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, SC; The Piedmont-Triad region of North Carolina, which includes Greensboro and Winston-Salem; and here, in Denver. Depending on location, a cauliflower sandwich costs about $7, compared to about $5 for the chicken version.
Just looking at it, the vegetable sandwich is almost indistinguishable from its poultry counterpart. That’s because the method is essentially the same – replace the chicken with a cauliflower fillet, marinate, bread with the original spices, and pressure cook to order. While the sandwich is plant-based, it’s not vegan: The breading includes milk and an egg wash, and restaurants don’t designate cooking surfaces that are vegetarian-only.
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Simple as it may seem, it took about four years of testing to establish the method and recipe. “Our challenges really stem more from operational issues versus taste,” said Stuart Tracy, Chick-fil-A’s chief culinary leader for menu and packaging, via email. “Our operators and team members need to be able to easily prepare and serve menu offerings, 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 also experimented with whole and chopped vegetables formed into patties. “But,” said Tracy, “I always loved and cooked with cauliflower in my restaurants in Charleston and Atlanta before I came to Chick-fil-A.” (That would be Butcher & Bee and the now-closed Parish, respectively.)
Chick-fil-A worked with suppliers to grow and cut the vegetable to specific sizes, USA Today reported. “The Cauliflower Sandwich performed head and shoulders above the rest of the options in terms of flavor and uniqueness, and it just happens to have low operational complexity,” Tracy said.
Other fast food giants have turned increasingly 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 (although, of course, Chipotle and other burrito chains can always rely on that most iconic vegan protein, beans).
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In 2022, McDonald’s briefly sold the McPlant and trialled Kentucky Fried Chicken nuggets, both developed with Beyond Meat. If you live in the UK, you can get your hands on a Creole Red Bean Sandwich at Popeyes and KFC’s vegan burger, made with a fillet from the Quorn company.
But a real vegetable, front and center? Perhaps this iteration will survive the general cooling of alt meat fever. “For several years now, we’ve been consistently hearing that our diners are looking for more vegetarian entrees, so we started working on a plant-forward option that was uniquely Chick-fil-A,” Tracy said.
Assuming your sense of smell is intact other than appearance, this sandwich is not to be confused with chicken. Open the bag and a telltale smell of cooked brassica wafts out, thanks to cauliflower’s sulphurous 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 has that proteinaceous – not unpleasant – stringiness typical of a chicken breast. A few more bites in, and there’s an eerie sinewy chew. Are cauli tendons a thing? The breadcrumbs stay crispy, which is impressive considering the soft vegetables it contains. Unfortunately, it doesn’t taste like chicken; the taste is cauliflower through and through, with a faint vegetable sweetness and a hint of heat from the marinade. One bun left me satisfied but not stuffed, although I still felt like I was eating something fried in oil. (Also, if cruciferous veggies make your burps extra spicy, you’ve been warned.)
Eat the cauliflower alongside a chicken sandwich and you’ll realize that the vegetable version has a much softer texture (it should have been obvious, I know). I had questioned the structural integrity, but the sandwich held together well, although the breading crumbled a little more easily than 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 customer enthusiasm and restaurant operator feedback, among other things, before deciding whether the cauliflower sandwich will debut nationwide.