The veggie burger has, quite deservedly, gotten a bad reputation. It's often added to restaurant menus as an afterthought (Shake Shack's mushroom "burger" is a fried portobello mushroom, for instance) and the best-known frozen varieties can be gag-inducing in taste and smell (looking at you, Boca Burger). There are, of course, some truly great meatless patties out there—back in May we rounded up 10 of the country's best—but more often than not, they're just tucked away as one of a couple menu alternatives for vegetarians. Occasions where top-quality veggie burgers are the main event have been unheard of, and if they're made in-house, they're never as quick to get as a Big Mac. That's finally changing, though, and the front-running sandwiches were made with meat eaters in mind. To be sure, if you take a bite into a vegetarian burger expecting it to taste exactly like beef, you'll still be disappointed—but to truly enjoy a veggie burger, it's crucial to understand that that's not usually the chef's goal. But if what you want is a loaded burger that fills you up but doesn't give you the meat sweats—and you want it quickly—your options just got a lot better.
Like most culinary trends, the veggie burger started on the coasts. First when the hole-in-the-wall, all-vegetarian Superiority Burger opened quietly in late June in Manhattan's East Village, it drew crowds on par with any other trendy New York bite, complete with a gushing Washington Post profile and reviews from all three of Eater's restaurant critics. When I stopped by on a hot night in the middle of July, there were around 15 customers already lined up before the doors opened. Also in July, in Rohnert Park, California, the vegetarian fast-food joint Amy's Drive-Thru, the first restaurant by Amy's Kitchen (of the ubiquitous frozen burritos and canned soups), sold over 350 veggie burgers in its first six hours of operation. And that was without any formal announcement beforehand.
The burgers at Amy's are a variation on the frozen patties the brand sells in stores, but with a modified texture that aspires to a Big Mac–like taste and texture. Co-founder and co-CEO Andy Berliner says it took literally thousands of tries to get it right — and the taste tests were done on fast-food-restaurant-frequenting non-vegetarians. "I think the main thing [meat eaters are] looking for as opposed to vegetarians is more texture, more bite, and more moisture, because veggie burgers can tend to be dry," he says. "And on a drive-thru burger, so much is in the sauce and the toppings, so you don't want [the patty] to carry too much flavor, either, to take away from the experience of the whole thing." The Amy, as they're calling the classic burger, has two patties and two pieces of cheese, topped with the ketchup-and-mayo-based "Fred Sr.'s secret sauce," pickles, lettuce, and tomato. With a goal to lure customers away from the big-box fast-food chains that share Amy's block — among them In-N-Out Burger, Burger King, and Taco Bell — the price point is competitive, too: The Amy sells for just $4.29.
The idea of the fast-food burger as a singular experience is what Superiority Burger's Brooks Headley zeroes in on as well. The shop's $6 namesake does not taste like meat, nor is that the goal — but the quinoa-based patty, served on a Martin's potato roll, has a perfect, crispy sear on the outside, the right amount of grit and chew on the inside, a salty, savory flavor, and a slight spin on the classic fixings (Muenster cheese, pickles, roasted tomato slice) on top. Some of Superiority Burger's earliest fans were the meat cooks at Manhattan's Del Posto restaurant, where Headley earned a 2013 James Beard Award as its executive pastry chef. "When the meat cooks started to request veggie burgers, I knew I was onto something," he told Wondering Sound in 2014. "The meat guys are the meat guys. They don’t eat any fucking vegetable, period." Another likely reason Superiority Burger appeals to meat eaters is that, while everything is vegetarian, and most of it vegan, it's not billed as a health-food restaurant. The limited, frequently changing menu often does skew healthy, with items like kohlrabi apple salad and yuba with snap peas, but there's also been potato salad with crushed potato chips and vegan "pump cheese" with corn chips.
For those looking for a better meatless solution at home, the most innovative work is coming from Beyond Meat, an El Segundo, California–based company that re-creates the chemistry of animal meat from plant proteins. "All the animal is doing [is] taking plant matter and converting it into muscle," explains CEO Ethan Brown. "So we're doing the same thing but not using an animal to do it." Beyond Meat started with chicken strips (which Mark Bittman couldn't distinguish from real chicken when served in a wrap) and ground beef crumbles, but early this year it launched the Beast Burger, a 4-ounce patty with 23 grams of protein, a hefty dose of vitamins, and no cholesterol. It's become the company's best-selling product. To be sure, these patties do not taste like ground beef, but Brown says that unlike Beyond Meat's other offerings, which more directly mimic meat flavors, it's not supposed to. "We didn't set out to make it just like meat," he says, "We set out to provide something that could be considered better than meat because of what it offers [nutritionally]." And in that regard, he largely succeeded.
As I cooked a Beast Burger in a pan with a little bit of olive oil, it released liquid and then crisped up on the outside. The taste on its own reminded me of a high-quality veggie hot dog, but when eaten on a bun with cheese, ketchup, mustard, and tomato, it tasted meatier — and it's unlikely you'll find a generic frozen hamburger that tastes any better. It's not surprising that Brown says some of the Beast Burger's biggest fans are athletes who want the protein content but without the inflammation and lethargy that often comes with heavy, greasy meat consumption.
With more people than ever shifting to heavily or exclusively plant-based diets for health, economic and environmental reasons, and with convenience often being high priority, it's the right time for meatless burgers to get a makeover. The truth is that no one has 100% nailed the texture and juiciness of a beef burger — and for most vegetarians, that doesn't matter — but we're at least getting closer to something that will get more meat eaters on board. "People eat [The Amy] and they go, 'Oh my god, this is incredible,'" says Berliner. "And the reaction from people five minutes later is, 'I feel better.'"