My burger arrives. I carefully pick up the weighty package and take a giant bite. Then another. I wipe a smear of sauce from my cheek and go in for a third. “This is delicious,” I tell my boyfriend, Jon, through a mouthful of beans, bread and something masquerading as cheese. Who needs beef, bacon or cheddar anyway?
Full disclosure: I am not vegan, I won’t pretend to be; I even (whisper it) write a burger blog. But what I am is a vegan “sympathiser” – someone who is interested in veganism, and trying to be more mindful of my food consumption. And I’m not the only one.
Record numbers of Britons are taking part in “Veganuary”, swapping a meat-eating lifestyle for vegan food throughout January, and veganism has increased by 350 per cent in a decade, according to the Vegan Society. I’m part of a nation that is quickly reconsidering the way it thinks about meat and dairy, and it’s a food trail that leads me to Austin, Texas.
Yes, Texas: that southern American state that’s famously the home of rodeos, cowboys and the barbecue capital of the globe – the small town of Lockhart that lies just 35 miles (56km) south-east of Austin and racks up five “BBQ” joints over a mile and a half stretch.
It’s a similar story in Austin, a city crammed with joints where punters queue for platters that buckle beneath the weight of pork ribs and pickles. I will not be joining them, because my delicious Arlo’s burger, which I devour at the Spider House Cafe – a colourful outdoor garden of festoon lighting, neon signs, vegan milkshakes and craft beer – is far from a rarity in Austin’s food scene.
This is a laid-back city that has often bucked Texan stereotypes; a place where vegan dishes aren’t merely afterthoughts on a menu. In fact, there are entire venues dedicated to them, from swanky gastropubs with pricey vegan wine to dingy dive bars blaring rock music. Tequila slammer with a side of vegan pizza? You betcha. And this is just the start.
My vegan journey begins the way most days in Austin should, with tacos. While meat-eaters in the East Austin neighbourhood would queue at the old-school joint Juan in a Million, I’m several blocks down the road joining a group of hip 20- and 30-somethings choosing breakfast from The Vegan Nom, a restored silver and blue Airstream trailer that dishes out tacos with names such as the “Birdie Sanders”.
“We’re big Bernie Sanders fans,” Chris Rios, the big-bearded owner, tells me as I tuck into the dish, a substantial pile of chipotle crema, buffalo “chicken” and molten vegan pepper jack cheese, which is served to a soundtrack of tinkly wind chimes. Chris believes that 70 per cent of his customers aren’t vegan at all but are lured by the fresh, punchy flavours his tacos provide.
It’s the same case over the road at Capital City Bakery, a little shop that serves all-vegan cakes, from overblown special-occasion cakes to dinky cupcakes. Beside me, a six-year-old gasps with dairy-free joy as his birthday cake – an impressive stack of figurines and iced footballs – is revealed. Mine’s a confetti cupcake: a vanilla sponge topped with white icing and a rainbow of sprinkles. Two bites and it’s gone.
No trip to Texas would be complete without barbecue, and luckily someone’s on to that. Blake Newman is the owner of BBQ Revolution, a trailer that serves up smoky seitan and tempeh (soy-based protein) to locals and athletes from Sabotage Wrestling, an Austin-based sporting organisation. While Blake’s trailer is closed at present – “electrical issues”, he tells me with the despair of someone who has had too many conversations about cables and plugs – he’s keen to meet at Counter Culture, a long-established vegan-only restaurant in the same neighbourhood.
“I started being vegan five years ago for health reasons,” Blake says while we plunge into plates of vegan cheese and bread, mac ’n’ cheese balls and a substantial Reuben sandwich made with tempeh. It’s not a clean-eating level of healthy, but I dare say it’s healthier. The cheese is a revelation and the plate is wiped clean.
While I relish Austin’s vegan scene in the daytime, the nights prove testing. I’d be lying if I pretended I hadn’t dismissed vegan food as a load of bean dishes that would give me a bad case of wind. No sign of that yet, although sadly Jon’s not so lucky.
The following day starts with Doggie Style – a tomato-red vegan hot dog truck parked up in south Austin. My seitan sausage in a bun, topped with mustard, ketchup and diced onions, puts the hundreds of meat hot dogs I’ve scoffed to shame. The trailer is also handily close to the Wandering Vegan market, a roaming set of stalls serving everything from jackfruit jerky to nutty vegan yogurt.
Belts loosened – we’re on a roll – we take a short drive north to the North Loop district in search of dessert. In an unremarkable car park, wedged between a Domino’s and an office, is Sweet Ritual, a kitsch, vegan-only ice cream parlour. It’s clearly a pilgrimage destination and I join a queue of grandpas, children and small, fluffy dogs to reach the counter, where flavours include Unicorn Poop and Dark Matter, a chocolate sorbet topped with edible glitter. Not only do they look good, they taste even better.
Vegan food in Austin isn’t limited to food trucks and snacks, however. We need a drink, so make for the mansion-lined, leafy streets of Old West Austin to find The Beer Plant, the city’s only all-vegan gastropub. “We like to call it plant-based as vegan can sound so severe,” says Ray McMackin, the owner and 40-year-vegan veteran. Here we devour insanely moreish mains, including buffalo cauliflower wings with a “blue cheese” sauce and the Big Bend sandwich, with seitan, barbecue sauce, cheddar and slaw.
It’s no surprise that 95 per cent of diners here aren’t vegan, a stat buoyed by a huge rotating drinks menu that is of course vegan friendly. Jon goes for a pint of Bat Outta Helles, while I try a large glass of The Source, a Texas-produced red (yes, they make wine in Texas) that’s full of ripe cherry and spicy tabasco flavour.
For all the trendy new restaurants and bars, veganism in Austin is far from a fad. My final stop is Casa de Luz, a macrobiotic buffet on the old hippy side of Austin, close to Zilker Park. We wander down a tree-lined path to the venue that was once a meat-packing plant – the irony – to meet co-founder Eduardo Longoria, a 70-something former cattle breeder – more irony – who took a U-turn.
It’s my most eye-opening meal of the trip. We join one of the shared tables and eat delicious, simple, non-industrialised food, including salads loaded with an almond, sunflower seed, parsley, garlic and lemon dressing, and drink a cold tea of hibiscus, peppermint and lemon (no ice – it can halt digestion). “It’s a room full of gratitude,” Eduardo tells me.
He has a point. It feels like much more of a community than a restaurant, a place where everyone is welcome, from celebrity fans such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, to grannies who share tables with young, Lycra-clad men. Everyone eats the same meal, which costs £9 for a huge plate, including drinks, salad and soup, and buses their own table. It’s refreshing, simple, and welcoming, and a place I’d happily go to at home.
Eduardo echoes my thoughts: “Maybe you’ll spur on a concept like this in London,” he says, while handing me a cookie for the road. If Austin’s anything to go by, I’ll be the first in line.
American Airlines (americanairlines.co.uk) offers return fares from London to Austin from £744; book car rental via Hertz (hertz.co.uk).
Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt (telegraph.co.uk/tt-hotel-van-zandt) offers rooms from £185 a night; JW Marriott (telegraph.co.uk/tt-jw-marriott-austin) offers rooms from £230 a night.
More information: visittheusa.com