I am sweating. But it’s a good sweat. Its not a meat sweat. It’s a plant sweat.
I’m up on stage with two other potential champs at Meat Liquor’s latest flagship restaurant near Oxford Circus. It’s a noisy dark American diner peppered with bright illuminated signage, dark wooden tables and chairs. It’s so reminiscent of Roadhouse I’m half expecting Swayze to be on the door (god rest his soul).
I got the call yesterday. Well, an email actually. Offering up a food challenge that was pretty much unmissable. Meat Liquor – the home of southern US meat extravagance – has jumped on the vegan bandwagon and created a full vegan menu.
This includes a ‘Three Chilli Challenge’ – three homemade plant-based dishes, smothered in red hot house vegan chilli, pickled jalapeños and French’s hot mustard – that needs to be hoovered within 10 minutes or you have to pay the piper (…or the waitress). It comprises a vegan chilli dog; a vegan chilli burger; and vegan chilli fries. It’s formidable. But I was willing and able.
The big questions
This was interesting on two fronts. First, can it be done? It’s a lot of food in a short amount of time. The challenge needs to be tested. And second, has Meat Liquor sold out to the vegan zeitgeist? We’ll come to the first in a moment but the second is important.
I first visited Meat Liquor in W1 just after it opened. It was a haven for carnivores. A small menu, everything meaty, everything southern states, everything perfect. The place was darker than Stephen King’s basement and full of edging atmosphere. If you had told me then it would be serving bean burgers a decade later I would have slapped you with my deep-fried pickle.
But here we are. As I step up to the stage I can see what’s coming – it’s not small. The burger is huge. It’s comes in a brioche bun with salad, pickles and smothered in a malevolently dark brown chilli. The same chilli makes an appearance on the veggie dog which is also encased in enriched dough, as well as the bowl of skinny French fries which, surprisingly, looks quite manageable. Everything is drenched in bright yellow spicy mustard.
My competition on stage are already strategizing. Some are going heavy on the carbo from the off. Others are prioritising the chilli to get it out of the way. I’m just going for speed.
The claxon goes. And we’re off. I go for the burger first. It’s the largest thing here. I hit it hard. My god it’s good. I was expecting something in the Linda McCartney vein but this is so good. Lots of flavour, great texture. It’s not going to complete with a meat equivalent but it’s clearly not trying to. That’s what makes it great. It’s sensationally vegan and I’d eat it again (possibly without the chilli which is hitting the back of my throat already).
The dog isn’t quite as good. It’s little dry and although the chilli masks it, it can’t compete with the texture and flavour of the burger. It gets swiftly dispatched.
Just the fries to go. They’re smothered. It’s not going to be easy. I look across at my competition and they’re flagging. It gives me strength and a smash into the bowl of fries like a madman. The fries are great. But the chilli is getting too much. It’s not overly spicy, it’s just masking the flavour of everything else.
The countdown begins and I’m down to the last of the chilli fries. As I stab at them with my fork I can hear the compere in my ear. I smash as much into my mouth as I can and then it’s done.
I step proudly down from my seat, wobbling slightly, but full of self-satisfaction. All those years of watching Man vs Food and I finally have the opportunity to say to the crowd “Today…..Man won”.
The vegan triple chilli challenge is priced at £22.50 for all three items and it’s free if you nobble in under 10 minutes. A meat version is available at £25.75.