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This is what happens when a popular West Philly taco joint goes full vegan

"A burrito without cheese, for me, is hard to imagine."

Cook Ignacio Atonal makes a vegan Biff Burrito at Honest Tom's Taco Shop, in West Philadelphia, Wednesday, June 27, 2018.
Cook Ignacio Atonal makes a vegan Biff Burrito at Honest Tom's Taco Shop, in West Philadelphia, Wednesday, June 27, 2018.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Years ago, when vegans came into Tom McCusker's taco shop saying something along the lines of, "You should have more vegan options," he'd scoff and think to himself: You shouldn't be a vegan.

But things are different now. The 36-year-old who owns Honest Tom's Taco Shop near 44th and Locust Streets has himself been vegan for about a year and eats a fully plant-based diet. Now, he's doing exactly what he would have hated in his pre-vegan days: taking his shop 100 percent plant-based, too.

His restaurant's new concept, "Honest Tom's Plant Based Taco Shop," will close next week and reopen July 9 with a new menu: no more beef, eggs, or chicken — instead, Honest Tom's loyalists can chow down on a burrito made with "biff" (walnut taco meat), "carbacoa" (carrots and lentils), or "chucken" (chickpeas and plantains cooked tinga style). The food is meant to highlight veggies, McCusker said, meaning for now there also won't be meat replacements like seitan and tofu. And without eggs and bacon, that means breakfast is gone, too.

Suffice it to say: Reaction online was swift and tribal. And some people are furious.

Among the heart emojis and "yesssss!" comments from vegan enthusiasts was a noticeable contingent of disappointed omnivores predicting the shop's demise and vowing to boycott Honest Tom's for its new vegan hell: "This isn't America," one said.

It turns out even McCusker gets it.

He would have been angry himself, he said. He just wants his customers who have a mentality of hating vegan food to give it a shot. "If I've been making the best food you ever had for a decade, like some people are saying, why would I all of a sudden start making the worst?"

Some see the negativity as part of a larger movement against vegetarian and vegan lifestyles; others say the concept of a neighborhood taco joint selling walnut-based taco meat feels like gentrification and/or a Portlandia sketch. Either way, social media is often no place for rational discourse, and the change at Honest Tom's taps into a cultural hostility between meat-eaters and vegetable loyalists that's been there for years. (In general, vegetarians do not eat meat;  vegans eliminate all animal products from their diets.)

McCusker, who started Honest Tom's in 2009 as a breakfast food truck parked near Drexel University and grew it into a brick-and-mortar neighborhood fixture, started thinking seriously about making his business plant-based about 10 months ago. Though he said getting rid of breakfast is "a heart-breaker," he feels good about eliminating eggs, bacon, and sausage from the menu. (And now he has more time at home in the mornings with his 7-month-old baby.)

Christina Pirello of South Philadelphia, who's been a vegetarian and a vegan for 30 years, has written seven cookbooks and published works about the stigma of veganism. She said negativity hurled at plant-based businesses could be a symptom of a larger backlash vegans and vegetarians have faced for decades from omnivores, some of whom Pirello said have "an underlying agenda of, 'I wish I didn't have to look at this.' "

"It's not that they can't get ground beef at the taco joint," she said. "It's that they now have to think about making better choices."

Of course, the options for vegetarians and vegans have vastly improved over the years, particularly in cities. In the immediate area in West Philadelphia, plenty of restaurants have options for eaters with plant-based diets, and entirely vegan businesses have been successful. HipCityVeg, the Philadelphia vegan casual eatery, has five locations, including one near 40th and Walnut, and vegan shop Dottie's Donuts has two spots, its original at 45th Street and Springfield Avenue, and on South Sixth Street in Queen Village.

Johnpaul Golaski, a West Philly native who's been vegan since 2001, said he remembers years ago driving more than an hour to pick up food from a vegan bakery in Bethlehem. Today, he lives in East Falls and said there are options all around. And he supports the pivot at Honest Tom's.

"As long as his product is good," he said, "he'll be fine."

Not all vegetable lovers feel the same. Kristina Nielson, a 28-year-old graduate student who lives about two blocks from Honest Tom's, is a vegetarian — but she's disappointed in the decision to go entirely plant-based, saying, "A burrito without cheese, for me, is hard to imagine." Nielson watched the conversation online devolve into vegan vs. meat-eaters and said though she's glad to know her vegan friends will have another option in the neighborhood, she understands others might be "mourning" the taco joint they really enjoy.

"There's just a general lack of empathy on both sides," she said, "where nobody is thinking about the fact that it's legitimate for somebody to feel happy about this change or not happy."

David Thompson is among the not happy crowd, but that has more to do with the nutritional makeup of the food changing while prices are increasing. McCusker said he might raise prices by a couple of dollars on some products, but the menu prices aren't yet finalized. He said that he's barely raised prices at all over the last decade — and that quality ingredients cost more.

Thompson, a 29-year-old administrative assistant who lives in West Philly who said he goes to Honest Tom's more than to all other restaurants combined, doesn't eat much meat anyway. But he's more concerned about affordability.

So what's Thompson going to eat instead?

"I think Soylent," he said, referring to a meal-replacement drink that some have called "the end of food."

McCusker knows he's going to lose some customers who loved the chicken option or who want sausage and egg tacos for breakfast. He admits, too, that there will be a long road of disappointed people who come in for a meat product and won't be able to get it. But he's banking on gaining a whole lot more Tex-Mex lovers who crave a sweet potato burrito and a side of vegan ethics.

"Some people are going to hate it," he said. "I'm just trying to tell them to check it out. You'll be shocked at how good it is. You might hate vegans, but try it out. And then if you still hate it, walk away."