Anthony Bourdain didn’t live long enough to make it to a Street Beet popup. If he had, it’s tempting to think he might have altered his droll assessment of vegans as vegetarianism’s Hezbollah splinter faction. A few surprisingly tasty bites into a Filet No-Fish or McFake Chicken sandwich, it’s possible to even be amused by them, or at least by Meghan Shaw and Nina Paletta, anyway, who are the women behind Street Beet.
These Detroit vegans specialize in plant-based food that masquerades as fast-food favorites, negating the argument that if it’s vegan, it’s boring and earnest and leafy and flavorless.
Their most recent feed, called McDaddy’s and held at Nancy Whiskey on a recent snowy Sunday had guests at a one-hour wait moments after opening. Diners were offered a selection of imitations of the fast-food classics sold by the ubiquitous chain suggested in the name. This was their second fast-food effort, after a monthly Taco Hell at PJ’s Lager House was so successful it allowed both women to quit their day jobs after only two months.
On March 6, again at Nancy Whiskey, will be Kentucky Fake Chicken. Three makes a trend.
“We wanted to do comfort food,” said Shaw in a recent interview. “There’s a lot of vegan food, but a lot is super-healthy. When I go out to eat I want to spend my money on something crazy, or special.”
Shaw has been vegan off and on, mostly on, for about six years. The off periods came when she was tempted by places like Taco Bell. So she has a mission, of sorts.
“Vegans are known for not being any fun at all,” she said. “I was reading about some rapper who doesn’t want to identify as vegan, because ‘vegans are like the police,’ he said. “We’re just trying to make it a little more fun.”
Fun is at least a bit of a trend in vegan cuisine. The Impossible Burger, a proprietary product made by Impossible Foods, was on the McDaddy’s menu, and recently made a splash at none other than White Castle, with the Impossible Slider. And Chili Mustard Onions, in Brush Park, gives Detroit its first vegan coney island.
The “beef” in the Taco Hell items is made from ground walnuts and their own seasoning, Shaw said. It’s healthier, although nuts aren’t exactly diet food. Their McRibby sandwich is yuba, a byproduct of tofu that, when combined with the barbecue sauce that is the dominant flavor in its inspiration, works really well as a substitute (at least according to the people at the next table at Nancy Whiskey, who ordered one).
“I never thought it could be this big,” said Shaw. “I never thought I could quit my day job. We really had no idea how to handle the first one, but it was a huge success. We were blown away.”
Now, nine months in, Street Beet is considering a brick-and-mortar location. They’re also setting up in Bowlero Lanes and Lounge, a Royal Oak bowling alley that recently changed hands, with new owners seeking a vegan menu for its lounge.
Being vegan can be a hard road, but it’s getting easier.
“I’m constantly thinking about food and what I’m going to eat,” said Shaw. “It’s still challenging.”
But with reasonable facsimiles of American classics increasingly plentiful, it’s less so every day.
“We don’t want to scare non-vegans away,” Shaw said. “We want to accommodate everybody.”