One of the more enduring parlour tricks in professional cooking is the wink-wink Big Mac knockoff. I've encountered a few dozen of them in the past 10 years: the sneaky, properly lowbrow ones that bear all the right tastes and textures but don't advertise themselves as Big Mac copies; the "elevated" ones made with high-end beef and farmhouse cheddar; the international riffs such as DaiLo's terrific Big Mac Bao and Oddseoul's breathtakingly delicious Loosey, which switches out the standard Russian dressing-style special sauce for hollandaise seasoned with kimchi juice.
Doomie's, the new and wildly popular Parkdale offshoot of Los Angeles-based fast food spot, takes its Big Mac homage a couple of giant steps farther. Forgoing the usual attempts at plausible deniability, Doomie's doesn't try to hide its inspiration; the company has even served its Big Mac homage in custom-printed cardboard hamburger boxes designed to look for all the world like the Golden Arches' ones.
What makes that boldness all the more noteworthy is the Doomie's version's prime ingredient. Doomie's is a vegan restaurant; rather than use a couple of anemic, industrially processed all-beef patties, the cooks at Doomie's use a couple of anemic, industrially processed textured soy protein and wheat gluten ones. Take that, Ray Kroc! We'll match your meat-is-murder meal ticket and make it cruelty-free! Which is a fine idea in principle. On the marquee outside the restaurant this summer, the restaurant's management wrote, "Your grandkids will ask why you ever ate animals," and there's a decent chance they're even right.
But I should also hope our grandkids will be even more appalled that anybody ever ate the pallid, grease-embalmed, retrogressive slop that Doomie's makes its specialty. Just as vegan food, and the plant-based hamburger especially, is entering a golden era of deliciousness and creativity, Doomie's has arrived to drag the genre 10 years backward. With scant few exceptions, the restaurant's Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches, crispy "chicken" dishes and barbecue "pork" tacos look and taste like university residence dining hall food, circa the 1990s, but without the artistry, the quality ingredients or the love.
That "Vegan Big Mac," as the restaurant's servers call it, has nothing on the real deal, and the fact it's vegan isn't why. Vegan burgers are the holy grail, not merely of many top-drawer chefs, but also of a booming and well-funded food technology industry. They're becoming tasty enough – and convincing enough – of late that the beef industry should be losing sleep.
The Impossible Burger patty, to name just one, was developed in Silicon Valley with more than $200-million in funding (Bill Gates is an investor), and made its debut on restaurant menus in the United States earlier this year. It's made not with the usual textured soy protein, but with coconut oil, potato starch, soy roots, honeydew melon extract and a proprietary yeast compound, among other plant ingredients. So far it has drawn very good to ecstatic reviews. (David Chang, who serves them at Nishi, in New York, was an early adopter.)
Forward-thinking restaurant chefs have similarly aimed to reinvent the plant-based patty: the Public Kitchen's Doug McNish among others in Toronto and chefs Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park and Brooks Headly, the all-star former pastry chef at Mario Batali's Del Posto in New York. As The New York Times put it in an article a few days ago about the humble veggie patty's evolution: "The newest generation of veggie burgers has moved from the edges of the menu – at best an interesting challenge for chefs to tackle – to its centre, a dish to offer not just for the sake of meat-avoiding customers, but to make memorable in its own right."
At Doomie's, though, the patties taste like freezer-burned cardboard dipped in clowns' tears, mostly – if you've ever struggled through an Yves-brand, freezer-aisle-textured soy protein patty, you'll know exactly what I mean. Worse still, that Vegan Big Mac comes sluiced with so much sauce and fat – overcompensation for its lack of flavour and juiciness, presumably – that the bottom bun falls apart within a couple of bites. On the plus side, this is as good an excuse as any for leaving it uneaten on your plate.
That burger's proportions are disastrous: a real Big Mac is a relatively tiny sandwich, and the bread (there are three slices, remember) is soft enough and insignificant enough that it balances perfectly against the sauce, the onion, the lettuce, the pickle and the meat. Doomie's Big Mac is nearly twice the size and triple the density, with far too much bread. The onion, pickle and lettuce, meanwhile – some of the only recognizable vegetables you'll find in this nominally vegetable-focused restaurant – only whimper faintly. This is doubly sad, as a touch of freshness is one of Doomie's most pressing needs.
The jalapeno poppers should have been a gimme here, as soy-based cheese is often very good, but their breading was scabbed on far too thickly and a couple of them hadn't been stuffed with cheese. The "chicken" fingers were the best of the appetizers I tried: the soy-based chicken not bad at all and the Frank's Red Hot sauce they were coated with assertive enough to mask all but the most egregious kitchen sins. Almost, that is. Those chicken fingers were weirdly clammy, like a sweaty handshake – warm in the middle, but covered in chilly wet.
The Philly Cheesesteak was disastrous, like eating pillow stuffing tossed in halfway caramelized onions and a single round of seared green pepper (see: basic cooking skills, above). The barbecue "pork" tacos were nicely smoky (thanks to liquid smoke), but soggy enough that they might have been cooked in the dishwasher – I didn't ask.
The best I can say about Doomie's grilled chicken sandwich is the avocado slices my table-mate ordered as an extra weren't vile.
The fries here, which cost $6 for plain (menu description: "Zero Fun Plain Ol' Fries. Just the Fries, Guys." This is far too kind) and $8 to $10 with meagre toppings, turned soggy about 90 seconds after they arrived.
A friend I took to Doomie's earlier this summer argued, perhaps a little defensively, that vegans should be able to indulge in greasy fast food the same way omnivores do. She was right, of course, but her argument misses the point. The problem with Doomie's isn't that it serves junky, fat- and salt-laden food with too-sweet cocktails that taste like hairspray. (Word to the wise: steer well clear of the banana liqueur-spiked doozy called "Summer Wind.")
The problem with Doomie's isn't the prices (they're high, considering) or the strident carnivores-are-evil-incarnate comics on the walls, or even the hapless, lazy service (to wit: the server who insisted the restaurant's uncharacteristically excellent crème brulé is made with soy and wheat, because everything at Doomie's is made with soy and wheat. After insisting she go find out, she told us it's made with palm oil and agar agar).
The problem with Doomie's is that a little hard work and imagination could make Doomie's a passably decent (if not far better than that) restaurant. Instead it's mostly gross.