Fayetteville's five-month-old Something Better occupies a corner of one of those stucco shopping complexes that are common on North College Avenue. It's labeled with black and white lettering that blends so seamlessly into the surrounding mallscape that we make a full circle of the parking lot before we notice it. It's one of two all-vegan restaurants in the state, and honestly, this location wasn't quite what we'd pictured. We were thinking sunny and cutesy, maybe staffed with dreadlocked, gingham-aproned college kids. What we got was a large room of generic tan and black decor, and a wall full of computer-printed placards with quotes from satisfied customers. That's because Something Better isn't run by earthy hipsters; it's run by devout Seventh-day Adventists, who, lucky for us, exhausted their creative impetus on the menu rather than the decor.
We ordered at the counter and in about 15 minutes, an amicable (everyone seemed to be) cook-cum-waiter delivered the goods. The basis of the Something Better menu is a low-sodium, small-batch manufactured product called Better Than Meat, invented and patented by owner Chef GW Chew. We don't eat much meat. In fact, one of our group has been vegetarian for a full decade. So we're on intimate terms with a wide range of meat substitutes — those made with wheat (seitan, bulgur), those made with soy (tofu, tempeh) and those made with clinical, freaky mush (textured vegetable protein, quorn). Better Than Meat (BTM for short) is definitely among the more satisfying options. Chew could probably make a fortune if he mass-produced the stuff, but for now, it's only available in Something Better dishes or pre-packaged from the Something Better cafe. There are different varieties of BTM. The "chicken" wings and ground "beef" have a brown rice base, while the shredded chicken and steak have a sturdier soy base. But Something Better doesn't just make BTM. If it's at all assembled and it's on your plate, Chew, his baker or one of his cooks made it from scratch. The breads, wraps and pitas are baked in-house. The vegan cheese is Chew's own recipe. There are no mixes involved in the smoothies, carob brownies, salsa and hummus, and roughly half of all ingredients are organic.
The menu is divided into sandwich and wraps (with a brown rice option for the gluten-free), pita pizzas, stir-fries and salads. The sandwiches borrow from established flavor combinations — Honey BBQ Chicken, Asian Chicken and a Philly "Cheeze" Steak are among the offerings. We made the excellent decision to try the latter two and, while no one would be fooled into thinking there's flesh involved, we don't think that's actually the point. Both sandwiches were served warm, with no sides, but at $6.95, they're filling and affordable.
The BTM in the Philly had a chewy, melt-in-your-mouth texture that reminded us of perfectly tender pulled pork. It was loaded with juicy flavor, complements of the caramelized onions and sauteed bell peppers. The pinkish-orange "cheeze" was too creamy to resemble actual melted cheese, but it made a nice salty-sweet dressing. And it tasted much cleaner than the ultra-processed gloop used on non-vegan cheese steak sandwiches. The dense, toasted wheat bun tasted fresh, and the whole shebang was dressed with crisp lettuce, carrot shavings and tomato. The Asian Chicken wheat wrap was an altogether different experience — we're hard pressed to say which we enjoyed more. This version of the BTM had a sort of scrambled egg texture, and the overall sandwich was wetter. In that first bite, we crushed juicy tomatoes alongside the BTM, spicy sauteed onions and green peppers. There was a generous dousing of housemade sweet and sour sauce, and the outer wrap was slightly grilled, so that it was both crusty and soft.
Though we're sure these are some extensively engineered sandwiches made with thoughtful ingredients, they tasted simple — and that's what made them delicious and satisfying. Their brilliance, the reason even carnivores probably devour them with gusto, is that they're familiar enough to be comforting and novel enough to be interesting.
Later we sampled the Shitake Blend stir-fry. This may be the most supreme experience you can purchase for $7.95. The stir-fries come with a choice of whole grain linguine or brown rice. We strongly recommend the homemade linguine, which had a fluffy texture and its own nutty flavor. Like all fresh pastas, it also had the added benefit of extra absorbency, making it a prime carrier for the meld of garlic and cooked veggie juices. There was broccoli, carrot, purple cabbage and some type of pungent leafy green, offset by the smokiness of the shitake mushrooms. Everything was moist, nothing was oily, and there were plenty of subtleties — such as the umami of the grain and a hint of garlicky warmth — hiding under the loud, earthy tones.
Something Better also sells party food, in the form of vegan chicken wings that go single serving or in bulk. We ordered them mild and ended up with child-friendly BTM cylinders, more akin to nuggets than wings, plastered with a sticky honey BBQ sauce. We can't really picture these paired with beer and football, but they're definitely preferable to a McDonald's Happy Meal.
We also sampled a yummy Tropical Green smoothie, made from tart pineapple, kale and zesty parsley, and a couple of desserts. A carrot juice smoothie with kale (menu-touted as a digestive and antioxidant) was pleasantly surprising. It was thinner and much more drinkable than our previous experiences with fresh juiced carrot, and the glucose-laden carrot was neutralized by the bitter kale. The carob brownie (sans chocolate), sweetened with evaporated cane sugar, was our favorite dessert. It was moist, with a sweet, roasted coffee flavor and a hint of some other spice — nutmeg, maybe?
We didn't try the salads, and honestly, we don't know why they're even on the menu. Vegans eat way too many restaurant salads as is, and we doubt many people would unnecessarily go that route. Maybe they're for the gluten-free folks? The only thing that we didn't unequivocally love was the Double-Cheeze-O-Lux pita pizza. Maybe if we'd ordered a pizza with more toppings, things would have gone a little better. The "cheese" was a bit gelatinous, particularly after it cooled, and we tend to prefer crispy pizza crust to pita. We know earlier we dismissed the whole suspension of disbelief thing but in this instance, we were hoping for something a little more recognizably pizza-flavored. But for the record, plenty of vegan pita pizza fans seem to congregate on Something Better's Facebook page, and there are at least a dozen other menu options that, based on first impressions, we're sure we will eventually love. Those are way better odds than at nearly any traditional restaurant. So yeah, for a pair of conscientious eaters like us, this place did turn out to be something better.
1466 N. College Ave., Fayetteville
Chef Chew's mission is twofold. In addition to serving vegan food, he is a vegan lifestyle educator. Chew thinks veganism is an essential key to health — that of the individual and of the local and global communities. Next month Something Better will offer a 60-day introduction to veganism. For $120 a week, participants get two take-home meals a day, options to attend cooking demonstrations and home visits from a visiting team of vegan healthcare consultants.
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
No alcohol. CC accepted. Closed on Saturdays.