Crystal Lee (she/她)

My favorite vegetarian meat alternatives

I once wrote about Chinese seitan alternatives on Twitter, and I always wanted to do a big thread reviewing major meat alternatives in more conventional American grocery stores, like Stop and Shop and Trader Joe's. (I don’t shop at Whole Foods so I have no idea how the 365 stuff compares.) Given the downfall of Twitter post-Elon, I don't know that this would really have a life on that platform so I decided to string together the chunked tweets into this one post. The main reason I never got around to posting it is that I wanted this post to have photos, but failing that, here are some of my favorite meat alternatives!

  • Pea protein red burgers: I honestly think Impossible and Beyond are a toss-up for me. Beyond (hamburger > sausage). The crumbles are pretty good too, but you might as well just buy the burger patty instead of the crumbles (it’s the same thing, just packaged differently). The TJ pea protein burger is pretty good but falls short of Beyond, but it’s half the price. The TJ vegetarian turkey burger is actually pretty good; lighter than the beef version. My favorite use case for the pea protein burgers, beyond putting them on a brioche bun and some sautéed mushrooms, is to make loco moco.
  • Black bean/veggie burgers: the TJ Vegetable Masala Burger is incredible (packed with flavor!) and the Boca chicken patties are by far the best. The Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burger from TJ comes in second. Dr. Praeger’s sucks and is often kind of gluey. Boca (original) is the one people normally get for BBQ bc it’s pretty easy to find, which is fine. If not Boca, I think the ones from Morningstar Farms, TJ, Amy’s, etc. are otherwise all pretty comparable.
  • General thoughts on burgers: if I only had to choose one per category, my favorites are the Beyond and Boca chicken patties. Boca only wins out bc I love a good fried chicken sandwich.
  • Hot dogs: Lightlife is pretty good and basically tastes like and has the consistency of run-of-the-mill sports event hot dogs (not the OG Costco hot dogs). Field Roast mini corndogs are also pretty good.
  • Meatballs: the TJ Meatless Meatballs are incredible. You can also make meatballs using Beyond (either by shaping the patty or by using the crumbles with your usual meatball recipe), but the TJ’s are ready to go and very delicious.
  • Chicken filets: I like both the Quorn and the gardein versions. Daring is pretty good too, but just way more expensive and I don’t think it’s significantly better. The gardein ones come in all sorts of flavors (eg teriyaki) but honestly it’s all the same thing, they just add a bag of sauce (which I usually don’t use). One of my favorite things to do is to make creamy lemon and chicken pasta with these; if you heat the chicken thru first you can get it to shred pretty nicely.
  • Chicken tenders / nuggets: I gave in to the IG ads and bought Nugs (they actually sell them at Walmart; you don’t have to get them online). They’re pretty good: they have the best breading of all of the ones I’ve tried, but the tender itself is pretty underwhelming. For the price, I’d rather get the ones from Quorn or gardein which are all significantly cheaper. Still, if you’re looking for something breaded and don’t mind the format, I really like the Boca chicken patties.
  • Sausages: I think the Beyond sausage is good (as seen above), but I wish it had the kind of snap that meat sausage casings do for some textural difference — otherwise, I’d go for the burger patty. I do really like the TJ Italian sausages (great for pastas) — there are two kinds (one is red and one is white-ish). These, like the Tofurky Italian sausages, are both kind of spongy like seitan and don’t taste like meat sausages, but they’re delicious anyways. Field Roast sausages are good too, just don’t expect that any of these taste like sausages. They are like tasty flavored sponges. Just embrace this.
  • Breakfast sausages: Morningstar Farms makes the best breakfast sausage, meat or non-meat. Fight me.
  • Deli slices: the Tofurky plant based deli slices are amazing. Get the hickory smoked one and add it to all of your sandwiches (with vegenaise for good measure).
  • Jackfruit: I like what the Jackfruit Company is trying to do, but I’d rather buy jackfruit by the can (compared to their flavored versions). Of the stuff in the can, I think the TJ’s is fine but requires a lot of rinsing bc it’s pretty acidic. The ones from the Chinese grocery store are good too and much cheaper (and fewer seeds in my experience).
  • Bacon: the Tofurky smoky tempeh bacon is just okay. The Morningstar Farms veggie bacon is better bc it’s actually smoky. I think the Lightlife and Upton’s Bacon Seitan both taste pretty alike. If I remember correctly, though, I really like the Benevolent Bacon from Sweet Earth. It’s smoky, crisps up nicely, and makes a killer BLT with some juicy heirloom tomatoes.
  • Crumbles: historically, TVP (I usually buy Bob’s Red Mill since it’s easy and cheap) is the OG. It’s great bc it takes on the flavor of whatever you use to hydrate it (but then you have to make that liquid and then take time to hydrate it). The Beyond/Impossible crumbles are okay, but for my usual application (bolognese), it doesn’t quite hold up for stewing that long; they max out for stewing at about 20 min (even on low heat) and release a lot of oil. My favorite of all time, though, will always be soy chorizo, especially the one from TJ, which is cheap and relatively easy to get. The ones from Mexican supermarket are good too, but the crumble is wetter and less distinct. The packaging of the soy chorizo so that it looks like sausage is awesome, since I just take what I need and then tie it back up in a knot. The Upton chorizo seitan is just ok; TJ will win every time. I like using it the way that you would ground meat: sautéed with veggies as in Chinese food, in tacos, in chili and pasta sauces. TL;DR crumbles like Beyond, Impossible, TVP, etc are all fine, but just get soy chorizo and use it for everything.
  • Tempeh: I honestly don’t really like tempeh. Sorry.
  • Seafood: it’s funny, I feel like this is a totally under-explored category — I don’t see that much in terms of vegan shrimp, fish, etc (at least compared to things like burgers). I think the Sophie’s Kitchen line is really ambitious and I want to see them succeed, but I found the shrimp, crab cakes, and fish filets to be kind of disappointing (especially since they’re pretty expensive). I haven’t had the smoked salmon or the tuna, but I’m pretty excited about those. I think part of what makes this hard is that the Chinese veggie versions of seafood are so good — it’s hard to beat the flakiness of the Buddhist vegetarian cod or the shrimp (which I’ve had as walnut shrimp that honestly tastes as good as the meat version). I’m still trying to figure out how Kensho, a vegan sushi place in LA, does their sushi — their spicy tuna, California, and crunch rolls are to die for, and their house made spicy tuna and caviar are so on point. I have no idea how they do it.