From the outside, Temple of Seitan, which opened last Saturday in Hackney, looks like a trendy chicken shop with vinyl skull wallpaper, £6 dishes, and a Pixies-heavy playlist. But look closer, and behind the counter you'll notice pieces of deep-fried seitan.
Temple of Seitan started serving vegan fried chicken (made from wheat gluten) last July, and quickly built a following among vegans and omnivores alike for their popcorn bites and subs, which are eerily faithful to their meat counterparts.
Rebecca McGuinness, a Melbourne native, worked as a legal secretary before making "seitan-ic" chicken full-time, with no formal cooking background.
"I'd always wanted to make vegan food," she says. "I'm really passionate about veganism and one of the most effective ways, I think, is through food—to show people how good it is, how easy it is."
Since she moved to London two years ago, McGuinness thinks the city's vegan offerings have "exploded," and she wants to give both vegans and curious omnivores more junk food options for eating out.
"A lot of the time people care about animals, they care about the environment, all that sort of stuff, and they say, 'I wish I could go vegan' or 'I'd like to, but it seems really hard,'" she says.
After running a Temple of Seitan stall in Brick Lane Market and at vegan festivals around England, Temple's tipping point came at London VegFest in October, where she sold hundreds of subs.
"It kinda gave us the confidence to have a go at the shop," McGuinness says. (The stall is now on hiatus while she focuses on the shop.)
Growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne, McGuinness worked at a KFC as a teenager and liked the taste of meat. So when she became vegan at 19, she started learning to make mock meats herself. "I kinda had to look outside the box and just start cooking," she says.
McGuinness also ventured into Melbourne to vegan hotspots like Smith & Deli and Trippy Taco, which remain inspirations (in addition to Cook Daily in Shoreditch, where she says she could eat "every day.")
"I need to go home to eat," she adds.
Temple of Seitan's part-secret recipe is adapted from recipes by US chef Skye Michael Conroy. A gluten-flour base is mixed with herbs, spices, and tofu "to lighten it up a little bit," says McGuinness' husband, Pat O'Shea, who helps out with the stall and now the shop.
"We found the [recipe] that's mixed with soy is the most realistic one," McGuinness adds.
The "chicken" is then pan-fried for the Roast Roll, or deep-fried in a batter of flour, spices, mustard, and water for the Temple Burger, Strip Sub, and 2 Piece (my favourite dish of theirs: a double whammy of chicken.)
Temple also serves a "mac 'n' cheez" made with mustard, paprika, soy milk, and oil and topped with sour "cream," and gluten-free nuggets made from pre-bought soy protein. ("We wouldn't be comfortable in 100 percent making it gluten-free," O'Shea says.)
At home, McGuinness says she and Pat make a lot of stir-fries: "We eat healthy pretty much all the time, but it's nice to have that junk food option."
Suzanne Tee and Mike Cutting, two customers I speak to on my visit Temple, feel similarly.
"There aren't really many places that even do stuff like this, like veggie junk food," says Tee.
"You don't get to eat much battered, deep-fried stuff as a vegetarian," Cutting agrees, noting that the food here is a notch above conventional fast food.
"It doesn't just taste like fast food, like it does taste good," he says.
Liz Nguyen and Joseph Tam are also ordering food at Temple today, but neither follow a vegan diet.
"We've been trying to reduce meat in our diet, but we're not fully committed to transitioning to the vegan lifestyle just yet, and things like this makes it so much easier for you to transition," Nguyen says.
Tam's favourite dish is the 2 Piece: "The texture tastes like real chicken."
"It falls apart like chicken," Nguyen adds.
"That's always a good thing, when you have non-vegans come in like, 'How is this vegan?'" says Ruwi Shaikh, one of the full-time staff at Temple. "That's when you know you're doing something right."
As well as remarking on the impressively chicken-like texture of Temple's wheat gluten creations, many customers have also commented on the shop's neighbour: a halal butcher.
"Everyone's like, 'Did you plan it?'," McGuinness says. "I really didn't."
As for the punny name, O'Shea says it helps make the concept more accessible. "Otherwise people are like, 'Seetan? Saitan?' But if you give them at least the pun, they're like, 'Alright.'"
McGuinness and O'Shea also plan to evolve Temple's menu to make it feel as "chicken shop-like" as possible.
"That's what we're trying to do here, like a vegan version of that standard culture thing," Shaikh says. "You don't think of bagels, you don't think of pizza: you think of chicken shops [in London.] To give vegans that option, it's groundbreaking, I think."