Colorado Springs now has a vegan drive-through. That's right. Fast food, plant-style, has hit the Springs, and you just might find it worth the wait. And wait you will, because the popularity is staggering. Cars wind around Santana's Vegan Grill, a kiosk with old-fashioned fried food smells wafting through the service windows.
Let's manage expectations from the outset. We're talking about old-fashioned fast food. It's not health food. It's not fine dining. You might not even find it mind-blowing. But if you're craving vegan versions of comfort food - that yes, you could make yourself at home, but hello convenience - you're going to like what you find. And you just might have some fun.
The first time I turned into the strip mall at Academy and Union boulevards, the only indication I was at the right place was the subtle green "V" at the top of the menu. There was a long line of cars, and the anticipation had me practically giddy. I waited well over 20 minutes, giving me plenty of time to read and re-read the menu. I wasn't sure I could believe my eyes: hamburger and cheeseburgers, meatball and mozzarella sub, hot dogs, chicken (sliders and strips), and a sausage-and-cheese slider grace the menu. All plant-based.
The meatball and mozzarella ($5.89) is a small version of a traditional submarine sandwich. As one would expect from the nonvegan version, this tender sphere melts in the mouth, but the sesame bun and tomato sauce contribute equally to the overall taste. The vegan mozzarella shreds didn't hit the melt factor I expected, but I've been around a lot of vegan cheese so that wasn't surprising. The Buffalo chicken strips ($6.49) are simply vegan crispy tenders with a side of zesty sauce. Sure, you could file this under "I could do that at home." But I'm guessing these swam in some hot vegetable oil, and, face it, fat brings a whole lot of flavor. They're good. The classic hot dog is cheap ($1.99). Loaded with ketchup, mustard and your choice of sweet or dill relish, some might call it basic. But if you haven't had a hot dog in eight years, and you can get one in a flash, it's a little bit of heaven. (This one is perfect for the kiddos.)
The star on the menu is the deluxe bacon cheeseburger ($7.49). Come on. How could I resist? The meaty Beyond Burger, full of coconut fat that brings in all kinds of juicy flavor, is matched with crispy bacon and gloriously melting vegan cheese and some veggies for good measure - lettuce, onion and tomato count. This burger is worth the trip and worth the wait. And I insist you order it with fries ($2.49). This one just might fool a meat eater.
Also on the menu: cookies, doughnuts, and tea, juice, lemonade and water - each for $1.99. And for good measure, a berries and kale smoothie is $2.99. It's a vegan grill, after all.
Many people think vegans are health nuts. Some are. I occasionally am. And I occasionally want familiar foods that are happily absent of animal suffering and, bonus, cholesterol free. Santana's Vegan Grill doesn't just offer up solidly good fast food. It delivers an experience. A fun one at that.