Friends, it is January. While this specific January sort of just feels like a continuation of December, which itself felt like a continuation of last March, it is January all the same.
Increasingly, though, over the last couple of years, “January” has come to mean something more: it has evolved, Pokémon-esque, into Veganuary, the month where thousands of people in the UK pledge to give up cheese and ham packet sandwiches and kebabs for four weeks. Since the watershed moment of Greggs bringing out the vegan sausage roll in January of 2019, Veganuary has also become known as the time of year at which every fast food brand falls over itself to launch a new vegan offering.
This year, the high profile releases have largely been supermarket-based, as Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Asda, Lidl and others have expanded their offering of ready meals and meat replacements. Elsewhere, Domino’s has launched a vegan chicken pizza, plus a side order of vegan nuggets (let the record state they’re good as hell). KFC brought back their vegan burger to 750 outlets until the end of February, Greggs has joined forces with Iceland to provide shoppers with frozen versions of their vegan sausage rolls and Steak Bakes, and Papa John’s will be rolling out a vegan stuffed crust pizza next week.
In among all this came the launch I was most looking forward to. Asked to give my honest opinion of the best high street vegan options (I am qualified because I’ve been vegan for six years and have a medical problem where I find it impossible to look at food on Instagram and not try to eat it myself within 48 hours), I would tell you that it is Subway.
In November of 2019, as a true devotee of stuff beloved by fans of Monster Energy and its surrounding culture, I travelled from London to Birmingham to eat the trial version of the sandwich chain’s vegan Meatball Marinara sub, and had a religious experience, because it is essentially the Subway Smell made real and delivered into your mouth, without any of the gristle-related problems of the meat version. So when I heard that Subway were introducing yet another vegan sandwich option for Veganuary 2021 – my interest? Let’s just say it was piqued.
The new sandwich is called the “T.L.C.” – short for Tastes Like Chicken – and it’s essentially just fake chicken, which you can have with any of the traditional Subway salad or sauce options, as well as with a vegan cheese alternative (and, of course, “toasted”). The good people at Subway sent me a sample of the sandwich to try this time, and as VICE’s longtime vegan guinea pig, I will now give you my honest opinion of it:
THE ‘CHICKEN’ ITSELF: 4 / 5
Once, many years ago, I made vegan chicken at home, when “seitan” – fake meat made from vital wheat gluten, which I basically “whipped up” into a “dough” and then “boiled messily on the hob in my nan’s kitchen” – was pretty much the only meat alternative going. My version tasted like shit. Happily, however, vegan chicken has come a long way since then: there are vegan chicken shops like London’s Temple of Seitan (whose seitan recipe is a lot more successful than mine was), you can get a vegan option at KFC, and even Nando’s has embraced a vegan alternative.
I’m pleased to say, then, that the Subway T.L.C. chicken alternative immediately earns a place in the hallowed canon of fake chicken. It comes in strips, which work well in the context of a sandwich, and it tastes sort of like the sort of pre-cooked roast chicken you’d get in a non-vegan sandwich of this kind. I really liked it, and thought it was pretty simple and mild-tasting.
HOW IT WORKS WITHIN THE SANDWICH: 5 / 5
There are two types of sandwich filling: your Tony Sopranos, and your Carmela Sopranos.
Tony fillings are the types of fillings that make the sandwich all about them: big, bold flavours which can barely be contained between two sides of bread. Carmela fillings work with the other constituent parts of the sandwich – they fit around the peppers, the lettuce, the cheese.
If I may: if the Subway Meatless Meatball Marinara is a Tony-style filling, while the T.L.C. is a Carmela-style filling. My sandwich came with red onions, peppers, lettuce, vegan cheese and a sweet onion sauce, and the chicken worked really well alongside them all. It feels like a less intense option than the vegan meatballs – the sort of thing you’d order when you’re rushing around at lunchtime and you just want a regular sandwich, rather than the Singular Event of a Meatball Marinara. Does that make sense?
HOW REAL IT TASTES: 3.5 / 5
My sandwich in a gorgeous presentation box.
The thing about fake meat is that it has to hit a sweet spot: you don’t want it tasting so real that you feel sick because you’re convinced you just ate actual flesh, but equally you don’t want it to taste of nothing at all.
Texturally, fake chicken is difficult to get right, but I think the Subway Tastes Like Chicken is some of the best I’ve had. It’s definitely much better than the Nando’s option, which is a little bit soft. Subway’s version has more bite, as well as some “charred” edges, which really improves the (*watches Masterchef once*) flavour profile, making it taste slightly more like actual roast chicken than its competitors.
FUNDAMENTAL SUBWAY-NESS: 4 / 5
All Subway sandwiches have a fundamental Subway-ness that separates the chain’s sandwiches from other available sandwiches. This is largely down to how Subway bread tastes: regardless of which variety you choose, the bread is generally kind of sweet (last year, an Irish court actually ruled that its sugar content exceeds the proper amount for bread, and that therefore Subway bread should be referred to as “confectionary,” which is very funny), and also has that specific Subway texture on the underside.
The T.L.C. sandwich is no different, but loses a point because the filling is actually pretty healthy-tasting, especially when you compare it to the likes of the six-inch pigs in blankets that Subway had their Sandwich Artists stuffing inside footlongs in December.
BONUS VEGAN COOKIE REVIEW: 100 / 5
Of course, no Subway is complete without the meal deal components (crisps, drink, cookie, Amen), but until now there was no cookie option for vegans, which was sad. So to make sure all are included, the chain has also launched a vegan double chocolate cookie, which I was able to sample.
I will make no bones about this one, and say that it is probably the best widely-available vegan cookie I’ve had – it’s thin, chewy, chocolate-y, with oven-crisped edges. It reminds me of the cookies I used to buy in a four pack at Tesco for my lunch when I was in sixth form, and therefore it rules, and I approve of it in the strongest possible terms.
I would personally still go for the Meatless Meatball Marinara if asked to choose a vegan sandwich at Subway, but that is between me and Jesus. The T.L.C. is a great everyday option, and I would even go as far as to recommend it! There!