By Frier McCollister

Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

Plant-based burgers are not a trend likely to go away anytime soon and if Kiran Raina succeeds with his current scheme, Cowless, Pasadena will soon have its own vegan burger joint.

For now, the results of Kiran’s vegan burger experiments can be sampled in South Pasadena, where Cowless recently opened as a pop-up operating out of Aro Latin on Mission Street.

Raina’s father, Karan, owns Aro and his Indian restaurant Radhika is just down the block. The two restaurants reflect the Raina family’s ethnic background. Karan is Indian and Hindu while his wife, Cindy Garcia, is Mexican. It’s an impressive and successful family empire that is about to spawn a new generation of activity.

Kiran, 24, grew up in the family business.

“I was 12 years old, when I first started working or volunteering,” Kiran said. “I started with washing dishes. I did that for a year and a busboy for four or five years. When I turned 17, I was allowed to take tables. When I was turning 18, I was old enough to have my own opinion. So, my dad and I obviously started clashing a lot because we’re the exact same person. We butt heads. The best thing that ever happened was that he opened Aro and I was transplanted over here.”

For the last two and half years, he’s been serving as the restaurant’s vice president of operations. That said, since the advent of the pandemic, he’s been running a vegan burger lab out of Aro’s kitchen.

Although, the Raina family observed the Hindu prohibition on eating beef, the otherwise omnivorous restaurant family was not vegetarian.

Kiran explained his personal vegan journey.

“About six years ago — my last year in high school — I had suffered with a lot of injuries throughout my life, ankle injuries,” he said.

“I was putting on weight at the time. (I said,) ‘I’m done. I’ve got to start taking care of my body.’ So, I became pescatarian. After becoming pescatarian for two months, I was like, ‘This is easy. Let me just become vegetarian.’ I went to vegetarian for like 30 days and I went to vegan straight away, cold turkey for three years of straight vegan.”

The results of his change in habits were dramatic.

“My dad jokes about it,” Kiran said. “I used to eat seven pork tacos every night after work. No lie, actually seven tacos. I ended up losing 100 pounds after going vegan — in eight months. I went from 264 to 162 in eight months. I never felt better in my life.” 

His younger sister, Chandnee, 22, followed her brother’s vegan lead with similar success. “Something’s going on here. My sister is still eating Hot Cheetos and drinking Dr. Pepper and she lost 30 pounds. She looks amazing.”

As plant-based burgers began to proliferate, Kiran took note as he sampled the available options. His father also provided a goad to his son’s vegan ambitions.

“Cowless became a thing because I was eating vegan burgers a lot,” he said. “My dad would always joke, ‘We own restaurants. We can make a better version ourselves. You’ve been cooking. It’s not rocket science. You’re already good at what you do. I’m sure you can make a better version of the burger.’ We joked about it and a year went by.”

The pandemic lockdown arrived just as Kiran returned from a trip to India. His vegan burger lab launched in earnest.

“COVID happened,” Kiran said. “I started R&D just to pass time. Everybody was sad. No money was coming in. The kitchen wasn’t being used. We were getting two orders a day, if we were lucky. It was just me and my chef back there.”

The trip to India revealed fresh approaches and inspiration. 

“(In India) I was eating, more frequently than not, their version of fast food,” Kiran said. “Because they’re predominantly vegetarian, their McDonald’s have something called paneer tikki or aloo tikki, which is a fried potato patty.”

Kiran credited his Aro’s two chefs — Kelvin Romero and Javier Estrella — for collaborating with him on the project.

“Javier is classically trained and Kelvin worked in a French bistro, so they’re both very talented,” Kiran said. “They have more of a refined approach to cooking. I have a great palate but I’m like a tornado in the kitchen.”

While R&D continues on a fresh formula, the vegan burgers served at Cowless are Beyond Meat patties.

“We did some research,” Kiran said. “Beyond Meat and Impossible are the biggest ones in the space. We ended up choosing Beyond Meat. It’s easier to get and for me it tastes better than Impossible. And most of our competitors use Impossible. I want to be different.”

Although the menu at Cowless is sparse, the burgers have been designed to maximize tastiness and satisfaction. That said, the sampled side dishes all complemented the burgers admirably and provided further proof that these guys are serious.

There are two burgers, a single ($11) and a double ($14). Each is served with a housemade spread, caramelized onions tossed in a chipotle aioli, topped with vegan cheddar cheese, tomatoes and pickles, served on a bun glazed with avocado oil.

In a nod to his mother’s Latin background, Kiran devised his take on asada fries ($14) that incorporates an asada-seasoned patty crumbled over fries or tots with melted vegan cheddar, sour cream and pico de gallo. In addition to fresh guacamole ($9) and a requisite kale salad ($14), there are brussels sprouts ($9), flash fried with onions, vinegar and lemon juice as well as roasted cauliflower ($9) seared with coconut milk, bell peppers, onions and tossed in a house pesto. All are superb.

Kiran expects to maintain the pop-up at Aro for the next several months, while he looks to find a permanent location for the concept.

“The goal is that by the time we move out, we have a solid customer base,” Kiran said. “With R&D, right now it’s still heavy. We’re still messing with the paneer. We’re still messing with aloo tikki. Before we move out, we want to have another staple second burger.”

He sees opportunity in Pasadena.

“There isn’t a vegan burger joint in Pasadena,” Kiran said. “Who is giving that homestyle experience at a decent price? I’m not the only fool eating vegan food here. They exist. You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy my burger. We do things differently. We want it to feel soulful.”