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By Michael White
Would you punch a cow in the face if doing so led to the reward of a cheeseburger? Would you set fire to several thousand acres of forestland, thus causing the tormented demise of its countless fur- and feather-bearing inhabitants (as well as the homes of the humans who live among them), if it ensured the safe passage to your mouth of every cheeseburger you hope to eat before you expire?
If eliminating or vastly reducing the meat in one’s diet were simply a matter being presented with the reams of evidence proving the moral, ecological and economic damage of continuing to eat it, most of us would have done so years, decades, ago.
But we — myself included — are slaves to our dietary cravings, particularly those related to the customs in which we were raised.
I was born into a middle-class North American suburb of the 1970s — the breeding ground of the chain restaurant. My palate may have grown to love the comparatively exotic, rarefied likes of uni, Romanesco, and heavily peated Scotch, but to this day I’d sprint across six lanes of freeway traffic for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. The sight of multiple fast-food marquees illuminated against a summer sky at dusk instills in me a visceral happiness that a lifetime of accumulated knowledge is helpless to undo. I may eventually get around to thinking about these brands’ immeasurable carbon footprints; the misery their shared disregard for living wages, animal and human welfare, and environmental responsibility has wreaked around the globe; their unequalled contribution to society’s obesity epidemic…. But first, I think about the seductive flavours, textures and aromas of their food; the inexplicable contentedness that comes from ripping open one of their bags to retrieve its wax-paper-swathed contents, or piercing the lid of a soda-fountain cup with a (non-biodegradable) straw. In that moment, I’m happily complicit in their assorted miseries. I am, in my own small way, a fucking monster.
But… but… change is taking place. It may not be happening fast enough (not even close), but it’s happening. And this is in no small part because culinary and scientific innovations have finally begun catching up with the demands of our pathetic appetites. If we can’t yet bring ourselves to do what we know is right at the expense of transient gastronomic pleasure, we at least now have the option of choosing responsible substitutes that decently mimic the foods that push our most vulnerable buttons. Which is why the availability of the plant-based Impossible Burger expanded in only one year from 150 U.S. grocery stores to almost 17,000, and why Impossible Foods’ closest competitor, Beyond Meat, is now selling its actually-not-meat products to everyone from Dunkin’ Donuts to KFC to, as of a couple of weeks ago, McDonald’s. Some lifelong carnivores are beginning to visualize a future in which they might not be such terrible people.
At a much smaller scale, but no less encouraging, is Beetbox, which opened in Vancouver’s Davie Village in late 2019. It bills itself as “Conscious Comfort Food,” meaning it wants to be the ethical surrogate for the meat- and dairy-based colon bombs we all know and, for the most part, love. Every ingredient employed on the menu here is of plant origin, but the vibe Beetbox means to radiate to the masses is, “This tastes just like the junk you love!” And to my ritually abused taste receptors, it does. Sometimes it actually tastes better.
The food at Beetbox was developed by chef and co-owner Bryan Satterford, who also fulfills similar roles at Chinatown’s popular Juke Fried Chicken. (Beetbox’s sole location was previously home to a smaller Juke outpost, but for some reason the neighbourhood didn’t take to it.) Which is to say, Satterford is a practicing carnivore who can empathize with the desires of other carnivores, not just committed vegans. He understands, too, that even vegans want in on the salt-sugar-fat sensations that define the fast-food experience. So, while his Nashville Fried Chick-Un Sandwich ($9.50) may not deliver the reputed heat of Nashville’s famed hot chicken, but it’s crisp, moist, and altogether more delicious than the majority of chicken sandwiches I’ve had at the usual haunts. To whatever extent the patty (made with hydrated wheat gluten, otherwise known as seitan) doesn’t taste like actual chicken has been well concealed by good marinade, a slathering of miso-based aioli, spiced pickles, and a superbly squishy brioche-style bun. I suspect the calories and fat content of this specimen aren’t much more virtuous than analogs containing dead bird, but at least you haven’t contributed to the murder of a bird.
Impressive, too, is the Crispy Gordita ($9.50), in which black beans, fried oyster mushrooms, vegan “cheeze,” pickled slaw, and avocado dressing are crowded into a comically large corn tortilla which, true to its name, is crisped up nicely on the griddle.
We also tried the Peanut Tempeh Bowl (one of three “warm bowls”; $15 each), featuring a generous pile-up of lemongrass-marinated tempeh (a popular meat substitute made of fermented soybeans), cucumber salad, mild kimchi, and peanut dressing. Kley, Jewkarta’s other half, grew up in Indonesia, where tempeh is both common and revered — he found its texture somewhat lacking, but my ignorance was bliss. We both appreciated the bowl’s harmonious array of flavours and textures, and I can report from firsthand experience that anything left over is just as good cold the next day.
Between the two of us, we didn’t have the opportunity to sample the cheeseburger, Reuben sandwich, chili-cheeze fries, or any of the cold salads. But as introductions go, I’m very happy to have made the acquaintance of Beetbox, and I plan to explore more of its menu very soon. I don’t know to what extent Satterford and co. are visualizing expansion, but their compassionate creations are of a calibre (and an affordability) that Beetbox deserves to scale up across the city and beyond. If something as indefensible as Subway can achieve worldwide ubiquity, why not a concept that’s not only immeasurably better, but that doesn’t make you an accessory to, I don’t know, the death of the planet?
(Photo: Kley Klemens)