Meatless burgers revisited

Ooey gooey good: The black-bean veggie burger at The Southern Kitchen and Bar is savory and full of good stuff, not the least of which is a ton of melty Havarti. Photos by Jonathan Welch

Another e-mail from Stewart David, one of Asheville’s most vocal vegetarians, popped up in my inbox last week. What, I wondered, had I done to disturb the meat-eschewing contingent of Asheville diners this time? Was it my description of eating beef heart? Perhaps the video where I slurped marrow out of a bone? Maybe it was the story where two chefs laughingly describe the nightmare of removing pig hair from many, many pounds of porcine ears with, first, a Bic razor and, upon failing, fire. As it turns out, I had drawn David's notice with an online review of the new vegetarian fast-food restaurant, VegHeads, where I mentioned that "the veggie burger is not the usual chewy frozen puck."

David gently took me to task over my characterization of veggie burgers which, he said “may have been appropriate years ago.”

The remainder of the letter is printed below:

“Times have changed, and I'm guessing that you haven't sampled some of the great veggie burgers around town. As vegetarianism has moved from the margins to the mainstream, the quality of the food has soared. VegHeads joins Firestorm, Laughing Seed, Green Light and Rosetta's to become the fifth vegetarian restaurant in town. Most of these places offer veggie burgers, and the ones I've sampled have nothing in common with a "chewy frozen puck." Veggie burgers are turning up more and more at mainstream restaurants, and they are some of the best in town. The Corner Kitchen serves up a delicious homemade black-bean burger, 131 Main uses beets in their awesome veggie burgers (the red coloring is scary at first to those of us who abstain from flesh) and the hemp-nut burger at Jack of the Wood is a favorite of mine. And the list goes on.

I suppose that when you dine out, a veggie burger is probably not a choice you would normally make, but please give one a try sometime. The Asheville vegetarian community would greatly appreciate it if, in your role as a food critic, you stop perpetuating the old stereotypes regarding vegetarian foods.

Gotta go, it's time to put on my bellbottoms, Birkenstocks and tie-dyed T-shirt, smoke a joint, put on a Rolling Stones album and eat some granola [smiley face].”

Point taken, Stewart David. Veggie burgers have indeed taken several giant leaps forward since the days when Boca Burgers (that’s the company, not the Lexington Avenue restaurant) and Morningstar Farms patties ruled the roost. In an age where pricey vegetable tasting menus are the latest rage (albeit often not 100 percent vegetarian), people are finding that meat-free doesn’t necessarily mean cringe-worthy.

We visited a few local restaurants to find out if their veggie burgers were up to snuff. Here’s what we found.

Burgermeister's

Though the name perhaps suggests "meat palace,” even vegetarians can find something to eat at Burgermeister’s.

The kitchen turns out a surprising assortment of scratch-made goodies, also taking pains to lavish plenty of attention on what they feed the herbivores — and we don't mean the cows.

Burgermeister's chefs turn out a daily veggie burger creation, starting with a sweet potato, rice and bean base, then adding various additional ingredients for flavor. Vegetarians are welcome to substitute a veggie patty for beef on any burger.

Burgermeister's sometimes features a spinach, parmesan and artichoke burger, topped with house-made mayo, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato on a potato bun. The artichoke patty gets high marks in the flavor category. While the addition of parmesan cheese adds plenty of hearty umami, the brown rice provides a satisfying earthiness and textural interest.

This burger does swing a little too far toward the wet side of what New York Times reviewer Jeff Gordinier calls the “veggie burger pendulum of peril.” It squeezes out through the edges of the bun, rather like an edible Play Doh fun factory (well, according to my 5-year-old self, Play Doh is plenty edible). We still say wet is much better than dry.

697 Haywood Road, burgermeisters.com, 225-2920

131 Main

131 Main is not known for its vegetarian fare. The restaurant’s menu tends to feature classic American dishes like baby-back ribs, crab cakes (that are, of course "Maryland-style") and medallions of filet mignon with demi-glace and potatoes.

Which may be why 131 went for Big Mac appeal when crafting its veggie burger recipe — and frankly, the familiar flavor makes them rather fun (or at least nostalgically pleasing) for a veggie burger.

The shredded pale lettuce, mayo, mustard, tiny chopped onions and pickles on a fluffy (unfortunately) sesame-seedless bun will appeal to every kid (former and at heart) who ever had a love affair with McDonald's. The soy-glazed and beet-based patty is a color likely chosen to evoke that of a medium-rare beef, though one has to wonder how that might actually appeal to vegetarians. Fortunately, the beets turn the patty a fuchsia that could never naturally occur in actual meat — unless the cows grazed near Chernobyl.

Even with the havarti cheese and a slightly smoky flavor, the soy glaze and the natural beet sugars have this burger leaning a little heavily on the sweet side. However, it's an undeniably good sandwich with a pleasant texture — and the favorite of our vegetarian photographer.
131 Main, 308 Thetford St. 131-main.com, 651-0131

Posana Cafe

The ingredients for the Posana veggie burger are listed like so: tomatoes, jalapeno aioli, arugula, homemade pickles. As far as truth in advertising goes, this one hits the mark. The gluten-free restaurant opts to skip the bun instead of toying with a version that would satisfy dietary requirements. As the restaurant's gluten-free baked goods are stellar, one wonders why they take this route.

However, if taste is more important to you than the familiar structure of a patty sandwiched between two buns, this is decidedly your sandwich. The chickpea-based patty is much more fritter-like, studded with onion and herbs and deeply flavorful. It's difficult to give an accurate flavor profile of the pickles since I wolfed them down a bit hastily — I vaguely remember them having a good crunch and it’s safe to say they’re quite good. The aioli is a perfect medium in which to dip Posana's sweet potato fries (and this critic is not generally a fan of those). If a traditional burger is what you crave, look elsewhere. But for balance of textures and flavors, this "burger" brings in top marks.
Posana Cafe, 1 Biltmore Ave. 505-3969, posanacafe.com

Laughing Seed Café

Laughing Seed Café, Asheville’s most popular vegetarian haunt, seems as though it would be the place to get a veggie burger, and this one is indeed a good example of the classic vegetarian staple done right.

Texturally, the hemp-seed patty was the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, the bun, which resembled ciabatta more than a classic burger roll in texture, had so much 'chew' to it (which is what I want in a bread for most purposes) that the act of chomping through it made pieces of the sandwich — avocado, patty, onion — fly everywhere. I am a clumsy eater to begin with, so it's not a rare thing for my lap to show evidence of what I've had for lunch.

But the complaints stop there. Laughing Seed's veggie burger is rich with omega-3s and a solid sandwich, and I dig the shredded carrots and red cabbage for an extra vitamin boost. Plus? The aioli served with it is so addictive I want to slather it on everything. I've already covered my dress with it, why stop there?
Laughing Seed, 40 Wall St. 252-3445, laughingseed.com

The Southern Kitchen and Bar

When it comes to veggie burgers, this one is winning. I shouldn't have enjoyed my fourth veggie burger quite so much — in fact, I'd been complaining bitterly the night before about having to pack three veggie burgers into one day — to my dinner date's amusement (or begrudging tolerance masked with good humor). However, the textural combination of black beans, brown rice and oats makes for a patty that stays together as you eat it, with no squirt factor. And the flavor? I could do without the earthy sprouts, but vegetarians seem to dig the stuff. This patty, however, was hands-down my favorite, and despite the fact that I was slightly veggie burger-ed out, I scoffed the thing down in anaconda fashion.

Chef Terri Roberts adds beets to her patty for the same rare-meat trick that 131 Main plays. Hers might even be slightly more unnerving for the fact that she achieves an eerily spot-on raw meat color. (Hey, it doesn't offend me, but this is for the vegetarians.) Havarti cheese, dijonaise and a toasted wheat roll make the Southern's black-bean burger nothing outrageously creative, yet solidly good.
The Southern Kitchen and Bar, 41 North Lexington Ave. 251-1777, southernkitchenandbar.com

— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at food@mountainx.com.

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