LOS ANGELES — For every burger in this city, there’s an equal but opposite veggie burger.
The glittery, slippery smashburger with fried onions. The spacious burger pooling bistro with juice. The restaurant’s burger comes out of its paper wrapper.
Many of them are now constructed with industrial mock meats made from pea and soy protein, which tend to produce dark brown patties that can look and smell the part — that can even bleed fake blood. But their faint thrill has dissipated.
Burgers made with the same ready-to-eat imitation meats are increasingly dull and characterless, monotonous in texture and flavor, virtually indistinguishable from one another. Fortunately, veggie burgers made with real vegetables persist in the Los Angeles area. And this is where the creativity and gluttony of the genre are concentrated.
There’s HiHo Cheeseburger’s tangy and sassy fast-food-style vegan burger, best with a side of some of the most exquisite fries in town – rimmed and crispy and properly salted. And the spongy falafel burger at Nic’s on Beverly, dripping with tahini sauce. Even the small burger institution Pie ‘N Burger, with its tacky, shiny and completely businesslike counter in Pasadena, serves up an old-fashioned, veggie-based patty made for the offsite restaurant.
The best veggie burgers tend to be idiosyncratic – shifting mixes of vegetables, mushrooms, beans and grains, deepened with the umami of soy sauce, nutritional yeast, miso or kombu. They are, in other words, the result of thoughtful cooking.
One of my favorites is on the menu at Spoke Bicycle Cafe, a bike bar and shop located on a hillside by the Los Angeles River in Frogtown. Serious cyclists in padded shorts and bike shoes waddle onto the patio after a long ride, while freelancers on laptops switch from chagaccinos to draft beers.
The burger is thick, steep and inviting with the flavor of smoked mushrooms. It has a satisfying texture of beets, brown rice, and beans, and it has a slice of tempeh bacon, marinated and house-smoked, plus enough pickled onions to keep it sharp.
Seabirds Kitchen’s excellent BBQ burger in Long Beach also uses beets in the patty, along with tofu, chia and flax seeds. Covered in a tangle of thinly sliced, breaded and fried pickled onions, each bite comes with an array of satisfying crunch.
The veggie burger is not a novelty, but a dish with its own history parallel to that of the hamburger, in constant evolution.
High on my list of places I’d like to visit, if I could time travel, is the freeway cafe run by the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, so I can order the mushroom cult made from products grown by the group. applicants and listen to conversations at other tables.
It closed in the 1960s, but what I mean is that for as long as we’ve had hamburgers in the United States, we’ve had countless alternative patties made with vegetables, soy derivatives, gluten, nut flours and more, stuffed into a sandwich.
A recipe for fake oyster cakes appeared in Almeda Lambert’s 1899 book, “Guide for Nut Cookery”. And dietitian Ella Eaton Kellogg published an early recipe for gluten-free patties in her 1904 book, “Healthful Cookery,” intending to replace beef patties in hamburgers and other dishes.
Food companies recognized early on that a hamburger patty was a smart and safe way to market their products: soybean manufacturer Madison Foods released a canned soybean and wheat paste called Soyburger in 1937, and Loma Linda Food Company offered the Gluten Burger the following year.
These products were probably not very good compared to homemade, well-seasoned vegetable patties — I haven’t tasted them, I use my imagination — but they were a practical alternative, and they paved the way to a juggernaut of industrial vegan products marketed as better for your body or better for the planet.
Burgers, by definition, are made from beef. Veggie burgers, if you think about it, have virtually no restrictions – the entire plant kingdom is a game – which should make this a creative endeavor for restaurant cooks, not an opportunity to buy a ready-made product . This has always been the source of the veggie burger’s shine in good hands (anything goes!) and its curse in bad hands (anything, unfortunately, is okay).
I come across big name brands on menus here and there – Astroburger’s devotion to Gardenburger products is both endearing and unmatched – but the rise of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger on so many local restaurant menus is astounding. I don’t particularly like these substitutes, but their homogeneity is also objectionable.
“When I was a kid and became a vegetarian, the texture of real meat was the most off-putting thing to me,” said Frederick Guerrero, one of the founders of Burgerlords.
The restaurant’s veggie burger doesn’t exactly mimic ground beef. Instead, it exalts vegetarian textures: chewy sticky barley, lightly crunchy cashews, and lightly crunchy panko. It holds well, without being at all dry or crumbly – the cake is linked to eggplant, among other things – and rich in umami. In short, delicious.
Burgerlords cooks brown it and slip it into a soft sponge bun from Puritan Bakery, the same company that makes the bun for In-N-Out Burger. This California burger chain is something of a role model for Mr. Guerrero, who works with a sharp Thousand Islands vegan dressing made with vegan mayonnaise, and has a well-documented penchant for burger nostalgia.
He opened his restaurant, which now has two locations in Los Angeles, with his brother in 2015. During the pandemic, he went from almost vegan (he had a meat option) to fully vegan.
“We were hesitant to do a vegan-only restaurant at first,” Mr. Guerrero said. But after the first wave of restaurant closures in 2020 and the spotlight on chaos within the beef industry, they went for it. “We never served beef again after that initial shutdown,” he said.
Burgerlords added a second homemade patty to the menu last year, using TVP, or Textured Vegetable Protein. Mr. Guerrero said he wanted an option for diners with allergies who couldn’t have the restaurant’s standard vegan patty, which contains gluten and nuts. But he didn’t want to bring Impossible or Beyond because those products were already available in many places.
This burger is less veggie, with a chewy, velvety exterior reminiscent of sautéed meat. It satisfies a completely different craving than the barley-based burger, and it does it well, without pretending to bleed.
Babette Davis, 71, is the owner of Stuff I Eat in Inglewood, which she opened in 2008 with a background as a vegan home cook. When I asked Mrs. Davis if she had ever considered working with store-bought meat alternatives in her kitchen, she laughed at me.
“Honey!” she said. “The restaurant is called ‘Stuff I Eat’ because if we don’t eat it, we don’t sell it.”
Ms. Davis put a veggie burger on the menu after hearing requests from so many diners, and she’s doing a seriously old-school version of it, akin to cookbook incarnations published in the 1960s.
It starts with nut bread – one of the original building blocks of American vegan cuisine – using seasoned walnuts, Portobello mushrooms and cashews. Ms Davis then mixes this with wild rice cooked in a food processor before forming her patties for the day.
To order, the patties are lightly browned on a griddle, accompanied by mushrooms and thick slices of red onion, which all squeeze together in a sprouted bun. It’s not a fast food burger. It’s more delicate and lean, sweeter and earthier, the filling somewhere between mushroom pâté and galette.
It’s exactly the kind of charming anomaly that defines the veggie burger’s past and perhaps, hopefully, its future.