Whether it’s for moral, health or environmental reasons, more and more Americans are re-evaluating how they interact with meat on a daily basis.
I gave up meat six months ago, and it was a difficult step.
Large portions of menus are off limits to me now. Things that used to bring me great joy are figuratively, and in many cases literally, off the table. My favorite food, cheeseburgers, are also a thing of the past.
But what about veggie burgers? Is there such a thing as a perfect veggie burger? Is there even such a thing as good veggie burger? Over the past six months this question has become something of an obsession for me. It’s led me to ask a lot of difficult questions and to ponder the essential purpose of burgers.
One of my first thoughts was that a good veggie burger shouldn’t try to taste like meat. Meat tastes like meat and nothing can replace it. But can a veggie burger do the same things that meat does without trying to taste like cow?
What is it about meat that we love? The saltiness, the gaminess, a certain kind of umami. Good meat has a sort of tang to it, which it gets from the sharp taste of blood I suppose. What do these tastes mean outside the realm of meat?
Salty, tangy, umami, a certain joyful fattiness — all these things are required, but there is more.
Here’s the downfall of a lot of burgers: Call me crazy, but you should be able to eat a burger with your hands. The burger should stay inside the bun, not smoosh out the sides and require you to get a knife and fork. To reference the supposed birth of sandwiches, you should be able to continue playing cards as you chow down.
So let’s add structural cohesion to that list of desired attributes.
What follows is by no means an exhaustive list of local options. Us vegetarians are lucky enough that most restaurants now have veggie burgers and veggie options. This is the stuff I’ve eaten in the last six months, in the course of my regular activities.
For my first several months, even the most delicious veggie burgers I had were at best adequate. It was pretty depressing. A sea of mediocre black bean concoctions, and even a few local spots that had the gall to bring me a patty that obviously came frozen from Restaurant Supply.
I was kinda losing heart. Sure, I hadn’t eaten at every place in Louisville, but the emerging pattern seemed clear. There were some acceptable burgers out there but nothing great. Nothing that could fill the void left by beef.
Then I learned the most important (and in hindsight obvious) lesson of veggie life. Talk to other vegetarians. Duh.
The first excellent burger I discovered was the offering at Four Pegs. This restaurant is literally a block away from my house, so I’ve eaten it more than any other burger on this list.
Four Pegs fries some vegetables, adds some falafel to make it a patty, puts the patty in an egg bath, then deep fries the whole thing. It’s amazing, and it holds its structure. Ask them to put the dill sauce on it for an extra treat. As said, I love this burger and have eaten it frequently. But it doesn’t really hit the burger pleasure centers in my brain. It’s more like some cool middle eastern fusion sandwich. It also kinda feels like deep frying this baby makes it belong on some other list.
I had originally avoided Hammerheads as well as their meat-centric offshoot Game. I assumed that restaurants that were so well known for what they do with flesh would be lackluster in their treatment of veggies. Thankfully a friend set me straight, as nothing could be further from the truth.
On the terms of sheer taste and variety of flavor, the trio of veggie burgers (two at Game, one at Hammerheads) that these restaurants offer can’t be beat. If you cornered me and demanded I name a favorite, it would probably be the corn, poblano, and garbanzo burger at Game. I’ll be making repeat trips to sample all three of the veggie burgers from co-chefs/co-owners Adam Burres and Chase Mucerino.
Unfortunately these are knife and fork burgers all the way. I mean, you can (and I do) eat them with your hands, but it’s a huge mess, with (very tasty) grease and slime all over the place when it’s over. Not for vegetarians on a first date, that’s for sure. So while I love these fiercely and can’t wait to eat them again, I can’t proclaim them perfect.
The Silver Dollar serves up a chick pea (aka garbanzo bean) burger that is only pretty good in and of itself, but is elevated by its fixins. Whether it’s the smokiness of the grilled tomato slice or the salty tang of the olive puree, what’s outside this patty is as important as what’s in it. The smokey/salty combo provide some essentially burgerish tastes that are missing in many of this list’s offerings. Plus, the kitchen is open till midnight, making The Silver Dollar my new go-to for post-theater food.
The burger held up well for the first several bites, but all those amazing fixin’s started to slide after that, and sadly, my last couple of bites all seemed to lack at least one of the crucial ingredients.
Grind offers a veggie patty made of chickpeas, lentils, quinoa, and seasonal veggies. It’s a good base, and it’s salty as well as just a little crunchy and chewy on the outermost layer. It’s also got that good fatty chickpea taste that almost makes you not miss animal lard. Personally I think the way it comes dressed (lettuce tomato, onion, smoked ketchup) doesn’t do it the patty any favors, so I suggest asking the kitchen to add a little pimento cheese. Also get some pimento cheese for your fries.
The burger even stands up under the vicious barrage of my teeth, holding its structural integrity till the last bite.
I’m tempted to say the combination of flavor and eatability make this the best burger, but I have to be fair and acknowledge that this is the one I ate for lunch today. That’s a pretty unfair advantage. Each of these burgers has dominated my thoughts after my first taste, and each has caused repeated meals at their respective establishments.
As much as I love each of these burgers, I still haven’t found perfection. I’ll keep looking, and I hope to enjoy every bite of the search.