May is burger month, so it seems almost obligatory that Squid Ink get around to one of those “Best of” lists. But after eating 30 burgers in 30 days, declaring our favorite upscale burger and chowing down on five of our favorite burger stands, there didn't seem to be much ground left to cover. Thankfully, an office full of waistline-minded food writers suddenly worried about their summer figures provided the answer: veggie burgers. After all of this talk about butchers and beef and salt and fat and cheese and — uh oh, we're getting hungry again — it seemed only fair to give veggie burgers their due.
With a wide array of base ingredients that included everything from brown rice to yams to mushrooms to that wheat gluten putty known as seitan, it wasn't easy to compare and contrast the veggie burgers on offer around town. Some opted for real cheese, some for no cheese, others for vegan cheese. More than one location tried to make their veggie burgers as actual-burger-like as possible, while many proudly vegan restaurants shaved and pressed their way into a finished product that didn't look (or taste) anything like a juicy moo-burger. Still, there was a patty, a bun, some toppings and a slathering of condiments. Sounds like a burger to us. So after weeks of veg-heavy noshing, from upscale vegan eateries to the vegetarian options that almost seem like afterthoughts on some menus, these are the best veggie burgers we found.
10. Astro Burger
There's something oddly satisfying about Astro Burger's Gardenburger veggie option. Even with a blend of mushrooms, onions and whole grains, there's not much going on inside, and the soy-based vegan burger doesn't fare much better either. Rather, the Gardenburger acts as sort of a toppings raft, floating along on your taste bud stream, carrying crunchy leaf lettuce and a few thin slips of tomato, with splashes of ketchup and mayonnaise. Still, that's not far off from what you'd get with a beef burger from any normal fast food joint, and the wheat bun is a nice upgrade from the powdery store-bought commercial white kind. Bonus points for a nice grill sear on the patty and plenty of upgrades, including pineapple, chiles and teriyaki sauce. 5601 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; 323-469-1924.
9. The Counter
It's easy to be overwhelmed by options at The Counter, and even easier for those options to overwhelm your beef there. But with The Counter's Vegan Veggie patty, there's no chance of that. With full corn kernels, brown rice, black beans, nuts, mushrooms and cranberries, this patty is the star of the show. Instead of overwhelming the slightly sweet, funky, nutty patty, keep it simple with a few tomato slices, some onion, lettuce and a drape of cheddar cheese. The only thing overwhelming your thick, slightly pasty patty will be the hefty multigrain bun, but some avocado creaminess ought to be enough to keep the cottonmouth at bay. Various locations nationwide.
8. 26 Beach
There's a lot to love about 26 Beach's gigantic burger menu, but their veggie burger is a surprise back-page hit. Made with a brown rice base, plus black beans, corn, nuts, carrots, lentils and soy, the patty is a bit crumbly but otherwise carries plenty of flavor and a nice sear from the grill. The pressed vegetable components come thick and warm, offering up a nice bite for regular beef burger eaters. A hefty slice of tomato brings freshness and acidity to the cooked patty, and a gooey layer of melted cheese rounds out the burger with a nice layer of fat. 3100 W. Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey; 310-823-7526.
Formerly Chili Addiction, this La Cienega spot has seriously upped its vegan options, including an entirely separate menu for those who doesn't get down with the bovine. Chef Johnny offers an array of sauces and amenities to spruce up the burgers, but opt for a classic THE Burger and you won't be disappointed. It still comes with your choice of sautéed onions and peppers, chili or sauerkraut, plus pickles made in-house. Even from the photo, this is a seriously meaty-looking burger, although it's actually just ground-up seitan and a secret blend of spices. Expect a mouthful of burger that triggers all of the usual beef sensors in your brain, but with a lot less of the fatty juices you'd come away with from a burger this monstrous. There are still plenty of earthy, satisfying bites, and the flaky wheat bun is a star in its own right. 408 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-203-1793.
6. M Café
Celebrities and plebes alike line up for The Big Macro at M Café, the popular Melrose macro eatery. And for good reason; the Big Macro is a brown rice and chopped veggie patty that focuses — correctly — on the ingredients surrounding it. You won't be fooling any meat eaters about the true nature of this burger, but there's a good chance they'll keep eating because the whole sandwich tastes great. All of the vegetable toppings, from the crisp lettuce to the onion, fleshy tomatoes and pile of sprouts, are seriously fresh. A thick run of soy mozzarella is the only real downfall, giving off an almost gritty mouthfeel that doesn't work with the rest of the stellar toppings. The snappy pickles and house baked wheat bun shine as well. 7119 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 323-525-0588.
You might have to grit your teeth while ordering from Cafe Gratitude's seriously hippie menu (for reference, the veggie burger is called the I Am Magical), but the results speak for themselves. The patty is a mix of beans, lentils and peppers that also includes some zippy apple cider vinegar and a taste of chipotles and jalapeños for heat. It's a nice burger to look at too, since it ends up tinged pink on the inside and comes stacked with lettuce tomato, onions, pickles and a spicy chipotle ketchup. There's some actual heat to this burger, and it's a welcome addition to a veggie burger landscape that often suffers from blandness. The organic bun, however, comes off more like slightly undercooked toast instead of the soft, pillowy whole wheat option found at several other spots on this list. 639 Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles (and other locations); 323-580-6383.
Orean doesn't seem like the type of place that should succeed. Stationed right next to a McDonald's on Lake Boulevard in Pasadena, they bill themselves as The Health Express and claims to be the first vegetarian fast-food spot around, having opened in 1979. There's a drive thru window and everything, which might lead you to lower your expectations when ordering. Thankfully, Orean shatters those expectations with a seriously delicious veggie burger. The regular Orean cheeseburger comes fast from the walk up window, but doesn't suffer much from the lack of a wait. Sure, there are haphazardly placed toppings just like any other fast food joint, but the brown rice patty is perhaps the tenderest version on this entire list. It's been well-griddled at the edges, which gives off a nice smoky crust in certain bites, while a thick slab of tomato on top smooths out the rest. The shredded cheddar cheese blend could do with a bit more melt, but the shredded lettuce and semi-sweet ketchup are exactly the sort of thing you'd find at the Golden Arches next door, only tastier. Top it off with one incredibly airy wheat bun that's been toasted on the grill and you've got a fast, cheap, tasty veggie burger that is indeed worthy of riding The Health Express. 817 N. Lake Blvd., Pasadena; 626-794-0861.
3. Native Foods
With locations nationwide, Native Foods is hiding in plain daylight for anyone in search of a wonderful veggie burger. Cheekily listed under the Handholds section as an Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger, the actual sandwich almost more closely resembles a shaved roast beef than a burger. Instead of pucking together a bunch of warm, slightly salty seitan, the tender pile is left to fend for itself under a mountain of toppings. Snappy Native Foods 'bacon' imparts some real smokiness, and a plump of melted cheddar in the middle makes sure you've got all the fat you can handle. Above that, you'll find battered dill pickles that would be simply too much to handle if they didn't taste so great. Then it's a full-on dump of romaine lettuce, carrot shreds, onions and hearty tomato circles that feel seriously meaty in your mouth. Once the whole thing has been slathered with a sweetened BBQ sauce and a touch of ranch dressing, you'll swear that the messy pile in your hands doesn't even really resemble a burger. But you also won't be able to put it down. 9343 Culver Blvd., Culver City (and other locations); 310-559-3601.
2. Umami Burger
Umami Burger's growing beef and bun empire has long been a surprise favorite with vegetarians. Their Earth Burger is a staple on every Umami menu, and is often ordered by meat eaters looking for a change. The hefty patty is comprised of a mushroom blend and plenty of edamame, then given some beet juice coloring for a medium-rare interior shot. Underneath the patty you'll find lettuce and a perfectly roasted tomato, while the top is laced with sautéed onions and plenty of ricotta. Of course, it wouldn't be Umami without a strong splash of truffle oil, but in the case of the veggie burger the earthy funk doesn't distract from the rest of the ingredients. Stacked up with the same squishy Umami bun you're used to, the Earth Burger is a formidable entrant into the world of burgers, veggie or otherwise. Various locations.
1. R+D Kitchen
On the not-so-sly, Santa Monica's R+D Kitchen already serves up a seriously tasty beef burger. Yet it's their simple — but by no means cheap — veggie burger that steals the spotlight. Made from a mix of lightly toasted brown rice, mushrooms for depth and nutty almonds for crunch and a bit of forward flavor, plus some sautéed vegetables, the patty is tender, juicy and wonderfully caramelized at the edges. Served dripping over with melted jack cheese and a side of invitingly vibrant toppings, the veggie burger from R+D Kitchen is a straightforward example of elevated vegetarian cooking. When everything squeezes together underneath the eggy sesame seed bun, meat eaters may actually start to feel jealous that vegetarians get to have all the tasty fun. And that certainly doesn't happen often. 1323 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; 310-395-3314.
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