Vegan joint Wanderer offers ‘dirty food with a clean conscience’, and claims to have cracked vegan bacon. Thomas Chalk went to pig out.
There are many reasons that a growing number of people are going vegan. Some dislike the taste of meat and wouldn’t even want to eat something that tried to emulate it. Some want to eat a wholesome, ‘clean’ diet. For everyone else (vegan or otherwise) there’s Wanderer.
Head honcho Ben Walker has set out to offer food that is an accessible way in for non-vegans who are wary of some of the less-familiar plant-based offerings that are increasingly available, and that allows vegans and vegetarians to sate a craving for tastes and textures more typically associated with meat.
The menu is loaded with items such as “salamish”, “toona” and “chik’n”. It’s the kind of food that gets some meat-eaters sneering “Why don’t you just eat meat if you want it so much?” as though what is being sated is pure blood-lust rather than a desire for something salty, savoury and chewy.
And so to the vegan bacon. Cliché has it that bacon is the kryptonite of non-meat eaters. And it’s true – many a meat-free diet has been temporarily or permanently derailed by bacon. Fake bacon has been around in various guises for many years; the ones that I have tried have invariably been less convincing and less satisfying than a bag of Frazzles crisps. Wanderer’s vegan bacon, I am pleased to report, is not one of these. Featuring in a ‘PBBLT’ (no clue is offered as to what the ‘PB’ is – there’s nothing in this sandwich that has a recognisable link to peanut butter), this bacon has a taste and a texture that are, according to Ben Walker, pretty close to the ‘real’ thing. It’s the kind of food that gets some meat-eaters asking “Why can’t you just have plants taste of themselves?” as though bacon comes out of a pig already salted and smoked. It takes a firm bite and a satisfying wrench to break a mouthful off. The smoke flavour is deep and not overpowering, and is backed up by savoury rather than just saline. Half-way through the sandwich, one mouthful suddenly struck me with a flashback across the decades to eating bacon – it was a strange experience, and for those don’t want to eat anything that’s even like meat it would no doubt have been powerfully off-putting, but I was mightily happy with both the fleshy flashback and with the rest of the sandwich alike.
Visiting Wanderer with meat-eaters allowed me to check in with better-informed opinions on the bacon-ness of the sandwich. The verdict was that it was pretty close, if a little less salty. Slightly less successful (in the ‘just like the real thing’ sense) for them was the ‘porq crackling’. I’ve never eaten pork crackling so I don’t know. But I’ll be going back for more of the vegan stuff. Crisp shards of salty, fatty crackling that shatter between the teeth, complete with occasional gnarly, chewier sections. Again, it’s all about the texture and the rich savoury flavour and, let’s be honest, the fat and the salt. Again, there is no indication of how this is made, but I detected a faint note of yeast (an excellent source of umami for vegan cooking). Sure, it’s loaded with calories and sodium, but most junk food is. It’s not like I’m planning to eat it every day. (Though the thought crossed my mind.)
I also tried some tofish, which I have eaten before at El Marchador (another Ben Walker place). The blackened tofish sandwich was lively with Cajun spice, tomato and onion, and the soy-based fillet itself had a pleasingly flaky, slightly fibrous quality that looked a little like I remember some fish looking – and anyone worried that a tofu fillet will be mushy will be relieved. There was a bit of ocean tang, though no further flashback.
Cauffalo wings, a brassica take on buffalo wings, are firmly in the ‘let veg taste of themselves’ camp. I love cauliflower, and these coated florets didn’t disappoint. They had the vegetable’s satisfying texture (sometimes described as ‘meaty’, though I can’t imagine anyone’s ever had a thirty-year steak flashback biting into a floret) and that combination of slight sulphurous bitterness and vegetal sweetness that all brassicas have when treated right. The coating complemented them, with the slightly fruity heat of chilli and spices. The dipping sauce, which for traditional buffalo wings would be a mix of sour cream and blue cheese, would have benefitted from more to mimic the acidity and ripe funk of those respective ingredients, the better to stand up against the strong, punchy flavour of the wings. There were other dips that were to varying degrees chilli-hot and acidic. Some, like the ranch dip that didn’t quite copy blue cheese enough, had a rich yet low-fat texture that I suspect might be from aquafaba (or chick pea water, for those unfamiliar with one of veganism’s current darling ingredients). Not to everyone’s taste at our table, but I did have to stop myself from tracking down a small spoon to polish off the tomato one.
Also from the ‘beer snackage’ list, pickle nickels were deep-fried battered slices of gherkin. I’ve had battered gherkin before, and they are never as satisfying as they sound as the batter refuses to stick to the surface of the wet pickle segment. Wanderer has solved this problem by slicing the pickles into thin rounds which are not so much coated with batter as fused with it, almost dry inside, still with a tang of dill-infused vinegar about them. Glorious. Especially when used instead of a small spoon to polish off a tomato dip.
Photography by Mark Wheelwright (markwheelwright.co.uk)