A few decades ago, ordering a veggie burger garnered a skeptical look from a cashier and bitter disappointment from a grill cook. What inevitably would arrive was a disappointment squished into a bun: lettuce, tomatoes, onions and maybe pickles, if you were lucky.
Then along came commercially prepared veggie patties that skipped the meat and included ingredients such as grains, rice, cheese and vegetables. Some were good; some tasted like spackle and mushrooms.
It took a good decade of demand for better-tasting patties to arrive. With even fast-food restaurants embracing veggie patties, it made sense that vegetarian burgers eventually would land in the hands of chefs. Just as chefs have turned the humble burger into something of a fussy culinary spectacle, veggie burgers have gone gourmet in fine dining rooms across the country.
Chefs everywhere have been fiddling with the formula – hand-making patties featuring grains such as quinoa, barley, millet and farro – and now the trend appears to have landed here. On South Sound menus, diners now can find housemade grain- and vegetable-based patties and new tweaks in the world of portobello mushroom burgers.
If you’re a meat eater reading this, well, the burgers might not come close to squashing your hankering for a double bacon cheeseburger — in fact, they’ll probably disappoint you miserably. However, for vegetarians, these burgers are far more thoughtfully composed than I’ve ever seen on local menus.
Here are seven of the best I found.
V Burger, $10
Where: Social Bar and Grill, 1715 Dock St., Tacoma; 253-301-3835, thesocialbarandgrill.com
Chef Rodel Borromeo tweaked an old idea with new flavors at Social Bar and Grill, the stylish two-year-old Foss waterway restaurant next door to Museum of Glass. Borromeo built his veggie burger with a grilled portobello base, but here’s where his got interesting: He filled the mushroom with a Southwestern-spun stuffing of black beans, quinoa, jalapeños, roasted peppers and corn. Jack cheese melted over the burger glued the flavors and textures. Tomato added snap, and he used something unusual in lieu of lettuce: whole basil leaves (it didn’t seem like it would work with the Southwest flavors, but it really did). I appreciated that the burger sauce — an oily roasted red pepper spread — was served on the side so diners can control the fat. The burger came on a toasted brioche bun with a mixture of regular and sweet potato fries.
Forest Mushroom and Quinoa Burger, $16
Where: Marrow Kitchen Bar, 2717 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-267-5299, marrowtacoma.com
Marrow Kitchen Bar Chef Kyle Wnuk relied on earthy ingredients in his veggie-grain patty. A tangle of mushrooms fueled the flavor while quinoa added hearty texture. Light sweetness came from roasted vegetables. Wnuk’s decadent burger was topped with a duck egg that, when pressed, spilled yolky ribbons down the patty and onto the plate. A diner could remove the egg for easier eating, but I treated it like a fork-and-knife burger. An extra level of crunch came from frisée; creaminess from white cheddar. The burger was built on a toasted brioche roll and served with roasted fingerlings paired with smoky aioli. Note: The menu here changes frequently. What’s on the menu today might not be tomorrow.
Mama Africa Burger, $12.99
Where: Quickie Too, 1324 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma; 253-572-4549
Was this a burger or a sloppy Joe? It could have been both, actually. Think of a sloppy Joe made with the tastiest quinoa stuffing you can fathom — that’s exactly how to describe the Mama Africa burger at Quickie Too. This Hilltop vegan restaurant with a soul food menu listed 10 burgers with a choice of tofu, tempeh or seitan. The standout on the menu was the Mama Africa with its tasty, loose stuffing made with millet and quinoa and a spicy kick from picante sauce. The burger was sweetened by caramelized onions and served on a sturdy roll with Cajun-dusted fries or a green salad.
Veggie Burger, $11.50
Where: Crockett’s Public House, 118 E. Stewart, Puyallup; 253-466-3075, crockettspublichouse.com
This was another example of a restaurant putting a new turn on an old idea: Chef Brian Johnston of Crockett’s Public House — recently featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives — turned an ordinary portobello delicious with the addition of serious crunch. He stuffed a portobello with Monterey and cheddar before dredging it in a panko coating and ramping up the texture with a trip to the fryer. I loved the contrasts of the fried mushroom against creamy avocado slices and cool lettuce and tomato. The burger came on a toasted sesame bun with house-cut fries or salad.
Chickpea Burger, $10.99
Where: Harmon Brewery and Restaurant, 1938 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-383-2739, harmonbrewingco.com
Fan of hummus? Think of Harmon Brewery’s chickpea burger as hummus that’s been squished into the form of a burger patty, then fried. The result was a contrast of crunchy and creamy with a tease of garlic and lemon. I’m a fan. A complaint, however: The burger came on toasted multi-grain bread that was a mouth scraper. Tip: Ask your server to sub the restaurant’s standard grain roll for the bread. The accompanying condiments tasted fresh — green leaf lettuce, red onions, tomatoes and dill pickle slices. You have your choice of house chips or garlic fries.
Sun Burger, $10.95
Where: AmeRAWcan Bistro, 745 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma; 253-327-1962, amerawcanbistro.com
When your restaurant’s cooking method of choice is dehydration, an expected consequence is a dried-out patty. That’s exactly what I found at AmeRAWcan Bistro, a vegan raw restaurant with an experimental menu. Nothing on the restaurant’s raw menu is cooked over 116 degrees, in keeping with the raw diet edict. Chef-owner Darrin London’s dehydrated vegan patty — made with grains and vegetables — came served on the restaurant’s version of “bread,” dehydrated onions compressed to a tasty and not unpleasant wrapper. What the burger needed was moisture, and it received serious help from a tasty cabbage slaw. The flavor was not as strange as you might expect. Pick a side of fresh fruit over the kale chips, which I found too dry.
House Vegetarian Burger, $8.99
Where: Blazing Onion, 4701 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor; 253-514-6703
This small Northwest chain known for its long list of gourmet burgers and its use of Painted Hills beef did justice to its veggie diners with a house-made farmhouse patty. It carried a pleasant, meaty texture, but wasn’t one of those gimmicky meat substitute patties. The base was made from brown rice, cheese and roasted vegetables. Blazing Onion got its burger composition just right — a toasted wheat Kaiser, thick tomato slice, mixed spring greens and a smear of sun-dried tomato aioli. Skip the garlic fries — I found them greasy. Go simple with a side salad.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.