We tried the ‘vegan McDonald’s’

There’s a new fast food restaurant on La Brea Avenue, south of Melrose. The facade is kept in the familiar fire engine red. The name “Mr. Charlie’s” is written in bright yellow letters above a yellow frown. Squat yellow stools, like those you would likely find in a kindergarten classroom, line the front of the building for seating. If you drive by at a certain speed, you might mistake it for a McDonald’s.

This is the restaurant that TikTokers refer to as “Vegan McDonald’s” even though it’s not McDonald’s at all. In fact it’s the opposite.

Almost 4 million people watched as Lizzo reviewed Mr. Charlie’s Frowny Meal on TikTok. Countless users have posted videos walking around the room looking at this T-shirts upstairs and the artwork that looks like Marilyn Monroe and Ronald McDonald’s love child all over the walls.

Owner Charlie Kim wanted to open a restaurant that would offer plant-based versions of well-known fast-food items. The Not a Hamburger ($6) is an impossible burger with pickles, mustard, ketchup, and diced onions. The Not a Cheeseburger ($7) adds vegan cheese to the party. And the Double Not ($8) includes double Impossible patties, double vegan cheese. The Not Chicken Nuggets ($7) are made with impossible nuggets and the fries ($5) are fries.

In lieu of a Happy Meal, Mr. Charlie’s offers a Frowny Meal (a Not a Burger, fries, nuggets, and a drink, $15 to $17 depending on burger choice). The food is served in red boxes adorned with Mr. Charlie’s name and the Frown logo. Below the upside-down smile are the words “The Unhappie Meal.”

A vegan hamburger on a bun, photographed on a red background.

Mr. Charlie’s Not a Cheeseburger made with Impossible meat and plant-based cheese.

(Aaron Haxton)

“McDonald’s who?” said Kim in a recent phone call.

I asked him about the restaurant’s similarities and references to McDonald’s.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “I really want people to eat plant-based foods. That is the goal here.”

#veganmcdonalds has 1.1 million views on TikTok. We’ve reached out to McDonald’s for comment on its vegan lookalike – we’re still awaiting feedback.

After graduating from UCLA and taking a job in corporate marketing, Kim, 35, quit his career to help his parents run Aria, the family’s Korean street food restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2019, he wanted to open an Aria location. But after having a baby and his wife following a plant-based diet, Kim began adopting a more vegan diet for himself and his family.

“Growing up, I ate a lot of fast food,” Kim said. “I’m a big guy, I play hockey and I was used to eating meat and all that heavy stuff. I want to be healthier to take care of my family.”

He opened Mr. Charlie’s on Valentine’s Day as a restaurant and pop-up event space. The ground floor houses the restaurant and a small display case advertising merchandise from collaborations with various artists and brands. Upstairs is a space where these brands and artists can showcase their work or products for free.

Some TikTok users indicate that the price of the Frowny Meal is almost $20. Kim notes that the restaurant’s mission is about more than just food.

“I wanted to do something more for the planet, but also make room for community involvement,” he said.

Mr. Charlie’s seven employees are all from Dream Center, a nationwide organization that provides housing, resources and training for people emerging from homelessness or incarceration.

Each full-time manager receives a Capital One credit card in addition to compensation.

“We pay each member $300 a month for incidentals like gas to help them build their credit ratings,” Kim said.

Chase Garcia, who directs the transition program at Dream Center, said, “You [Mr. Charlie’s] have hired several Dream Center residents and some have already moved out since working there due to wages they earn and management opportunities.”

Kim has lofty goals for the future of Mr. Charlie’s and is looking for restaurant partners interested in converting their spaces into Mr. Charlie’s locations.

A red fast food box, wrapped vegan burger, cup of fries and scattered vegan nuggets.

Mr. Charlie’s Frowny Meal includes a Not a Burger, Impossible Nuggets, fries and a drink.

(Aaron Haxton)

“If you have a failing fast food restaurant anywhere in the country and you need help and we can support it, we depend on Mr. Charlie, your space and partner with you,” he said. “We can work with your employees and keep those jobs.”

How does the food taste? With no traditional culinary background, Kim said he wanted it to be “simple.”

“People will already know the food is vegan, so I don’t want them to be like, ‘This is so vegan,'” he said. “I want it to taste like a real burger.”

I recently tried a Frowny Meal paired with an actual McDonald’s cheeseburger.

The McDonald’s bun was dry. The patty tasted like the last patty at a backyard grill—that overcooked, that hid under a lettuce leaf and got cold and hard as the afternoon wore on.

Mr. Charlie’s bun was toasted with a welcome layer of fat. The patty was noticeably thicker. Decorated with diced onions and spices, the sandwich was, let’s say, 38% better than the real thing.

“This is just the beginning,” Kim said. “I want this to be the biggest movement in the vegan world.”

612 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, We tried the ‘vegan McDonald’s’

Russell Falcon

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