The Beyond Meat Burger is back at A&W restaurants across Canada. After a much-hyped launch last July, the pea-protein meat substitute sold out in five weeks. Stocks have now been replenished and I tried one recently. The patty wasn’t bad. It had a crisp sear, spongy interior, meaty chew, pleasant, lentil-like flavour and salty finish, although mine was too dry and overcooked to bleed beet juice.
I still don’t understand why people who don’t eat meat for ethical reasons would go crazy for a mass-produced product that sizzles, smells and tastes somewhat like real beef when they could always eat real, honest-to-goodness vegetables in a bun. But as a method of saving Mother Earth, plant-based eating is a trend that I can happily get behind.
The last time I wrote about fake meat, I received dozens of nasty missives – several wishing me dead – from militant animal-rights activists. So I’m a little gun-shy about wading into vegan territory. In the name of duty, I have decided to bite the bullet and review two newish plant-based restaurants, both Middle Eastern. Aleph Eatery is owned by the son of Palestinian refugees, the proprietors of Chickpea hail from Tel Aviv, Israel.
Location: 4298 Main St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Vegan Israeli
Additional information: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. (midnight Friday and Saturday). Reservations for parties of six or more.
Rating system: Cheap eats
This bricks-and-mortar offshoot of the popular Chickpea food truck is a bright, joyous, eclectic space filled with colourful tchotchkes and trimmed in earthy stone, greenery and wood. A family-friendly joint, it boasts stroller parking and a play zone for kids, but also has a busy hipster bar that serves kefir cocktails and local craft beer.
The vegan menu is almost entirely gluten-free. And I didn’t notice any nuts. With so many restrictions, the abundance of choice is impressive, although the massive menu is slightly confusing to navigate. I suggest you opt for the full hafla-sharing experience, which comes with a main dish for each person, accompanied by a huge spread of salads, pickles, dips and pita.
Chickpea does a decent job with texturally interesting meat substitutes. The smoked-tofu schnitzel is well seasoned in a thick coating of crispy, crunchy, deep-fried crumb. The falafels are big, hefty green balls mixed with a ton of fresh parsley. The tempeh shawarma, however, is sliced a little too thin. Cooked down to a stew-like texture, it tastes more like daal.
The cooking is what you might kindly describe as home-style. There is not a lot of finesse in the plating. The schnitzel comes with lumpy baked yams that are burnt around the edges and raggedly sliced avocado. The cucumbers, pickled cauliflower and Moroccan carrots are all eye-squintingly tangy, the tomato matbukha is a bluntly spicy mash, the pita is cold and the hummus is shockingly bland.
But it’s wholesome and healthy and obviously made with love.
And then, there are the classic chickpea fries – thick wedges that are crisply fried, fluffy inside, all smothered in sweet chili and gloopy mango sauces. They sound disgusting and don’t look particularly attractive, but are irresistible.
Name: Aleph Eatery
Location: 1889 Powell St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Vegetarian Palestinian
Additional information: Open for lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Sunday, reservations for parties of six to 10.
Rating system: Cheap eats
Airy, minimalist and accented in soft pastels, Aleph Eatery looks as if it leapt off the design pages of Goop. The bar offers refreshing cocktails and Middle Eastern wines.
The restaurant’s greatest asset is its saj oven, proudly stationed in the front window. It bakes beautifully light flatbread that is served in warm sheets, folded inside woven napkins. Do try the chimichurri saj, spread with olive oil, red onions and parsley. It’s as addictive as Chickpea’s fries.
Aleph’s cooking is, for the most part, more refined and flavourful than Chickpea’s. Mind you, it also has dairy, nuts and honey on its side.
The mezze tasting spread is extraordinarily good banquet of small dishes for sharing. It comes with a little bit of everything: briny black olives, a matching set of fruity olive oil and dry zaatar spice for dipping, fried halloumi salad with ripe tomatoes and fresh basil. There are also pickled carrots curled into thin ribbons and lightly dusted with spicy chili, crumbly raw cauliflower painted pink with zesty beet juice and thickly creamy labneh drizzled with honey. In addition to saj bread, you are given the choice of excellent roasted red-pepper muhammara plumped with meaty walnuts, lemony-bright hummus hand-blended to a coarse texture or (sadly disappointing) babaganouj that is pulpy and overwhelmed by cumin.
The larger plates are less satisfying. The portion sizes are odd. Can crispy potatoes tossed in garlicky tahini or a similarly dressed bowl of spicy cauliflower really be main dishes? They seem more like sides.
I appreciate that the meat substitutes make creative use of vegetables. Enoki shawarma served on hummus is a brightly seasoned tangle infused with traditional shawarma spices.
But the tomato kibbeh? No one would ever mistake this loose, crumbly salad of tomato-marinated bulgur for meat. It’s served over a layer of creamy labneh with a scattering of pomegranate seeds that don’t offer enough bite or textural contrast. It needs more heft – halloumi, tempeh or even a Beyond Meat Burger-like pea-protein patty. Perhaps there is something to be said for fake meat after all.