Out of all the places on earth for me to wind up going vegan, Los Angeles was a very lucky spot. I quit animal products about three months ago, and though at first it seemed like I’d resigned to a life of carrots and hummus, I soon learned that L.A. has much more to offer. Fifteen minutes from my apartment sits a gourmet vegan cheese shop, specializing in exclusively dairy-free bries and gorgonzolas. A famed bakery offering the most mouthwatering vegan cupcakes conceivable is just a five-minute Lyft ride away.
Servers at every restaurant in the area are quick to field questions like, "Is there any whey in the bread bowl?" and "Instead of the shrimp, can we do extra avocado?"
Anywhere else, I’m almost embarrassed to say I’m vegan. My friends from New York think it’s a bummer; my family members from the deep south think it’s a disorder. But here in L.A., veganism is not only convenient, it’s fun. It’s hip. It’s what all the models and celebrities are doing. I tell people I’m vegan, and they jovially invite me out to get juice sometime. A vegan in Southern California is like a salmon in the Columbia River: at home.
I admit, I take it for granted. My friend Shaina, who recently moved to Australia, says veganism is even a million times harder in Sydney than it is in L.A.
“Wow, imagine how hard it must be somewhere like Texas,” I joked via text.
Except then, no one was laughing. Because a few weeks later, I was assigned to spend a long weekend in Austin for work—a town world-famous for its barbecue, Tex-Mex, and historical lack of vegans.
“Vegan in Austin… expect to eat all the guacamole,” warned fellow vegan and Byrdie editor Victoria. I nervously laughed and packed a Luna bar in my carry-on. This was going to be interesting.
I had to wonder, is a plant-based lifestyle realistic outside of Los Angeles? To follow one newbie vegan’s journey to the land of ribs and chili con carne, keep reading!
Before my evening flight to Austin, I made sure to eat a full meal, so I wouldn’t be scrambling to find massaged kale in a strange city at midnight. Unsurprisingly, there’s even a vegan restaurant at LAX. I ate a bowl of quinoa, seitan, and steamed veggies in Terminal 4—a final love letter to me from L.A.’s robust vegan culture.
I woke up in Austin the next morning just in time for breakfast with a colleague from New York at my hotel’s restaurant.
“So, what exactly is vegan?” she asked, as we received our drink orders.
“Well,” I chirped, eager to connect. “Veganism is a lifestyle where you consume only plant-based foods.” She cocked her head, puzzled. I rephrased. “Think of it as a vegetarian who’s also lactose intolerant.”
“Ohhh, I think I know someone like that,” she winced, pouring a generous globule of cream into her coffee. “Do you eat fish?”
“Nope, no animal products,” I said. “Just plants.”
Shockingly, the hotel actually offered an entire menu dedicated exclusively to fresh vegetable juices and smoothies. I giddily ordered a beet-based concoction and a bowl of steel-cut oats, recalling everyone’s promises that Austin was more clued-in to things like veganism than the rest of Texas. “This is so much easier than I thought it’d be!” I squealed.
But a few bites into breakfast, and my enthusiasm dwindled. The oatmeal was swimming in a veritable lake of sticky maple syrup. And the juice was so pulpy, its combination of flavors so sour and mysterious, I literally did a double-take to make sure the liquid was indeed juice. Well, their heart was in the right place, I shrugged. If these menu options were a sign, there was certainly other vegan food to be had in Texas.
I made my way to the city’s downtown center, where South by Southwest was in full swing. I hopped out of my Uber and was instantly smacked in the olfactory bulb with the thick smell of roasting meat.
Now, I don’t know if it’s nostalgia or some sort of Pavlovian response, but I still like the smell of barbecue upon first whiff. That might be first on the list of things vegans aren’t supposed to say, but I can’t help it. There is something comforting, albeit also completely horrifying, about the smell of beef on a grill.
On my seven-block walk to the Austin Convention Center, I passed about 10 taco trucks, five deep-dish pizza stands, and countless bars advertising edibles like corn dogs and deep-fried pickle chips. Street food was clearly the dominant cuisine, and it didn’t seem likely that these particular vendors could report the whey contents of their dishes.
I ate my Luna bar and continued on my way, eyes peeled for vegan options. But after finishing my work obligations for the day, I chickened out, and decided just to go back to my hotel. At least I knew vegan food existed there. Plus, I’d learned from one of my favorite vegan YouTubers that when you discover a good place for vegan food while traveling, don’t be afraid to go back again and again. At least it's better than wandering around starving in a town that smells like barbecue.
So, the juice was weird, but what about the smoothies? I put in a room service order for a blueberry-acai flavor, plus a side of rye toast and a plate of plain sliced avocado. Sure, your average Los Angeles hotel would offer a formal dish called “avocado toast,” but this was almost as good. It simply required a little creative ordering.
Disappointingly, the smoothie was just as off-putting in texture and flavor as the juice. Welp, I guess it’s avocado for every meal, I decided. Victoria was right. It was pretty much guacamole or bust.
That night, I attended a party downtown, where at least I knew for sure there'd be one vegan option: cocktails. Longing for the plant-based cheeses and properly strained juices of Los Angeles, I filled the void with tart, sparkling beverage after tart, sparkling beverage.
Feeling friendly in that magical way music and cocktails always inspire, I got to talking with a group of party-goers in town for SXSW. I started chatting about the trouble I'd been having with finding good vegan food in Austin, when a New Yorker in the group interrupted. "You know, there's a meatless hamburger truck parked right outside," he said. At first, I thought he was mocking me—this silly vegan girl who came to the meat capitol of America and thought she'd get out unscathed.
"No, I'm serious," he said. "There's fake cheese on them and everything. They're pretty good."
I suspiciously followed the New Yorker outside. Lo and behold, as promised, I found a food truck called Arlo's, specializing in "vegan comfort food" for Austin's nightlife scene. The menu boasted greasy delicacies like faux bacon mac 'n' cheese burgers, chipotle "chik'n" patties, and street tacos made with veggie burger crumbles. Essentially, it was the exact kind of food you want to eat after a few too many tart, sparkling beverages. It was the exact kind of vegan food you could convince a Texan to eat.
So, I made like an Austinite and downed a plateful of tater tots. It wasn't the plant-filled cornucopia I'd grown accustomed to, but I embraced the indulgence. In the end, I was just glad to see Austinites making veganism work for them.
After waking up the next morning in a post-party trance, I drowned my hair in DryBar's Detox Dry Shampoo ($23) and ventured out in search of breakfast. I was feeling more confident now that I'd seen Austin's take on vegan cooking. It made sense to me. Just as the United States has its own interpretations of Chinese or Mexican food—versions that specifically cater to the American palate—Austin's carnivorous community had the same for vegan eats.
Amidst the ocean of barbecue joints and Tex-Mex downtown, I did spy one low-key brunch place advertising fresh-pressed juices, as well as a street-side stand hocking tropical smoothies.
I went for the smoothie. But again, disaster. The texture was icy and milky both at once, and the flavor like saccharine, syrupy coconut. I sat at a picnic table and chewed on a pineapple ring, there for garnish, as a guy in a baseball cap gnawed with enthusiasm on a turkey leg beside me.
And then, it all became clear: In order for Austin's vegan scene to explode like L.A., in order for that to happen in any city for that matter, there would need to be a cultural shift. Rainbow-colored plant foods would need to become, well, trendy—as trendy as hearty food trucks and barbecue already are in Austin. Because even though a trend is just a trend, it can sometimes turn into something bigger, into a movement, simply because of the awareness it brings. Until veganism in Austin is "cool," it will just be seen as a bummer, unless it's disguised as "chik'n" or mac 'n cheese.
Until then, there's no motivation to properly strain the beet juice.
All this said, veganism in Austin is still 100% possible. There are still extensive produce sections in every grocery store, which are all a vegan ever really needs. Nut-derived brie is nice, and so are cold-pressed juices, but a committed vegan doesn't depend on those things. If I'd put in a little more effort, I could have made my own delicious vegan meals. Because to me, veganism is more than a trend. It's one of the most serious decisions I've ever made about my health, animal rights, and the environment.
I guess it just took a trip to barbecue territory to remind me of that.
So, what happens when a vegan goes to Texas? She drinks some weird smoothies; she gets a little cranky. But in the end, all is well. Because you can take the vegan out of Los Angeles, but you can't take the vegan out of the vegan.
Want more vegan adventures? Read about how social media changed my diet forever.