Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
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.