As a (mostly) vegan eater, I don't often get a chance to eat barbecue. Although I love the smoky flavors and wide variety of styles and options, I generally leave BBQ for the meat-eaters. However, the more I heard about the vegan BBQ recipes and restaurants popping up as chefs experiment with this subset of BBQ, the more I knew I needed to try it.
Vegan BBQ is perfect for those looking to cut down on meat consumption or for the vegetarians and vegans missing BBQ in their life. The best vegan BBQ recipes feature a protein that can be grilled and smoked like meat, along with a tasty barbecue sauce. Many vegan barbecue recipes involve vegan burgers like chickpea, white beans, lentil or black bean burgers.
Others use a meaty veggie as the main dish rather than a veggie burger, like pulled jackfruit, crispy veggie skewers, portobello mushrooms or cauliflower steaks. These recipes tend to also be gluten-free, an added bonus for those with food restrictions. Add a few sides or appetizers like sweet potatoes, grilled corn on the cob, watermelon and potato salad, and you're all set to have a vegan grilling station at the summer BBQ to rival the hot dogs and steaks.
Although I wasn't sure how vegan BBQ could possibly come close to the real deal, I was intrigued enough to look up the best vegan-friendly BBQ restaurant in town and try it out. My partner, who loves all things BBQ and meat, was my taste-testing assistant, offering a perspective for how realistic each dish was from a true BBQ lover.
I headed to Homegrown Smoker, the top-rated vegan BBQ spot in Portland, OR, which is unfortunately closed now due to Covid-19. This beloved restaurant features vegan alternatives to many classic BBQ dishes, like buffalo wings, smoked chicken, shortribs, and smoked beef. These veg dishes are all made with plant-based proteins like soy, seitan, and tempe.
Homegrown Smoker also offers a number of delicious-sounding side dishes, like vegan mac n cheese, BBQ baked beans, coleslaw, collard greens, and hush puppies. Plus, their minted lemonade and sweet tea are reason enough to give this vegan BBQ restaurant a chance. To truly assess how similar vegan BBQ dishes can be to their meat alternatives, my partner and I got a few different dishes, judging each for its flavor and texture.
Smoked "Chicken" Burrito
The first was the buff burrito, filled with smoked chickn, some veggies, vegan cheese, tempeh bac'n, ranch, and buffalo sauce.
Upon first glance, my meat-loving partner was hooked. "I have never seen a more beautiful burrito in my life, meat or otherwise."
After taking a few bites and evaluating the textures and flavors, we decided that this one comes pretty darn close to real BBQ chicken. The burrito was smoky with an authentic BBQ flavor and a nice spicy kick at the end. The vegan chicken had a great meat texture and felt similar to the real deal. As for the tempeh "bacon," it was also tangy and full of smoky barbecue flavor, although it didn't quite have the texture of bacon.
Overall, we were impressed! For any vegans or vegetarians out there grieving the loss of BBQ, we may have found your answer.
"Ribs" With Collard Greens
Our next taste was of the vegan ribs, which are part of the combo-plate option and are made of tempeh. We had mixed feelings about these. My partner's immediate reaction was "ooh I don't like that." We found the tempeh to be a bit too crumbly to be passed off as meat, and it didn't at all feel like we were digging into an actual plate of ribs.
However, they were clearly cooked in a tangy, smoky BBQ marinade, so the BBQ sauce flavor we were looking for hit the spot. Our conclusion: if you go into this vegan food experience without expecting it to taste like ribs, it's delicious! But don't take a bite thinking you'll be transported to your favorite BBQ joint.
"Beef" Seitan- Philthy Nocheesesteak
This one was my personal favorite, and a crowd pleaser all around. The sauce was amazingly flavorful and yummy, and the seitan and caramelized peppers only added to the deliciousness. This BBQ sandwich contained smoked beif seitan, grilled veggies, mozzarella, chipotle aioli and vegan cheese sauce on a hoagie.
The seitan was well-flavored, so it tasted just like meat, but the texture was slightly different than what one would expect from a Philly cheesesteak. However, the difference was small, and my partner remarked that "if you go into it blind, you can absolutely believe it's a philly cheese steak."
Overall, we decided that it tastes like meat but doesn't quite feel like meat. Maybe an unsuspecting BBQ fan could believe they're chowing down on a BBQ Philly cheesesteak for a few bites, but they would probably notice by the end of the sandwich that something is a little off. However, it was delicious, and I can't imagine getting much closer to making seitan taste like beef.
Mint Sweet Tea and a Food Coma
Although sweet tea is obviously not a BBQ recipe, I had to include a footnote on how incredibly delicious the mint sweet tea was. This was the "perfect way to wash everything down on a hot summer's day with some BBQ," and I believe the word "transcendent" was thrown around. Lastly, the food coma was real no matter how fake the meat was, so in this way, the experience came pretty close to a true meat-based BBQ dinner.
After sampling a good amount of vegan BBQ at Portland's best vegan BBQ joint, we felt that we had a good idea of this imitation food group. Although some of the dishes were delicious in their own right, they still don't hold a candle to classic meat-centric BBQ. So, if you're a vegan with a craving for the BBQ of your past, we recommend this as a an option that gets close to the taste and texture of BBQ without compromising your diet and belief system. However, if you're a meat-lover, stick to the ribs, wings and brisket you'll find at your local BBQ restaurant.
Here's a Vegan Cuban sandwich Recipe to try vegan BBQ for yourself!
This post was originally published on August 2, 2021.