Before we begin, I just want to present a bit of a disclaimer:  There are a lot of quotation marks in this post. They are all intentional. They help me process my thoughts on the subjects of “real” food, versus “fake” “meat” “alternatives” and “substitutes”. These types of words are often contested, but more over, they have connotations that I want to think critically about. What is “meat”? What is a “substitute”? What is “real” food? What does it mean for a food to be “fake”?

I want to change my paradigm.

As a fairly new vegan of two years, I still find myself constantly searching for the perfect “meat” “substitute” or “alternative”. When I think about a dish that I want to veganize, I think about the components that I need to replace, or to find “alternatives” for. Not surprisingly, most components of most recipes are by their very nature vegan, or if they are not, things like milk and dairy items can easily be swapped out for their vegan counterparts. The biggest obstacle for me, however, is still the “meat”. I constantly struggle to figure out the perfect replacement for the animal flesh in a dish. I don’t always want a “fake” “meat”, but something “real” that will have the same weight and presence in the dish.

Don’t get me wrong, there are so many incredible vegan “meats” on the market. It’s pretty easy for most people to just sub in vegan chicken for the chicken, or a vegan pulled pork for pulled pork. Vegan “meats” are convenient, reasonably priced, and they seem get better and better every day at being exact replicas of animal flesh.

But as much as I enjoy those products, in some ways I feel like I’m cheating when I use them. Anyone can bread and fry a frozen chick’n patty and call it day. It’s going to be good, and it will arguably fool even the most discerning of omnivores. They’re great. Some of my favorite vegan restaurant meals have been made with such products. However, an equal number of vegan restaurant meals have turned me off because of their dependence on processed vegan “meats” to get the job done.

A few months ago we took a restaurant pilgrimage to southern California. The first night, we dined at at trendy vegan restaurant and bar in downtown Los Angeles. The atmosphere was amazing. The place was abuzz; the energy was incredible. To think that a vegan restaurant and bar could be this packed on a Friday night  was such a good feeling. The menu was small, but full of delicious sounding comfort foods. We couldn’t decide what to order, so we just picked two items to split.

When our Beyond Burger and seitan banh mi arrived, we were impressed with how incredible they looked. This is what vegan comfort food is supposed to look like! After our first bite, however, our suspended disbelief was shattered. Our thoughts turned to how much the seitan flavor stood out in the banh mi, and how there was way too much Beyond Burger between those buns to taste anything other that signature “Deviled Ham” flavor.  It’s not that the food was bad, or that they weren’t doing a good thing, but we were just surprised at how much the “fake” “meats” tasted like “fake” “meats”.

Honestly, I was deflated. I had such high hopes for that restaurant, and I thought, is this as good as it gets? Was this the best that vegan food can be? A high profile restaurant in downtown Los Angeles with a long wait list to get a table must be the pinnacle of vegan cuisine, right?  We were not impressed.

The next morning we packed up and drove down to San Diego for the second major dining experience of our trip.

I’ve  referenced my dining experience at Donna Jean in San Diego quite a bit in my YouTube videos, and even in blog posts because that one dinner showed me the potential weight that humble vegetable ingredients could have in a dish. The restaurant has a commitment to making everything in-house, and not using any “fake” products. In many ways, I think that it was important to my own journey with food that I had the Donna Jean dining experience directly following our dinner in LA.

Chef Roy’s Nashville Hot Shrooms showed me that a breaded and fried oyster mushroom could do way more in a dish than a chunk of Gardein chicken. He had found a way to turn a mushroom into a chicken “alternative” without it being a “fake” “meat”, or feeling like a “meat” “substitute”. We were served Nashville Hot Shrooms at Donna Jean, not Nashville Hot Vegan Chicken.

It was that dining experience that really made me think critically about the “meat” of a dish. What other “real” foods were out there that could fully carry a dish?

Jackfruit comes to mind because it has been able to transcend its bubble gum fruit status and become the darling of the vegan sandwich world. Every shredded “meat” item on a vegan menu these days seems to be jackfruit. The same phenomenon happened with humble cauliflower (The Meryl Streep of the vegetable world.) when it was elevated from crudité to “wing” status. It’s rare to find a vegan buffalo wing on a restaurant menu, but buffalo cauliflower? That’s a staple in so many restaurants, vegan and non.

So that’s what I’m looking for when I say that I’m looking for the perfect “meat” “substitute”. I’m searching for the mushroom that can stand on its own in a dish and be the “meat” without feeling like it is just  a “substitute”. I want to be able to say, “This is a fried mushroom sandwich! Not a vegan fried chicken sandwich!” (Ben and I still disagree on what my Vegan Ghost Pepper Chicken Sandwich should be called. He’s currently winning.) I want to be able to call food what it is and have that count, instead of having to make it appear that I’m just putting in a “substitute” for the “real” thing.

The eggplant I used in my last sushi video was a similar breakthrough. I call it eggplant “eel”, but in actuality, it’s nothing like eel, and it isn’t really trying to be eel. On its own, in the right sauce, it is a perfect “alternative”.

I was recently given the opportunity to work with some delicious  products from RW Garcia. I knew immediately when I opened the box of goodies that they sent that I wanted to make something with their organic blue corn chips, and I knew that I wanted to make a vegan version of a “walking taco”, or “Frito pie”.

What was the first question that popped into my mind? Yup.  What’s going to be the “meat” of the dish.

Just last week, I stumbled upon a YouTube video of a lady making a creamy vegan chicken noodle soup. I’m a sucker for cream soups, so of course I watched. Most of the recipe seemed pretty standard, using cashews to make the cream sauce, but then she did something that I had never seen before. For the “meat” in the soup, she used oyster mushrooms that she had baked in foil, and then shredded. I needed to try that technique! I needed shredded oyster mushrooms in my life.

I tried out the recipe using my new Stasher silicone bag, and I was blown away. I decided they would be even better with a good sear. And they were. Then I thought they would be incredible with a dry rub on them, and they were transcendent. I went back to Whole Foods at least three more times over those next few days to get more and more oyster mushrooms. At about $6 a pound, they were an inexpensive addiction.

The recipes below is not for Vegan BBQ Pulled Pork Walking Tacos, it is for Vegan BBQ Pulled Mushroom Walking Tacos. In the accompanying video, I reference how I’m trying to emulate a pulled pork, but that’s just the language that I’m accustomed to using. I really do want to get past that. Sure, pulled pork was the inspiration for the “meat”, but the “meat” of the dish is the mushrooms. They are not a “fake” “meat”. They are a “real” food that more than carry the weight of this dish. They are not trying to be something they are not. They are living their best life, being the best they can be.

Vegan BBQ Pulled Mushroom "Walking Tacos"

This is vegan take on a BBQ "walking taco" or "Frito Pie" using shredded oyster mushrooms. 

Course: Main Course, Snack
Cuisine: American, vegan
Servings: 2 people
Author: Michael Monson
For the dry rub:
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons course kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground espresso
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
For the BBQ Pulled Oyster Mushrooms:
  • 1/2 pound oyster mushrooms (plan about 1/4 pound per person)
  • 1 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons dry rub
  • ¼ teaspoon liquid smoke.
For the “Don't Fear the Carolina Reaper “ BBQ Sauce:
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
  • 1/2 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon Carolina Reaper hot sauce, or favorite hot sauce to taste.
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
For the Cultured Cashew Cream Sauce:
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 1 cup filtered water
  • 1 probiotic capsule
  • 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
  • Salt to taste
Additional ingredients:
  • Diced red onion
  • Corn chips
To make the dry rub:
  1. Combine all ingredients in a jar, making sure that there aren’t any clumps of brown sugar.
To make the BBQ Pulled Oyster Mushrooms:
  1. Place your mushrooms on a large sheet of aluminum foil, or in a silicone bag. Bake at 350 degrees fahrenheit for 30 minutes. Allow to cool in the foil or bag until for about 10 minutes.

  2. Using the “two fork” method, shred the mushrooms. Cut off and compost any hard ends from the base of the mushrooms. Roughly chop your mushroom shreds so they are about 1 to 2 inches long.
  3. To a large cast iron or nonstick pan on medium to medium-high heat, add your oil, shredded mushrooms, and about 1 tablespoon dry rub per 1 cup of shredded mushrooms, or more to taste. Add a few drops of liquid smoke. Saute until you get a bit of sear and caramelization on the mushrooms.

To make the “Don't Fear the Carolina Reaper “ BBQ Sauce:
  1. Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl and then transfer to a small saucepan. Bring to medium heat, and stir until it begins to simmer. Turn to low, and allow it to cook for 5 minutes, stirring continually.

To make the Cultured Cashew Cream Sauce (Instant Pot instructions):
  1. To a high speed blender, add the cashews, water, nutritional yeast, and the contents of a probiotic capsule. Blend until very creamy. If you’re afraid of your blender getting too hot with the probiotic in it, just add it at the end.

  2. Pour the cashew cream into a mason jar, and then place the jar into your Instant Pot. Press the “yogurt” button, and then adjust the time to 14 hours. Allow the cream to culture overnight. When it’s done, taste and adjust the salt to your liking. Store in the fridge until ready to use. *

To assemble:
  1. Place a layer of corn chips in a bowl or on a plate. Top with the shredded mushrooms. Drizzle with a generous amount of bbq sauce and cashew cream sauce. Top with diced red onion. Serve immediately with a fork.

Recipe Notes

*If you don’t have an instant pot, you can just leave your cashew cream covered on the counter in a warm place for up to 24 hours.