I am not a vegan. And even though I know McDonald’s is notorious for being unhealthy, I’d say once a month, I get a craving for a taste of the burgers, chicken nuggets, and fries that seem to evoke so much nostalgia. That’s why I decided to stop by Mr. Charlie’s, a combination art installation and vegan fast food joint, in Los Angeles to see how it riffed on a classic McDonald’s meal.
McDonald’s has been open since 1955 and is now a household name worldwide, with 40,031 restaurants across at least 120 countries in 2021. McDonald’s USA has its own plans for a vegan option in the US, with the McPlant now being tested in 600 locations in San Francisco Bay and Dallas-Fort Worth area. But a small business in Los Angeles has decided to create its own version of a vegan fast-food burger. After spotting multiple TikToks depicting Mr. Charlie’s on La Brea Avenue, a self-described “Exhibition of Plants,” I knew I had to go inside and try it. I love trying vegan food and feeling like I’m putting something a little bit healthier in my body — even if it is fast food.
Driving up to the restaurant was a typical LA experience because I had to search for parking. But you can’t miss Mr. Charlie’s when you drive by. The bright red building is adorned with the yellow smile turned upside down — a reference, and a play on, the iconic McDonald’s design.
Once I parked, I walked to the front of the store and noticed tiny yellow stools adorned the food counter outside to sit on while enjoying your meal. The sign outside, which was “La la la la la it’s vegan,” was clearly Mr. Charlie’s version of the “I’m lovin’ it,” McDonald’s motto. The building’s design gave me those same feelings of childhood nostalgia but in a way that felt more mature and grown-up.
I ordered the food online beforehand because I had expected a long line, but in the middle of the day on a Thursday, the restaurant wasn’t crowded. I walked inside and took in what was much less like the international chain restaurant than I expected. Trap music roared out of loudspeakers while only a few workers seemed to be staffing the restaurant. The TikTok speculation that Mr. Charlie’s was actually an elaborate art exhibit seemed to be true. Ronald McDonald was nowhere to be found. Instead, pop art portraits of Marilyn Monroe hung above the counter and on the walls. The artwork seemed to spoof both Andy Warhol and McDonald’s while positioning Mr. Charlie’s as a piece of pop art in its own right. One of those old claw machines that you might find in an arcade was also on display, but it was out of order. There’s also an upstairs area, but it was roped off at the time I stopped by.
My order was ready when I arrived. I ordered two so-called Frowny Meals (again, a reference to the McDonald’s Happy Meal), which come with what Mr. Charlie’s has named the not a hamburger,” four plant-based nuggets, fries and a drink for $15. I paid extra to turn my not a hamburger into a double not a cheeseburger, which comes with vegan cheese. The chef let me know there was a bottle opener on the wall for my classic bottled Cokes. I headed back to my car to eat because the street was a bit loud and busy. I opened my box and found it was not packaged as neatly as a typical Happy Meal. I bit into my plant-based burger and was surprised at how fresh everything tasted. The bun was freshly toasted, and it was a typical all-American burger with pickles, ketchup, and mustard. I moved on to the nuggets and was impressed. The flavor was from the processed nuggets that are served at McDonald’s. I wasn’t a fan of the mystery white sauce they offered with it. It might have been trying to mimic ranch dressing but didn’t even come close. The fries were a little cold because I ordered in advance. They weren’t as crispy, but they were well salted.
All in all, I would return to Mr. Charlie’s. The food tasted good, but the joy was definitely in the whimsy of the design and the cheeky references to McDonald’s scattered throughout the restaurant and on the menu. Since I went, Mr. Charlie’s has added a not a chicken sandwich on the menu. For vegans and non-vegans alike, Mr. Charlie’s will hit the spot, but if you’re expecting the food to taste exactly like what you ate growing up, you may be disappointed. After all, McDonald’s has remained wildly popular all these years for a reason.