Your plant-based pals deserve more than a plate of charred vegetables.

By Noella Williams
June 03, 2021
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composite photo of vegan barbeque foods: jackfruit, vegan BBQ sandwich, fried, and beans
Illustration by Meredith Digital Design

Growing up in the South means that I consumed a good portion of barbeque in my childhood. Whether I was grilling with my parents or attending a reunion cookout, the common menu options were grilled chicken, baby back ribs and pork-filled baked beans. When I switched to a plant-based diet in 2019, it was right before barbeque season, and I had no idea what to eat. As the daughter of Caribbean parents, it was already difficult enough to maneuver around meat-centered dishes, but living in the South with a miniscule amount of options for soul food was equally challenging. 

Although cities like New York and Memphis have an adequate amount of vegan-friendly options, I still consider that the bar is low for other cities across the country. It's all too common for vegan restaurants to have healthier menus that only feature smoothies, quinoa bowls, or whole foods. Junk food was the holy grail that held me as a "baby vegan", so I frequently indulge in Gardein products.

Beyond the Vegetable Skewers

The ideal comfort food for a vegan/vegetarian can sometimes be a bit complex. Since grilling is pretty synonymous for meats like ribs, chicken and burgers, ex-carnivores have created several dishes to work around their desire to create alternatives for the upcoming grilling season. Personally, I'm thankful for the variety of plant-based possibilities that prevent me from settling for a bag of chips or fruit at a barbeque. There's nothing wrong with charred vegetable skewers — especially grilled corn that I completely adore — but your plant-based pals deserve more than a colorful plate of garden-sourced cuisine. 

Plant-based pitmasters around the country have mastered the perfect blend of sweet and smoky taste of traditional barbeque with dishes including jackfruit, mushrooms, and seitan. Texture is a huge component of what makes or breaks a meat alternative. The stringy, shreddable jackfruit or chewy king oyster mushroom is frequently used in barbeque pulled "pork" sandwiches, meanwhile seitan has a thicker texture that is perfect for mimicking "ribs".  

Vegan BBQ Done Right

bbq vegan seitan sandwich and seitan on the grill with bbq sauce
Credit: Courtesy of Monk's Meat

Brooklyn-based eatery Monk's Meats is well-known for their Kansas City-style mesquite smoked seitan sandwiches that can easily represent the full potential that vegan barbeque has to offer. Owner Chris Kim says their mission at Monk's Meats is to "expand people's ideas about what vegan food could be and to make it accessible" for both herbivores and omnivores alike. His favorite menu item is the Rasta Roots sandwich — composed of Jamaican jerk seitan, a seasoned vegetable medley and vegan mayo — which derived from Kim's search for the perfect plant-based Jamaican infused barbeque sandwich.

platter of vegan bbq sandwich, fries, and beans from imagine vegan cafe
Credit: Courtesy of Imagine Vegan Cafe

Located within Memphis, Imagine Vegan Cafe seeks to "meet their customers in the middle," whether they're interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet or just watched a documentary about veganism. Their menu includes a zesty barbeque platter with a soy-based sandwich with french fries and baked beans. General manager Anna Davis understands that there's a stigma about veganism "being too expensive, unattainable, and not accommodating," so the family-owned business keeps that in mind while combining comfort and compassion in their dishes. 

vegan bbq on the smoker and a vegan brisket sandwich
Credit: Courtesy of Grass VBQ Joint

Throughout my travels as a vegan foodie, I'm looking forward to trying other plant-based barbeque dishes like the house-made smoked "veef" brisket, which is their version of a soy-based vegan beef at Atlanta's Grass VBQ Joint or the seitan-based "brisket," macaroni, and baked beans-stuffed "barbequito" at Oakland's Vegan Mob.

Currently, I'm preparing for this summer's upcoming grilling season with recipes like Jackfruit Pulled "Pork" sandwiches and  vegan BBQ sauce to wow my plant-based pals and carnivore comrades. If there's anything I've learned while being vegan for two years, it's that seasoning and a "meaty" plant can be the source of a golden recipe.