Navigating U.S. fast food restaurants as a vegan

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» Navigating U.S. fast food restaurants as a vegan

Joshua Elizetxe provides a list of U.S. chains that offer vegan options, and talks us through what to look out for at fast food joints.

Vegans haven’t always had an easy time at fast food restaurants. These places are a cornucopia of meat, milkshakes and mass indulgence. They are seen as places to avoid, going against everything that vegans stand for. But it’s not always easy to avoid them. If you have non-vegan friends or family members then you can attest to that. What’s more, if you’ve ever been stuck outdoors on an extended shopping trip, or driving around for hours feeling tired and hungry, they are sometimes your only option.

So, what are your options, how do you navigate fast food restaurants as a vegan and why can it be hard to find this out?

Why vegan options aren’t priority

vegan options

According to the University of Chicago Medicine, around 3 million people in the United States have an intolerance to gluten. These people are not refraining by choice, but necessity. For years they have struggled even more than vegans when trying to find food they can eat in the fast food and casual dining sectors. Only when ‘gluten-free’ became a fad did these restaurants pay attention. It took a generation of Instagram-accredited nutritionists to decide that gluten was bad, and for many millions of people to believe them, before fast food chains decided to do something about it.

When you consider that there are around 1 million vegans in the United States, it doesn’t bode well. Based on those figures, we would have to triple our numbers before we were even acknowledged as a group: luckily for us, veganism is becoming more and more popular every day, but change may still take time.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end. It’s a numbers game. Fast food chains started paying attention to vegetarians when the number of US vegetarians crept above 7 million. They started paying attention to those on a gluten-free diet when the figures were similar. As vegans, we should up our game and start demanding more vegan-friendly options too by emailing, phoning and writing in to our local and national chains. 

Sure, when you consider how much these companies are earning despite rising concerns about animal welfare, food miles and healthy options, they can afford not to care. But already there are exceptions, with many listed towards the end of this article.

Why ‘vegan’ isn’t always 100% animal-free

There are many restaurants out there that seem to be vegan, and don’t state anything to the contrary, but it is debatable whether vegans would actually want to eat there. The Benihana menu is a prime example of this. They sell a lot of vegan foods, but they cook everything on the same hotplates and they use the same utensils. You can ask them to change, but they’re more likely to give you a confused look and to call the manager than they are to actually do so.

This problem exists in many chains, and it’s one that has been frustrating vegans around the world. There was a time when McDonalds added beef fat to the oil they cooked their fries in. They did this for years before a vegetarian found out, went ballistic, and they were forced to change their ways. But even then, they only changed in the United Kingdom and a few other countries. In the US, they continue to add a ‘trace amount’ of beef to their fries, despite growing pressure and law suits.

And don’t even get me started on the additives that are used in seemingly harmless desserts, but are actually sourced from animals. It seems that even when they manage to get it right, they don’t realize it or acknowledge it. The McDonalds and Burger King apple pie is a prime example of this. It’s short-crust pastry, which means it should contain milk and butter, but it doesn’t. Yet, it’s not marketed as being vegan friendly, which suggests that this was a happy accident—likely the byproduct of an attempt to save money by using palm oil—as opposed to a genuine attempt to appeal to their vegan consumers.

It’s a minefield. There are vegan friendly restaurants out there, of course, but what if you’re with a group of non-vegan friends who want to hit-up a greasy, nasty, fast food chain for some self indulgence? What are your options then?

Vegan foods on non-vegan menus

A ‘vegan menu’ is the white whale of fast food chains. But there are vegan options on non-vegan menus. And some of them may surprise you. 

Here’s our list of options at U.S. fast food chains, all of which are vegan.

If you see any that are out of date, please email web[at]vegansociety[dot]com. If you’d like to add any chains with vegan options to the list, The Vegan Society would love to hear from you too. This list correct as of May 2017.

Warning: these products are mentioned as being vegan in North America only, and will often differ from country to country, so check with the chain in question first. The Vegan Society cannot take any responsibility if a chain suddenly changes its options to be non-vegan, so always check the ingredients before ordering, even when using this U.S. guide or The Vegan Society’s UK guide.

• Applebee’s: Only the salad greens and salad oil.

• Baja-Fresh: Side salad and rice & beans plate (order both without cheese). Original baha taco. Chips and salsa. Chips and guacamole.

• Baskin-Robbins: Dairy-free ices.

• BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse: The pizza crust and marinara sauce are vegan, which means you can make your own vegan pizza.

• Bruegger’s: There are many vegan options on this NYC favorite. Skip the cream cheese and opt for hummus, mustard, veggies or some of their sweet toppings for your bagel.

• Burger King: French fries. Simple salad. Some desserts, such as their Dutch apple pie, are also vegan. The bean burger is not vegan as it contains egg white.

• Carl’s Jr.: Many potato based sides, including Criss-Cut fries, French fries and hash-browns, are vegan. As are the grits and the three bean salad.

• Carrabbas: Many of the pasta choices are vegan, but there are very few sauces to go with them. The pomodoro sauce is one of the few options, along with a bread basket side.

• The Cheesecake Factory: Vegan cobb salad. Kale and quinoa salad (no parmesan). French country salad (no goat cheese). Super antioxidant salad. Tossed green salad (no croutons).

• Chick-Fil-A: French fries. Waffle fries.

• Chili’s: Baby-Back Ribs are not on the menu for vegans, but there are dips and burritos that are, including Cadillac fajitas without meat and veggie quesadillas without cream or cheese.

• Chipotle: If you order ‘Sofritas’ instead of meat, you can make most Chipotle menu items vegan.

• Claim Jumper: Pizza bases are all vegan.

• Cracker Barrel: Vegetable plate.

• Culver’s: Not a great deal of choice. You’re limited to the side salad and the garden fresco salad, as well as a host of vegetable and fruit mix-ins.

• Dairy Queen: All DQ “Light Smoothies” are vegan and there is a choice of flavors.

• Del Taco: 8 layer veggie burrito. 1/2lb bean & cheese burrito (without cheese).

• Denny’s: English muffins. Oatmeal. Bagels. Grits. French fries. Baked potatoes. Vegetable plates.

Domino’s Pizza: Domino’s Pizza has a vegan crust. Order it specially, pass on the cheese and choose from a selection of vegetable toppings.

• Dunkin’ Donuts: No donuts, but there are many vegan muffins and bagels. The hash browns are also vegan, as are the coffees, teas and iced teas when ordered without milk.

• El Pollo Loco: BRC burrito (without cheese). Pinto beans. Corn on cob (no butter).

• Firehouse Subs: Order the veggie sub without cheese and mayo.

• Five Guys: The veggie sandwich is not vegan, but the French fries are. That’s it, unfortunately.

• Hardee’s: See “Carl’s Jr”, which has an identical menu.

• IHOP: Hash browns. Sautéed spinach. Grits

• Jack in the Box: Black beans. Potato wedges. Seasoned curly fries. Breakfast blueberry muffin.

• Jimmy John’s: Vegan bread available and can be loaded with vegetable toppings.

• KFC: French fries. Corn on the cob (no butter). House salad. Green beans.

• Kona Grill: Full vegan menu includes sushi options, fresh salads, noodle dishes and stacks of sides.

• Little Caesars: The pizza sauce and the dough are vegan.

• McDonalds: The French fries may not be vegan, but the apple pie is. The veggie deluxe and spicy veggie deluxe are also vegan if you order without mayo

• Melting Pot: Famed for its cheese, this is not an easy one for vegans. The vegetarian entree is vegan when ordered without ravioli, and you can also order the house salad and California salad without cheese and meat.

• Olive Garden: The breadsticks are made with a soy-based butter substitute, so they are vegan. The marinara sauce is also vegan, and this can be added to many simple pasta dishes along with vegetables.

• P. F. Chang’s: Most options can be made vegan. Ask for modifications to the Vegetarian Menu.

• Panera Bread: Black bean soup. Mediterranean veggie sandwich. Classic salad. Blueberry pomegranate smoothie.

• Papa John’s: Pizza crusts and the sauce are both vegan.

• Pizza Hut: Order thin n’ crispy crust and marinara sauce.

• Qdoba: You can make your own nachos, burritos or bowls with vegan ingredients, inducing tortillas, beans, vegetables, guac and potatoes. The tortilla soup is also vegan.

• Quiznos: The veggie sub is one of the best vegan friendly subs of any sandwich chain. You will need to order without cheese and replace the balsamic vinegar with red-wine vinegar.

• Red Lobster: Garden salad (without cheese). You can also order the baked potato, fresh asparagus and fresh broccoli sides, providing you ask for them without butter.

• Red Robin: Garden burger. Sweet potato fries. Honest hummus plate.

• Ruby Tuesday: Endless garden bar.

• Smashburger: Their vegetarian burger is apparently legendary, but it’s not vegan. Your options are limited to the salads, which you need to order without cheese or chicken.

• Subway: Veggie Delite (without cheese or mayo). Malibu garden.

• Taco Bell: Cinnamon twists. Chips and guac. Bean burrito made “fresco style”. Refried beans. Veggie cantina power bowl (without sauce)

• TGI Fridays: Nachos (without cheese or sour cream). BBQ sauce. Onion rings. French fries.

• Wendy’s: Baked potato. Garden salad. French fries.

• Zaxby’s: Crinkle-cut fries. Pickle spear. Tater chips (without dipping sauce). Side salad.

Other fast food options for vegans

beansThere are other options as well. With services like PostMates and DoorDash you can actually specify that you want to eat only vegan foods and they will give you a list of vegan menus in your local area, before delivering these to your door. And by ‘vegan options’, you’re not limited to a bag of nuts or an avocado salad.

There are many vegan friendly restaurants across the US that use this service. If you’re in a major city you can typically have your pick of everything from vegan lasagna to a specially made vegan dessert.

It’s still fast food. It’s still convenient. And while many of you may scoff at that idea, refusing to acknowledge an industry that has clearly not acknowledged you, this actually benefits veganism. The more people that order vegan foods from vegan menus, the more attention those menus will get and the more fast food chains will look to follow suit. 

At the outset of this article I mentioned that the number of coeliac sufferers in the US is greater than the number of vegans. But that’s not what the people who create these menus look at. They look at the demand. They put the services out there and they see who bites. A few years ago, they noticed more of a demand for gluten-free meals. They had more questions at the till, more demands online and more people asking for gluten-free deliveries. If the same happens with vegan options, then it will surely be a matter of time before there is a vegan menu in every major fast food chain.

It’s probably still going to be nasty, dirty and unhealthy food. But if nothing else, at least it will be helping to diversify those one-track menus, exposing more people to the variety of vegan cooking and maybe even converting a few people. 

Even if you’re not a big fan of fast food, you have to admit that that would be a great scenario and one worth fighting for.

By Joshua Elizetxe

From the UK? Check out our list of UK chains here.

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