To paraphrase a Morrissey lyric, I always thought of "vegan" as something you are more than something you do. As a result, I thought of veganism as a binary identity, something that could be revoked if the vegan in question washed their hands in the bathroom of a gas station that sells fried chicken or stood too close to a tin of gelatin-containing Altoids or whatever.
But then, earlier this year, I was persuaded that veganism can be a process that unfolds with each meal. And further, that every meal without animal products counts as a step toward reconciling the untenable subjugation, suffering, and slaughter of numberless sentient beings.
I'd say I've been about 90 to 95 percent vegan in 2017, with the odd slice of pizza and my failure to locate a good nondairy coffee creamer standing between me and glory.
This is why I got excited when I heard about Next Level Burger, where every menu item is plant-based. Though it's a bit of a hassle to get up to 65th and Roosevelt, and you have to go into a Whole Foods, and the name is sort of embarrassing to say out loud, Next Level turns out to be a fantastic innovation for those of us whose brains know eating animals is indefensible but whose hearts still can't get past the idea that a cheeseburger, fries (or, better yet, tots!), and a milkshake is nature's perfect meal.
Next Level makes it easy to begin the process of eliminating the principle that eating = eating meat from your mouth's muscle memory. It really works. And their patties are far tastier than standard-issue veggie burger substitutes.
Best of all, though, are the shakes ($6/$6.50), which can be made with either soy or coconut-based soft serve in 12 flavors and are totally convincing. The soy is better. (Though I would avoid the banana kind, because they put a real banana in it, and it wasn't fully ripe, and imagine how easy your life is when you find yourself complaining about some nonsense like this. You can't go wrong with the Mocha Joe.)
As for the burgers, I wholeheartedly recommend the All-American ($8.50): a "meaty" patty topped with smoky tempeh bacon (fried nicely, but still too chewy to do bacon's real job on a burger, which is to crunch), either cheddar or Swiss-style "cheese," and egg-free mayo. I ordered mine with pickles (because I'm not a barbarian). After about two bites, I finally realized that the familiar, beloved flavor of a burger has less to do with beef than I'd ever realized.
Also excellent: the Sausage Bacon burger (that "sausage" patty is fantastic, $8), the Signature (an umami mushroom and quinoa patty, with sliced avocado, and roasted garlic thyme mayo, $8), and the heroically sloppy Chili Chz Dog ($7.50). There are 10 burgers in all, plus sandwiches, salads, and other stuff you probably won't want because it's not burgers.
Don't be fooled by the option to get your fries and tots baked. They're way better fried.
I haven't yet had the nerve to try the menu's most hedonistic option: the Animal (double sausage patty with bacon, crinkly cut fries, sautéed onion, cheese, and two sauces). It's $15 and 1,300 calories. Maybe I'll treat myself when I finally kick half-and-half.