Monday, March 27, 2023

Chick-fil-A put actual cauliflower on a sandwich — and it’s good


DENVER — You can rice it, you can pickle it, you can transform it into pizza crust. You can roast it whole and carve it tableside. You can even turn it into a steak and wings.

Is there anything cauliflower can’t do?

Here’s a new one: Breaded and fried, cauliflower can become a Chick-fil-A sandwich. On Monday, the fast-food chain known for its chicken, friendly customer service and anti-LGBTQ stances rolled out the Chick-fil-A Cauliflower Sandwich in three test markets: Charleston, S.C.; North Carolina’s Piedmont-Triad region, which includes Greensboro and Winston-Salem; and here, in Denver. Depending on the location, a cauliflower sandwich costs about $7, compared with about $5 for the chicken version.

Going by looks alone, the vegetable sandwich is nearly indistinguishable from its poultry counterpart. That’s because the method is basically the same — substitute the chicken for a cauliflower “fillet,” then marinate, bread with the original seasoning and pressure-cook to order. Though the sandwich is based on plants, it’s not vegan: The breading includes milk and an egg wash, and restaurants don’t designate vegetarian-only preparation surfaces.

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Simple though it may seem, it took about four years of testing to nail down the method and recipe. “Our challenges really stem more from operational issues vs. taste,” Stuart Tracy, Chick-fil-A’s principal culinary lead for menu and packaging, said via email. “Our Operators and Team Members have to be able to prepare and serve menu offerings with ease, so some of the ideas we had were good in theory, but they would have put too much pressure on our restaurant teams.”

Tracy’s team experimented with whole and chopped vegetables formed into patties, too. “But,” said Tracy, “I’ve always loved cauliflower and cooked with it in my restaurants in Charleston and Atlanta before coming to Chick-fil-A.” (That would be Butcher & Bee and the now-closed Parish, respectively.)

Chick-fil-A worked with suppliers to grow and slice the vegetable to particular dimensions, USA Today reported. “The Cauliflower Sandwich performed head and shoulders above the rest of the options in terms of taste and uniqueness, and it happens to have low operational complexity,” Tracy said.

Other fast-food giants have increasingly turned to plant-based meats: Burger King and White Castle use Impossible Burgers in versions of their Whoppers and sliders; Carl’s Jr. (but not its Eastern counterpart, Hardee’s) offers a burger with Beyond Meat. Buffalo Wild Wings makes cauliflower wings, while Chipotle — whose first restaurant opened in Denver in 1993 — rolled out vegan protein Sofritas in 2014 (though Chipotle and other burrito chains can of course always rely on that most iconic vegan protein, beans).

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In 2022, McDonald’s briefly sold the McPlant, and Kentucky Fried Chicken tested nuggets, both developed with Beyond Meat. If you live in Britain, you can get your hands on a Creole Red Bean Sandwich at Popeyes and KFC’s vegan burger, made with a filet from the company Quorn.

But an actual vegetable, front and center? Maybe this iteration will survive the general cooling of alt-meat fever. “For several years now, we’ve consistently heard that our guests are seeking more veggie-centric entrees, which is why we started working on a plant-forward option that was uniquely Chick-fil-A,” Tracy said.

Assuming your powers of smell are intact, beyond looks, there is no mistaking this sandwich for chicken. Open the bag and a telltale whiff of cooked brassica streams out, thanks to cauliflower’s sulfur-containing compounds, glucosinolates.

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If you haven’t eaten a chicken sandwich in a while, you’d be forgiven for thinking the texture is close to poultry. The cauliflower features that protein-like — not unpleasant — stringiness typical of a chicken breast. A few more bites in, and there’s an uncanny tendon-like chew. Are cauli-tendons a thing? The breading remains crisp, which is impressive given the soft vegetable within. It does not, alas, taste like chicken; the flavor is cauliflower through and through, with a faint vegetal sweetness and a tickle of heat from the marinade. One sandwich left me satisfied but not stuffed, though I still felt like I ate something fried in oil. (Also, if cruciferous vegetables make your burps extra spicy, well, you’ve been warned.)

Eat the cauliflower side by side with a chicken sandwich and you’ll realize that the vegetable version sports a much softer texture (it should have been obvious, I know). I had wondered about the structural integrity, but the sandwich held together well, though the breading crumbles off a bit more easily than with the chicken version. Bottom line: If you like cauliflower, this sandwich is objectively delicious.

Don’t count these cauliflowers before they hatch, though. After the trial ends in mid-May — or sooner, if Chick-fil-A runs out — Tracy’s team will assess, among other factors, customer enthusiasm and feedback from restaurant operators before deciding if the cauliflower sandwich will debut nationwide.

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