation just about suffices.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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