THEY were the four syllables that had the power to make both carnivores and vegetarians ringe: veggie burger.
For meat-lovers, the veggie burger was long seen as a sad stand-in that tried to copy the contours and textures of a classic beef patty while falling pathetically short of the pleasure. And for meat-refusers, the veggie burger served as a kind of penitential wafer: You ate this bland, freeze-dried nutrient disc because you had to eat it (your duty as someone who had forsaken the flesh) and because at many a restaurant or backyard barbecue, it was the only option available.
If that has been your mental framework since the days when Jerry Garcia was still with us, it might be time to take another bite. To borrow a phrase from the culture that produced it, the veggie burger seems finally to have achieved self-actualization.
Across the country, chefs and restaurateurs have been taking on the erstwhile health-food punch line with a kind of experimental brio, using it as a noble excuse to fool around with flavor and texture and hue. As a result, veggie burgers haven’t merely become good. They have exploded into countless variations of good, and in doing so they’ve begun to look like a bellwether for the American appetite. If the growing passion for plant-based diets is here to stay, chefs — even in restaurants where you won’t find the slightest trace of spirulina — are paying attention.
“I just think it’s important to accommodate everybody,” said Josh Capon, who opened Burger & Barrel in SoHo last fall and quietly slipped a chickpea-based veggie burger onto a menu heady with pork chops, charcuterie and carpaccio. “And I don’t think somebody should feel like they’re eating an inferior burger. If you’re going to do a veggie burger, it should have that richness and mouth feel and overall texture. When you pick it up, it should eat like a burger.”
He will get no argument from Adam Fleischman, the owner of the expanding Umami Burger chain in Los Angeles. Even though his Earth Burger includes no meat, it offers the taste buds a gooey, decadent tradeoff by dandying up a mushroom-and-edamame patty with ricotta, truffle aioli and cipollini onions.
At Cru, a largely vegan and raw-food-focused cafe in that city’s Silver Lake neighborhood, the dietary and structural restrictions only seem to open up pathways of metamorphosis. Cru’s South American sliders are made of sprouted lentils and cooked garbanzo beans pulsed with garlic and spices. They’re deep-fried, dressed with a mojo sauce of blood orange and paprika and Peruvian aji amarillo chilies, and served on leaves of butter lettuce instead of a bread bun.
“We’re trying to stay away from that dry, tasteless veggie burger thing,” said Cru’s chef, Vincent Krimmel. “We have a lot more to play with now.”
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