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Lucky Robot, The Beer Plant and Odd Duck Embrace Plant-Based Meats

Often made from legumes, peas or soy, plant-based alternatives to animal products are popping up on menus across Austin

Innovation is in Austin’s DNA — and luckily for vegans, vegetarians and omnivores alike, it’s also on our menus. Plant-based meat alternatives have been springing up nearly everywhere, from grocery stores, to national chains, to airlines and arenas. Local restaurants have been giving diners a taste of the future, too, serving up plant-based dishes that are loaded with ingenuity.

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So what are plant-based meats? The ingredients differ, but one thing is consistent: they are comprised entirely of plants and devoid of animal products. The plant proteins in national brands are often from peas, soy or other legumes — and specially crafted to look, taste and even cook just like traditional meat. Other plant-based options can be found at local restaurants that experiment with transforming mushrooms, jackfruit, chickpeas and more into something brand-new.

Unlike tofu and tempeh, the low-tech, yet long-standing vegan mainstays, plant-based meat alternatives are the new, very cool kid on the block. Experts say that their soaring popularity is driven by increased awareness of the social, health and environmental impacts of food choices. And as the plant-based category has grown, enticing options have taken root all over Austin.

When it comes to plant-based meat alternatives made from whole foods, Austin chefs’ creative genius shines. In Tarrytown, The Beer Plant excels at crafting dishes bursting with flavor and innovation — made entirely from plants. On any given day, chef Emily Rayburn and her team are hard at work in the kitchen reimagining whole foods as delicious entrees reminiscent of their traditional meat counterparts.

They’ve transformed mushrooms into vegan calamari, made crab-less crab cakes from chickpeas and hearts of palm, crafted plant-based chorizo from nuts and are experimenting with rice paper and shiitake for their next meatless bacon. Their current menu includes a show-stopping Nashville Hot & Crispy sandwich using a king oyster mushroom instead of chicken and served on a pretzel bun with remoulade, pickled celery and thinly sliced red cabbage. The result? An eye-popping flavor experience.

Chef Emily Rayburn transforms ingredients at Tarrytown restaurant The Beer Plant.

“King oyster mushrooms take on that meat texture and shred like meat, so when you bite into it, it’s a very different experience,” explains Rayburn. “It’s rewarding seeing people come together and try something different. A lot of our clients are not vegan,” Rayburn adds. “When I’m checking on how guests are doing at the restaurant, it’s awesome to see how many people come in and want to give it a chance for a friend or a partner. They’re like, ‘I’ll try this just for you’ and then they’re wowed by the dish.”

Also changing minds and having fun with plants is Odd Duck, the chic restaurant known for offering locally sourced ingredients in a warm, welcoming space. Their attention to detail extends to their veggie plates.

Chef and owner Bryce Gilmore says, “We are mindful when creating new dishes for each season to try and have fun with vegetables. It can be challenging, but when you can change the mind of a vegetable hater, nothing beats that.”

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They nailed it with their mushroom chorizo tostada. To make this convincing dish, the star ingredient is roasted over a wood fire until smoky and caramelized, then transformed to take on a crumbly sausage texture before merging with a special chili-spice paste. Layered with a rich, creamy pumpkin seed butter and served with radish and pickled onion on a house-made masa, this is a dish that hard-core vegans and omnivores alike can swoon over.

Traditional meat dishes aren’t the only ones getting a veggie-based remix. Plant-based seafoods are making a splash nationally — and Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen is the perfect place to try them. Celebrating a decade on South Congress this year, the vibrant restaurant is an ideal backdrop for executive chef Jay Huang and his team’s progressive Japanese-Peruvian style dishes, including two that feature plant-based tuna from Austin’s own Good Catch and a zucchini ahimi with vegan cheese from local favorite Rebel Cheese.

Chef Huang committed to leading in sustainability in 2018, earning Lucky Robot recognition from the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch Program. Still, he wanted to do more, and Huang shares that expanding thoughtful plant-based options was a logical next step.

“We expanded our vegan sushi options by featuring items from local farms and creating partnerships with meat alternatives like Good Catch in our nigiri sushi, maki rolls and entrée options,” says Huang.

The menu now includes a host of exciting plant-based options, from vegan tuna rolls, to a tofu spinach dumpling with cashew cheese and red curry oil, to a tradition-rich Tokyo Banana dessert roll. On top of being delicious and sustainable, the dishes appeal to the sushi chef with 22 years of experience for another reason.

Huang says, “I feel that vegan based dishes require more thoughtful technique and culinary creativity than meat options to get the same wow factor from guests. We love the challenge and hope to change the way people think about vegan sushi.” We’d say they’re doing just that.

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