To be ordered by a meat-eater is the highest compliment that can be paid to a meat-free sandwich. I’m a devout omnivore, but I nonetheless consider myself a champion of the veggie sandwich, which, done well, can be every bit as satisfying as its meatier counterparts.
But underneath the big, beautiful umbrella of meat-free sandwiches, there’s an important distinction to be made for vegan sandwiches, which usually stink for two primary reasons. First, vegan bread, woefully lacking in diversity of flavor and texture, is generally pretty awful. Secondly, vegan sandwiches are far, far more likely to feature tofu, seitan, tempeh, or other meat analog prepared in a futile attempt to mimic a real hamburger, cheesesteak, or fried chicken breast.
Put simply, my favorite thing about vegan sandwiches is that I can order something else when I want to. At Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats, a vegan bakeshop in Columbia Heights, this is a luxury not afforded. Several weeks ago, on the enthusiastic recommendation of a theretofore respected coworker, I ordered the vegan Reuben. It was the first and last vegan Reuben I’d ever eat.
Here are a few lessons learned…
“Vegan” ≠ “healthy.” As honest adherents of meat-free diets will admit, vegan and vegetarian foods are not inherently healthier or less damaging than their animal counterparts. I arrived at Sticky Fingers looking for a quick, light lunch, but the vegan Reuben was roughly four times greasier than the greasiest actual Reuben I’ve ever had. It took me 18 napkins to get to the end of this thing, and the same number of hours to regain my appetite.
Imitation meat is awful. I want to be very clear here. Tofu is not awful. Seitan is not awful. Tempeh is probably not awful, either. But tempeh, when prepped and served up as a lame-ass substitute for real meat, is absolutely awful. Frankly, it was hard to tell where the sauerkraut ended and the tempeh began. The notion that anyone with no qualms about eating a real Reuben might be tempted by this sandwich, all things being equal, is completely absurd. Moral: Vegan sandwiches are for vegans; vegetarian sandwiches are for everyone else.
Bad bread can ruin a great sandwich, but great bread can’t save a bad sandwich. Every great sandwich starts with great bread, and — improbably — the vegan seeded rye at Sticky Fingers is full of herby goodness and grilled to a perfect crisp. But as critical has bread is to the success potential of a sandwich, it should never, ever, ever be the sandwich’s strongest component.
There is no such thing as a vegan Reuben. There is no such thing as a turkey Reuben or a duck Reuben or any other kind of alternative Reuben. There is no such thing as a Reuben on wheat. These sandwiches might be tasty (this one was not), but they are fundamentally not Reubens, and we need to stop describing them as such. The only people who could possibly be satisfied with this sandwich are the unfortunate souls who have never had an actual Reuben and are thus unburdened by lofty expectations.
A more optimistic postscript: I recently dug into a “Fried Chick’n” sandwich at Woodlands Vegan Bistro. Built around a conspicuously un-chicken-like double-fried slice of bean curd, it regardless redeemed my opinion of vegan sandwiches, at least somewhat. It also proved Americans will be happy with anything that’s fried crispy enough. Even bloodthirsty savages like me.