“I want my babyback, babyback, babyback …” Can you name the jingle? Chili’s seared the tune into our heads for years while promoting its famed baby back ribs. So what’s a vegan to eat at a restaurant known for barbecue-slathered rib cages? Plenty. The next time you’re seated in a plush red booth or hightop with a giant chili anchored on the wall in front of you, pull up this guide to order the best vegan eats at Chili’s.
How to order vegan when dining out
Before diving into the specifics of the Chili’s restaurant menu, it helps to know what to look for when seeking out vegan options at non-vegan eateries.
The first tier is to look for a vegan menu—some chains and quite a few independent establishments now offer a dedicated menu for plant-based patrons. The second tier is dedicated vegan items. Each company signifies these animal-free options differently—V, VG, Vegan, or a carrot or leaf icon are the most common. Scan the bottom of the menu to look for the key and ensure the icon stands for vegan, not vegetarian.
Chili’s doesn’t offer a dedicated vegan menu, but it does offer a vegan/vegetarian/allergen menu online that indicates vegan-as-is items and denotes common allergens.
When a restaurant does not label its vegan-friendly items, that’s when you get creative and ask for help. First, look at the sides. These are often vegetable or grain-based and are naturally vegan or can be modified as such. Steamed or roasted vegetables, fries, side salads, beans, and more are usually fair game. All of these options are available at Chili’s, making it easy to cobble together a filling meal if you can’t find a satisfying entrée option.
After scanning the sides, look at the salads, but don’t get your hopes up. Many colossal chain restaurants (like Chili’s) go heavy on the meat and cheese for their entreée salads, and putting a plant-based spin on them may reduce a $20 salad down to sad lettuce. Modify to the best of your ability by removing any animal products, choosing a vegan dressing, and omitting croutons (they often contain dairy).
Priscilla Du Preez
The overall strategy when assessing an omnivore menu is to go back to your food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, and protein in the form of beans, tofu, or plant-based meats. Find these items, ensure they’re not paired with animal ingredients, and you can hack your way through any menu.
A note of importance: once you decide on your order and modifications, tell your server you are vegan and double check that your request is free from animal products.
Looking at the menu and not seeing a single vegan thing? Ask the chef. Some chefs are more than happy to accommodate a vegan diet. You’re more likely to encounter a flexible chef in an independently owned, table service restaurant as opposed to fast-casual or a large chain, but it never hurts to ask. Some people may pleasantly surprise you.
How to order vegan at Chili’s
The next time you find yourself at Chili’s check out these options for a vegan-friendly meal.
The Chili’s menu is a bit of a chain restaurant smorgasbord. The eclectic selection brings to mind a taste of Outback Steakhouse, On the Border, and TGI Friday’s. As such, you’ll find Tex-Mex staples such as guacamole and chips and salsa—all of which are vegan. For a more interesting app, order the fried pickles without ranch. While these briny bites are coated in a vegan batter, note that these are the only egg-free fried option. Alas, the Awesome Blossom Petals (fried onions) are not vegan. A few other appetizers are animal-free with modifications. The Classic Nachos can be ordered vegan by omitting the meat, cheese, queso, and sour cream. You’re left with tortilla chips, pico de gallo, guacamole, black beans, jalapeños, and shredded lettuce. If fries are more your thing, ask to substitute fries for chips underneath these toppings for a cast-iron skillet full of loaded fries. Note: a fryer is shared between the fries and fried chicken.
Every salad at Chili’s comes with meat, cheese, or a combination of the two, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a vegan green here. For a salad that has a little more to it than just chopped lettuce, opt for the Grilled Chicken Salad (no cheese, chicken, or honey-lime vinaigrette) or the fruity Caribbean Salad (no shrimp or honey-lime dressing). Request a side of the Citrus Balsamic Vinaigrette and avocado to add even more substance to your bowl of greens. If you’re looking for something basic to accompany a larger main, the House Salad made with romaine, tomatoes, red onion, and cucumbers is vegan when ordered with no croutons or cheese.
3 Big Mouth Burgers
Chili’s has some work to do in the burger department. While it does offer a black bean patty, it contains milk and eggs, and the only bun option is an egg- and milk-based brioche. Here’s some homework: call your local Chili’s or write in to corporate and politely request a vegan patty and bun. We’re sure a number of plant-based meat brands would be more than happy to be a Chili’s supplier.
The kitchen offers a vegetarian option for these sizzling plates by using the same egg- and dairy-infused black bean patty offered for the vegetarian burger option. For a completely plant-based skillet of sizzling veggies, swap the patty for plain black beans and request no queso fresco, chipotle butter, cheese, sour cream, or Santa Fe Sauce. You’ll receive a piping-hot cast-iron plate loaded with black beans, grilled peppers and onions, mushrooms, roasted asparagus, corn and black bean salsa, fresh avocado, and Mexican rice with a side of flour or corn tortillas. Dig in.
5 Bowl Hacks
You won’t find a menu subsection with this title, but if you look under the Chicken & Seafood section, you’ll find two Fresh Mex Bowls. These are layered with field greens, Mexican rice, pico de gallo, corn and black bean salsa, avocado, cilantro, and tortilla strips—all of which are vegan-friendly. Just request no meat, pesto, cheese, and ranch, and you’ve got yourself a flavorful beans-and-rice bowl. Add chopped mango for a fruity accent.
Chili’s isn’t a steakhouse, but it does offer steakhouse-adjacent sides. Vegan options include steamed broccoli, plain corn on the cob, roasted asparagus, and fries. Ask for a side of the Original Barbecue Sauce (which is vegan) for dipping. On the Tex-Mex side, the corn and flour tortillas, Mexican rice, black beans, grilled avocado, guacamole, salsa, and pico de gallo are vegan as well. You could easily build your own tacos from that hearty spread.