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All photos courtesy of Vegandalefest.com

Hot dogs! Fried chicken! Mozzarella sticks! What?!

At first glance, the field of white tents, vibrant signs, and throngs of happy, hungry people could have been any food festival. But it wasn’t.

Hundreds lined up for fried sandwiches, grilled kabobs, and gooey comfort food. Only here, the chicken, shrimp, and cheese were imposters. Friendly imposters. This was Vegandale.

The traveling food festival pitched tents on Randall’s Island in New York City on a recent weekend, bringing 150 vendors from across North America. They offered food, drink, clothing, accessories — and even dog treats for ethically minded pups.

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The event, which travels to Miami, Chicago, Toronto, NYC, and Houston, grew out of Vegandale, a city block in Toronto, that’s become a mecca for vegans. Now in its fifth season, Vegandale set down in New York City in October, and will appear in Houston November 9.

Vegandale offers an illuminating view of the vegan food and drink scene. And even if you’re not vegan, you’ll find plenty to make you rethink your notions of health (meat-free) food. Here are some highlights and surprises from our visit to Vegandale 2019.

Just because you don’t eat meat doesn’t mean you don’t crave meat

Ethics create restrictions. But even if individuals have committed to a plant-based life, many still seem to want the taste of eating meat, fish, cheese, dessert — and more dessert.

And based on what we saw at Vegandale, they want it to look like the real thing. It may seem counterintuitive to emulate the very foods you’ve removed from your diet, but then again — the craving for cheese is strong.

Some things looked so real it was almost freaky

Vegan Rich, a food truck from North Carolina, was pulling a crowd with their impressive shrimp and veggie skewers that had us asking: Is that real shrimp?

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Nope. A member of this family of life-long vegans was happy to show us a frozen bag of “shrimp.”

It was made of water, curdlan gum, konjac powder, modified tapioca starch, potato starch, soy protein powder, sea tangle extract, yeast extract powder, raw cane sugar, sea salt, spices, white pepper powder, rice vinegar, and paprika oleoresin.

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Stanley’s Polish Pierogi offered dumplings filled with potatoes and jalapeño, and sauerkraut and mushrooms, all topped with traditional browned onions. YUM. That’s what we call real food with straight-up ingredients.

Surprise, surprise: Fried foods drew the longest lines

Maybe you’re thinking: That doesn’t seem so healthy. But, hey, it’s a food festival after all, and Vegandale President Hellenic Vincent De Paul says he wants to give vegans the comfort food they’re craving.

The line for Lettuce Feast, an LA-based food truck, stretched clear across the field. They were serving their Chicken Sando and Cajun fries.

Oh My Cod, “Florida’s first vegan seafood shack,” drew a long line with vegan fish and chips.

Speaking of fried, the weirdest food we tried…

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Fried watermelon balls. This is a cultural mash-up between southern American food and Philippino. They dip the watermelon balls in grandma’s pink cake batter, then deep fry it, and top it with icing.

Kind of like eating a donut, with the surprise of a fresh juicy watermelon inside.

Yes, we made you wait for it: Best food we tried at the festival…

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Destination Dumplings represents everything the Vegandale festival is about. Chef Tristan is of Chinese-Jamaican heritage, and grew up in Flushing, Queens, where a rich immigrant culture has influenced his dumplings.

They’re handmade, distinguished by their light wrappers and highly seasoned fillings. Butternut squash dumpling is spiced with curry, a reference to his neighborhood. He’s making 20,000 dumplings a day and attends every big event in NYC.

Final thoughts: The vegan cliché we need to move past…

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“Vegans” aren’t just skinny 20-somethings munching on salads. The movement is multi-cultural, inclusive, all ages, sizes, and shapes. The roots of eating plant-based run deep in food traditions for Indian, Jamaican, Chinese, and European cultures.

And vegan food isn’t just tofu and seaweed. It’s surprising, indulgent, innovative, and, dare we say it… utterly delicious.

Elizabeth Keyser is a veteran food writer and restaurant reviewer based in Fairfield, CT.