An Impossible Quest for “Actually Good” Fake Fried Chicken

Fried chicken is my favorite dish. Too bad I’m a masochistic vegetarian.

Illustration by Jarett Sitter

When I went vegetarian in middle school, I almost didn’t make it. It took all of a few hours for the cravings to set in—specifically, the cravings for McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, which only made sense because I was 12 and there must be something in those abominations to make kids go through withdrawal if they go too long without them. I stayed strong, but the temptation was unavoidable, mostly because every Milfordite knows that Wednesday means fried chicken at Miami Market: Styrofoam boxes, two crispy thighs, mashed potatoes, and green beans speckled with the little chunks of ham. When summer came, July Fourth meant a spread of Hitching Post chicken enjoyed poolside. Like it or not, fried chicken was in my blood. Even if I no longer eat it, I can’t replace it.

I’ve spent years searching for a good substitute with no luck.

“There is absolutely no such thing as good vegetarian chicken,” I told our senior editor when we began planning this cover package. She assured me that although that might be the case, it was worth a try. I was unconvinced. When I asked friends for recommendations, they parroted my own line back at me. Even if an attempt was well-intentioned, execution wasn’t always the best. There’s no easy way to replicate the perfectly crisped skin of, well, skin. But there are a few valiant attempts out there.

My first stop was Galactic Fried Chicken, a local favorite for its crispy thighs, friendly owners, and veggie nuggets. Sweet, versatile jackfruit is cubed, battered, fried, and served with house-made Galactic Sauce and a scoop of coleslaw. I’d never actually had jackfruit, which is commonly used to mimic pulled pork, until then. The texture is stringy and meaty, scratching that carnivore center in your brain—but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

When I stopped for a not-so-late snack at Mikey’s Late Night Slice, the OTR pizza dive known for its New York–style slices, I spotted, somewhat inexplicably, vegan boneless wings on the menu. As far as veggie wings go, they hit the spot. Unfortunately, they’ve since been taken off the menu—and Mikey’s has no plans to bring them back. If you’re looking for a walk on the spicier side, Harmony Plant Fare in Findlay Market makes a mean deli-style vegan buffalo chicken ranch sandwich with curls of pan-fried soy chicken.

Nothing that I tried was going to fool anyone. It’s good fake chicken by all means, but it’s definitely fake chicken, you know?

Just when I was about to give up, I saw Northside Yacht Club promoting its “Thicc Fil A,” a veggie dupe of the closed-on-Sundays chain’s signature sandwich. I high-tailed it to Northside to try it for myself. Sitting in my car, I took a bite and promptly dropped it back into the box with an audible “oh my god” that the ghosts in Spring Grove Cemetery probably heard.

This was it. This is what I’d been looking for.

“That was the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” I texted two colleagues, Thicc Sauce still dripping from my fingers. “I mean, I say that about every good thing I eat. But holy shit. They actually made a piece of tofu taste like a fried chicken sandwich.” Every part of it was right, from the marinated CinSoy tofu to the buttery challah Sixteen Bricks bun.

But the euphoria was short-lived, and not just because I inhaled my sandwich like a shop-vac. The Thicc Fil A, it turned out, was just a one-month special at NSYC. It would be gone in a matter of days. I slipped the keys into the ignition, defeated. A local radio station was playing an old Eminem hit. It was mocking me.

If you had one shot/ Or one opportunity / To seize everything you’ve ever wanted/ Would you capture it? Or just let it slip? 

I’d captured it, sure. But the opportunity to unearth the perfect fake fried chicken may have, in fact, come once in a lifetime.

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