By Oscar Simone
Santana’s Vegan Grill is a fast food joint dishing out classic American fare in a drive-thru and casual dine-in setting. It’s legitimate vegan junk food, and there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek or ironic about it. It’s greasy, cheesy, fried, decadent, and unabashedly unhealthy — not your typical vegan spot.
Now, if you’re like me and feed off aesthetics, I’d stay outside and order from the drive-thru. Inside, the space isn’t dirty or unwelcoming, it’s just soulless. Between the white board menu, blank walls, and lack of any character or branding, it feels like a stripped-down McDonald’s that’s just been made into a brand-new chain. But it’s not new and it’s not a chain. This is Santana’s sole location, and they’ve been here for nearly two years, with a one-year stint at a previous spot. They’ve had enough time (and success) to warrant a personality update, but everything remains disappointingly generic.
Yet when it comes to the food, that actually isn’t such a terrible thing. The burgers come out swaddled in a red and white checkered wrapper, flanked by golden fries straight out of a McDonald’s commercial. It’s hilarious and also troubling how delicious those flying wax-covered burger replicas look on TV, but I can’t deny that they get my mouth watering, and the Santana’s burger really looks camera-ready.
I opted for the seasoned fries, not without some post-consumption regret. The seasoning is reminiscent of those Zapp’s Voodoo chips: smoky, a little spicy, and subtly tangy in a way that can only be attributed to citric acid. It’s like they selected a bunch of flavor profiles that don’t really mix and forced them together anyway. I’m not mad at the seasoning, though I definitely don’t love it. Regardless, the fries are salty and crispy and cooked to golden-brown perfection. I can confidently assume that the unseasoned fries kick ass.
My first bite into the deluxe cheeseburger takes me right back to middle school. It’s McDonald’s Monopoly season, and every day at 3:35 p.m. sharp, we’re running to those damn golden arches to grab $1 double cheeseburgers, tiny shiny tickets, and a quick peek into the perils of gambling. Everything north of the cheese and south of the patty on Santana’s burger is pretty much identical to what you’d find at a McDonald’s. But the meat and cheese are right there, too.
Food tech has progressed a ton in recent years, and meatless products are becoming harder and harder to discern from real meat, but I think we can chalk up the accuracy of the burger to something else. The Beyond Meat patty on the Santana’s burger doesn’t have a ton of flavor, and while the texture is undeniably fleshy, it falls apart easily. The taste of the protein quickly falls to the backdrop of the sandwich, in the same way that one of those razor thin McDonald’s patties does. I’m not a huge fan, but if that’s the burger Santana’s is chasing, they’ve got it.
If you’re going to make the trip out to Santana’s and, like me, aren’t really into that classic, painfully thin, saucy, fast food burger vibe, I would recommend opting for something different. With ooey gooey melted cheese, charred jalapenos, and a really good soy-based steak replacement, the steak and cheese is one to try. I wasn’t able to get much information on what the steak replacement exactly was beyond ‘soy,’ but the flavor was meaty and savory in a way that reminded me of seitan. But I wasn’t there for the flavor, because the texture was off the chain. It was crispy on the outside and then tough and chewy on the inside, in the best way possible.
Internet critics have said things like “I can cook up Beyond burgers at home” or “You know, you can buy those same chicken tenders at Target.” But Santana’s, like most other drive-thru spots, isn’t in the business of offering customers food they can’t replicate at home. It doesn’t exist to tickle our most curious taste buds or introduce us to a new type of eating. Santana’s Vegan Grill is here to serve the tried and true classics of affordable American fast food, minus the meat — it’s as simple as that.