On our Christmas trip to NYC, I decided to investigate a food trend that is most welcome to vegetarians: the veggie burger. Chefs have taken an interest, and Zagat now has lists like “Ten Veggie Burgers to Try in New York [Seattle, San Francisco, etc.]”
Our first stop was the Shake Shack, which grew from a food cart in Madison Square Park to become a neo-fast-food craze. It’s the brainchild of restaurateur Danny Meyer, who also owns the Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern. After reviewing the list of locations, I decided that the most accessible was the one in the theatre district, but that we needed to go at the least crowded hour. I figured that 3:00 would be after the main lunch service, and after the start of most matinée shows.
My logic was sound, but I didn’t figure on the hungry hordes of Times Square and the trendy cachet of Shake Shack. Although the line was not long by Shack standards, there was absolutely no place to sit. Even the standing tables were full. Finally I snagged a tiny space to stand while the Long-Suffering Husband waited in line for the food. We ordered two “Shroom burgers” (the only veggie burger option) an order of fries, and two Brooklyn Brewery ales.
In the picture, the meat patty is clearly visible under the deep-fried portabella. The only problem is that I can’t see the food on the plate in front of me unless I have my reading glasses on. (Young people, behold your Christmas Future.) On the second bite, I realized that I was chomping a big mouthful of Pure Angus Beef.
By this point, I was getting grumpy. I’m not much of a grab-and-go person to begin with. I hate crowds. Then the much-hyped product turns out to be lethally contaminated. Even the pleasing Brooklyn ale did not soothe me. I wanted to chuck it all in the bin and leave that accursed place. Fortunately the Long-Suffering Husband is much more equable than I. He chivalrously insisted on braving the line again in order to secure me a proper ‘Shroom burger, which arrived (in the fullness of time).
The verdict? It’s okay. The deep-fried crust encloses a portabella, as promised, and the surrounding veggies are pleasingly fresh. When you bite into it, the cheese squirts out the other end, into the little bag holding the sandwich. I thought it would be a pleasant indulgence, if only one could sit down to enjoy it. The LSH, however, damningly dismissed the cheese as “Velveeta.” And there is not another vegetable to be found on the menu. Unless you count the fries…
Next up on our list was Superiority Burger. It’s the opposite of Shake Shack, a chef-run burger joint created by a chef who has rejected glitz, glamor, Angus beef, French fries and even a liquor license. Of course it’s terribly hip, and it has its own lines and its own lack of seating. But it’s been open for more than a year, and if you go in the dead of winter and arrive fifteen minutes before it opens, you get a shot at one of the six (yes, six) seats in the tiny establishment.
Superiority Burger is the brainchild of Brooks Headley, who used to be the pastry chef at Del Posto, a swank fine dining place near the Highline. It charmed NYT food critic Pete Wells, who compared it to the early, creative days of Momofuku Noodle Bar. He rhapsodized over the veggie dishes and gelato, though he didn’t fall in love with the burger itself, a smallish grain-and-bean patty on a potato bun with roasted tomato, iceberg lettuce, honey mustard and pickles. I thought it was grand and wanted another.
The Burnt Broccoli is justly famous–charred, tossed with vinaigrette, and served with dabs of “eggplant purée” (aka baba ganoush), cilantro, and cashews. My advice is to go for the vegetable sides. We should have ordered one of everything, but at least we got the broccoli and the two specials of the day, a delectable chicory salad with caraway vinaigrette and apples, and the umami-laden, salty, spicy broccoli rabe with pickled shallots.
Yes, that was a much more satisfying experience than the House of Horrors that is Shake Shack, but I was beginning to tire of the veggie burger experience, mainly because I am a sit-down dinner, reservations-loving kind of gal. Next up was 5 Napkin Burger, a local chain that offers actual tables.
5 Napkin is a meat burger place, but they do have a dedicated veggie burger, and you can order any of the fancy burger styles with the veggie patty instead of the beef. They also have wine, beer, and outrageously expensive cocktails, at least if you order a standard, off the menu. The martini they served the LSH (his tipple is Hendricks, up, with a twist) was tiny, not cold, and cost twenty dollars.
My list of veggie burgers in Manhattan has many more entries (I was especially interested in By Chloe), but by this time I was desperate for fine dining and had suffered enough noisy crowds. So on Christmas Day we had lunch at Jean-Georges’ tapas restaurant, ABC Cocina. I am still sighing in satisfaction after that meal.