Consider the sweaty effort that goes into one sandwich at this diner.
Quinoa bubbles in vegetable broth. It’s hit with tumbles of carrots, onions and parsley. Nearby, cashew paste —when cashews get demolished, they take on a fatty, creamy texture — thickens from scoops of tapioca. The quinoa, the cashew blend and the fresh vegetables and herbs combine and get hand-formed into a patty. It bakes before finishing on a scalding flat top. A crunchy cap of blackened char forms the crust.
The bacon is equally as David Blaine-impressive: Every morning, they blend tofu and seitan with rich canola oil, agave and liquid smoke. The mixture is formed into a wondrous loaf, which gets sliced and laid on a hot grill. It chars too, like crispy bacon would. Plenty of “ranch,” a vegan mayo-based dressing with soy, lemon juice and dried spices, sauces a seeded bottom and top bun.
All of that arrives in front of you as one and topped with shredded cheese: It’s a bacon cheeseburger, and it’s start-to-finish vegan.
On Aug. 22, Spiral Diner, the all-vegan comfort-food joint that started in longhorn-studded Fort Worth, turned 16 years old. Let’s get one thing out of the way: Spiral Diner knows exactly what it’s doing with its tongue-in-cheek vegan food that mimics the meat things that you love. It’s not a dupe. There’s no evil spell to trick meat-eaters into devouring a cashew burger.
It is what it is: comfort food, nachos and burgers and milkshakes that reach into the part of your soul that loves a good diner, and it’s served hot, fast and friendly as sunshine. It just happens to not use meat.
“I think people get stuck in the healthy mindset. They think vegan is healthy, which it is, but that’s never been our focus,” says co-owner Sara Tomerlin. On a Thursday, she’s working out of the Oak Cliff restaurant, Spiral’s second location. “Our focus has always been tasting first. That means we’re not going to skimp on the fat, and the oil and the sugar and what comfort food are all about.”
Recently, Spiral Diner added a “triple-double” sandwich to the menu. What’s a triple-double? It’s two cheeseburger patties layered in between three grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s not a typo: it’s a vegan burger party.
“It’s obscenely large. It’s $20. It’s impossible to finish. And it’s vegan. It’s hilarious,” she says.
Tomerlin started as a dishwasher and a waiter.
In 2002, the all-vegan bakery opened up with a short menu and a few barstools. It was a meat-free kiosk in Fort Worth’s train station market (the rail market is no longer there) at a time when vegan food was about as common in Fort Worth as a friendly Philadelphia Eagles fan. Spiral owner Amy McNutt and Sara Tomerlin became fast business partners. Tomerlin shadowed McNutt as a manager, and in 2006 they kicked open the doors of a location in Oak Cliff. Last year, they opened a third in Denton.
The nachos are the most popular dish “by far” since debuting as a blue plate special early in the 2000s.
Tomerlin had no plans on working her way up the ranks at a vegan food joint. She’d landed internships while studying at TCU, a few odd jobs, but the spark never lit the match.
“I was just depressed and hated it,” she says. “I asked myself, when’s the last time I was really happy? It was when I was washing dishes and waiting tables at Spiral Diner for minimum wage.”
Stop by Spiral on any given weekday and you’ll understand. There’s a crackle of joy that runs through the place. Order the nachos, the most beloved dish “by far,” and watch the predictable wave of jaw-drops as the dish emerges from the kitchen.
There should be brassy trumpets, adorned with those pointy velvet flags, that announce the arrival of the Nachos Supremo. They started as a Blue Plate Special. The main event is a cashew-based cheese sauce that’s rich and salty and unbelievably not-from-an-animal, that gets dressed up with bell peppers, black beans, scoops of sour cream guacamole and, of course, crunchy tortilla chips. It’s remarkable, not-at-all-healthy vegan food.
“People’s perception of what vegan is has changed,” says Tomerlin. “For a long time, people thought it meant you just ate salad and tofu. Our concept from the beginning was vegan comfort food.”
The bacon cheeseburger with ranch is a surprising masterwork of a vegan sandwich. It’s also not an homage to the great American bacon cheeseburger. It is, at its heart, nothing like a bacon cheeseburger because, other than the name and the visual of the thing, it stands on its own. Meat-eaters won’t order nachos or a Philly cheesesteak or the burger at Spiral Diner and instantly erupt from their chair cursing and shouting in the name of the cow.
The bacon burger is like everything else at a vegan diner that predates iPods: It’s simple, but arduously executed — and not healthy in all the right ways.
Spiral Diner, 1101 N Beckley Ave. and 1314 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth