Those who eat veggie burgers are a long suffering lot. My very first, during a spell of vegetarianism, was a frozen soy patty warmed in a cast-iron pan, with the texture of rubber and notes of wet leather.
Even after going back to meat, though, I never gave up on veggie burgers. They were occasionally awful, they were always a surprise -- nutty, or smoky, or spicy, or a palate for which a kitchen to get inspired. They also evolved over time, from the gummy soy texture of Sun Burgers (which eventually became much-improved Boca Burgers) and lackluster tempeh burgers to the wave of black-bean burgers of the aughts and the early, halting days of the BK Veggie (at Burger King, and slathered in mayo) and the soy-based McVeggie, which was frustratingly elusive when it first launched in 2003.
Veggie burgers first made their commercial debut in 1983 as VegeBurgers, patties created by London restaurateur and entrepreneur Gregory Sams that were an amalgam of “sesame seeds, rolled oats, textured vegetable protein, wheat gluten, dried vegetables, herbs and spices and whole wheat rusk,” as Sams told The Guardian in 2009. Those became a commercial success, spurring a second wave of burgers such as the Sun Burger and the ubiquitous version from MorningStar Farms.
Sams probably never imagined that the impossible would happen -- that is, the Impossible Burger, a category game changer made from soy and potato protein built to taste and bleeds like a “real” beef burger. Unleashed on the market in 2016 but reformulated this year, it’s been put into rotation at such places as White Castle (which serves Impossible sliders) and Bareburger, the tristate mini-burger empire. Beyond Burger, another dead ringer for meat that is made primarily from pea protein, is its hot and heavy rival, on the menu at chains such as TGIFridays, BurgerFi, Bareburger and Carl’s Jr.
This is all to say, the dark days are over. While only 5 percent of Americans officially identify as vegetarian, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, meat consumption has been declining since the 1970s, and Impossible burger “meat” has proven so popular that the company, based in California, has had trouble keeping up with demand; at least two burger places I recently visited, including No Good Burger Joint in Baldwin, had to yank their version from the menu because the patties became so scarce.
Impossible and Beyond burgers aside, I have been interested to know which chefs are creating original, creative veggie patties -- from beans, or rice, or actual vegetables -- and so I set out to find a few of the tastiest. I discovered that most alluring and texturally sound veggie burgers seem to come from, well, burger places; maybe there’s something about knowing the inner mechanics of a beef burger that lends itself to constructing a meatless patty (or, in at least one case, a cheese-filled mushroom) that stands on its own, without comparison.
While these can’t necessarily be labeled the ‘best’ — there are hundreds of veggie burgers to try on Long Island, after all — they are burgers of solid provenance that can make beef fall away from your mind.
No Good Burger Joint
No Good Burger Joint (930 Atlantic Ave., Baldwin): This charming spot lives up to its name: It's brick lined and rustic, with a build-your-own burger menu written on a chalkboard. Despite grilling hundreds of burgers a week, owner Marchello Erickson is also a vegetarian, and makes his own veggie patties from brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, chickpeas, black beans and red and green bell peppers. "Everything is cooked and then cooled for a day," said Erickson, before being bound with breadcrumbs and egg, and shaped. The resulting burger, a humongous, hearty thing that tastes sort of like sweet potato hash, comes on a multigrain roll. More info: 516-442-5434. nogoodburgerjointny.com
The Bryant (100 Walt Whitman Rd., Huntington Station): The light-swept Bryant has solidly bistro DNA, but lurking amid the brasserie meat loaf and salumi boards is a gem of a veggie burger stained red from beets, slightly crumbly from a brown-rice base, umami-ed up with soy glaze and a rivulet of melted Monterey jack cheese oozing down the side. Texturally, this one is a challenge -- don't try to cut it in half, as it will ooze out of the sides of the toasted brioche bun -- but it makes up for its amorphous ways with opulent flavor. It also comes with killer fries. More info: 631-923-3321, pollrestaurants.com
Boom Burger (85 Montauk Hwy., Westhampton Beach): Get it as a single patty -- smashed and wrapped in foil -- or stack a few together. Either way, this Cheddar-laced burger will impress you with its luxe texture. The patties are not made on-site (they are supplied by a Bay Shore producer) but they also consist of sweet potatoes, spinach and onions, wedged with lettuce and tomato on a toasted bun. They also sell like crazy on the South Fork. "We go through a case a day in Westhampton [Beach]," said Donny White, manager of the Mattituck location. "It's insane." Pro tip: Get yours with garlic aioli and pickles. More info: 631-998-4663, boomburgerwhb.com
Lake Grove Diner
Lake Grove Diner (2211 Nesconset Hwy., Lake Grove): If veggie burgers were judged by size alone, the Lake Grove Diner would win, hands down, but this burger is not just a beast -- it's also a garden in miniature, with green peas, string beans, carrots, onions, and spices singing together. The patty, held together with egg whites, is deeply browned on each side before being loaded onto a sesame bun crowned with onion rings. When asked if demand is strong, manager Peter Mitsos said, "Oh my God, we can't keep up." More info: 631-471-5370. thelakegrovediner.com
Bareburger (multiple locations): Bareburger seems to have a zillion locations around New York (well, dozens, with three on Long Island) and so it naturally follows that a chain that makes bank with burgers would have deeply considered its vegetarian and vegan options. The starting point for the lengthy meatless burger menu is called The Original, and features a quarter-pound Impossible burger patty served classically with melty American cheese, caramelized onions and pickles, plus the spicy, mayo-mustard-ketchup "special" sauce giving it that extra fatty, spicy gloss. (Bareburger also uses Beyond Meat patties for alternative versions, as well as black beans, sweet potatoes and quinoa). This may not be a dead ringer for a beef burger, but it's pretty close. More info: bareburger.com
Shake Shack (multiple locations): OK, this may not necessarily be a patty, but the portobello burger at Shack Shack is a brilliant stroke that deserves an honorable mention on this list. Picture two crackly, deep-fried portobello caps that, when broken with your hungry teeth, spill molten Cheddar and muenster cheeses into your mouth. Slathered with ShackSauce, it's veggie-burger glory, but it isn't low-cal -- it's 550 calories. More info: shakeshack.com
Local Burger Co.
Local Burger Co. ((62 E. Main St. in Bay Shore and 76 W. Main St., Patchogue): This dainty quinoa and black-bean burger may seem kinda retro here, but it has a subtly nutty flavor and compressed texture, the result of serious-minded engineering. The patty is vegan and gluten-free on its own, but the house version comes with melted Swiss and sriracha mayonnaise (as well as lettuce and tomato), plus a smoky zip-code brand on the top lending a cool touch. More info: localburgerco.com