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A bacon cheeseburger without bacon or beef is not actually a bacon cheeseburger. But that’s not stopping Native Foods Cafe, an all-vegan fast-casual restaurant that opened at 18th and M streets NW today, from calling its seitan patty an “Oklahoma bacon cheeseburger.” The restaurant, founded in Palm Springs in 1994, has locations throughout California as well as Illinois, Oregon, and Colorado. And in addition to its new downtown D.C. locale, it’s coming to Penn Quarter, too. I braved the long line (stretching out the door!) to taste test three dishes that seemed least suited to veganization.
Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger, $9.95
The greatest drawback of vegan foods trying too imitate meat is always texture. One of the best qualities of bacon is its crispiness. But in the case of this burger, the soft slab of marinated and baked organic tofu—”Native bacon”—registers as only a hint of smokiness. The patty, made of thin slices of seitan, also lacks the chew of a good burger. Still, the barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, and caramelized onions forgive a lot of sins, and the tomatoes are ripe and flavorful—which is more than you can say for a lot of burgers. My main complaint with this sandwich has nothing to do with its vegan components: It’s just too bready, with thick whole wheat buns overwhelming the stuffings. The only person in City Paper’s office who tried it and would eat it again is a former vegan.
Native Chicken Wings, $5.95
These wings, comprised of free-range soy, wheat, and pea protein, come grilled or crispy tossed in buffalo sauce or naked. I chose crispy, sauced. The flavor is not far off from what you might find in your average sports bar, but again, the texture is decidedly too mushy.
Freddie’s Mac and Cheese, $4.95
This soy-free and gluten-free quinoa super pasta in “cheese sauce” is offered only on the kid’s menu. Those poor children get stuck with a few sorry pieces of flavorless steamed broccoli too. As for the “cheese”—made with a blend of cashews and sunflower seeds—it succeeds in tasting kind of like butter, but without the flavor and saltiness of real cheese. The cup comes with a slice of watermelon (can’t go wrong there) and choice of sides. I tried the fries, which are cooked in pure rice bran oil. They taste like less oily, less salty McDonald’s fries.
Some more redeeming aspects of Native Foods Cafe for non-vegans (at least that I tried) are the sweets (the chocolate mint moon pie was solid) and the drinks. Among the thirst-quenchers: lavender lemonade, watermelon fresca, and unsweetened organic blueberry hibiscus tea. And hey, there are free refills!
Native Foods Cafe, 1150 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 296-1674; nativefoods.com
Photos by Jessica Sidman