Should a vegan restaurant be judged by a vegan or by a committed carnivore? If it's not meat, why call it a "burger" and if it's not dairy, why call it "cheese"? Are vegans insufferable snowflakes, are meat-eaters closed-minded trolls, or are some people just assholes no matter what they eat? These and other unanswerable questions filled the air during our interminable drive to Windermere to try out Orlando's latest vegan-trying-to-go-mainstream restaurant, Humbl. After a journey so long it felt akin to the walk into Mordor (by the time we got there, I was strongly considering keeping the Ring for myself), we had given up on the imponderables and were simply ravenous.
Despite its location in a half-empty shopping plaza, Humbl's customer base isn't humble – on this Sunday afternoon, employees were kept on the hop by a steady stream of lunching couples and a high-school gymnastics team festively swathed in kinesio tape. The space itself is small but slick, with a long bar wrapped in black penny tile and a strict orange-black-white color scheme. We ordered fries, a grain bowl, a burger and two pizzas at the counter and were given a number to take back to our table, which was unfortunately directly under an ice-cold AC vent. When our cheese fries were delivered, the Arctic blast hardened the gooey cheese within 90 seconds ¬ good thing the fries were nuclear-hot, so at least the underside stayed melty. The fries themselves were some of the best I've had in ages: crisp outside, yielding inside, and perfectly oversalted. I'm not a fan of that liquidy queso stuff, which always goes plasticky, dairy or not; this did too, but it tasted a lot better than the stuff out of a can.
Let's get the burger out of the way, since so much of the discourse around vegan food seems to pivot on meat qua meat. The "can you call it a burger if there's no meat" question is a non-starter in my book – a nothingburger, if you will. Can you call it a burger if it's a disk-shaped protein in a bun? Yes. Did Humbl's Truffle burger have a similar flavor and texture to a ground beef burger? No, and that shouldn't be the measure of whether it's good or not. The measure of whether it's good should be whether you enjoy it. Unfortunately, in this case, I did not. Like most house-made vegan burgers, which blend vegetables and legumes, Humbl's patty comprises a crisp crust over a mushy inside. The 17-ingredient mix was complex and flavorful, but the texture wasn't pleasing (to me, anyway; my vegan dining companion enjoyed it). But we both appreciated the smoky tomato confit and chunky, herb-spiked crimini mushroom confit. The bun was surprisingly flavorless, somehow too dry and too soft at the same time, though the creamy truffle spread improved it somewhat.
The Humbl bowl was served in a cardboard takeout box, which did it no favors. Even after some follow-up queries, it's unclear whether this is the usual presentation or a one-time thing, but it was a shame. The base was typical hippie-style brown rice: chewy, fluffy and somewhat bland, a virtuous background player rather than the showy basmati or Japanese short-grain some bowls feature. The curry-dusted cauliflower was a stunner, deeply dark-roasted with plenty of crunchy bits, satisfyingly oily, and well-complemented by the bright yellow turmeric sauce, sharp with malty vinegar. The stiff scoop of coriander yogurt mixed with pistachio rubble felt like an afterthought.
But the pizzas stole the show, and this was not a foregone conclusion. My dining partner is resigned (though he might not agree with that word choice) to fake cheese, whereas I have never found one even tolerable, much less gratifying; I also think the cheese is the best part of a pizza. We tried the "Shroom" and the "Meat Lovers" and both were fantastic. The crust was bready, crisp outside and a bit squishy inside like focaccia. It didn't have much seasoning, though some char helped out, but it was firm enough to hold up under vegetable toppings, which usually release so much moisture that they'll destroy a thin crust. The Shroom was a no-cheese rendition, spread with a mushroom white sauce and topped with a mix of savory wild mushrooms and a bramble of brightly lemony kale, tasty enough that I'd've eaten it all by itself. The perversely named "Meat Lovers" had a marinara base, more of that divine roasted cauliflower, a scatter of shiitake "bacon" slices and fennel-farro "sausage" crumbles, and dollops of macadamia-nut "ricotta" all under cashew-based "mozzarella." The mozzarella was tolerable; the ricotta was enjoyable; and the bacon and sausage were deeply satisfying. Both held up well under a night in the fridge and a next-day reheat.
Dessert choices include soft-serve ice cream, cupcakes, cookies and a "brookie" (a cookie-dough-topped brownie) that we'll definitely try next time. After stuffing ourselves with fries and pizza, though, cake seemed excessive, vegan or not. So we split a plain vanilla milkshake (for research purposes, of course) and found it completely un-boring. It was as thick as a concrete and zippy with pure vanilla tang – not humble in the slightest.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 9, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.