I'm about to blow your mind. Ready?
There exists a veggie burger that's as good as the real thing. And I found it.
It's always tough to find a restaurant that suits my vegetarian and vegan buddies as well as it does the rest of us omnivores. They're usually stuck with one bland dish or a pre-frozen veggie patty with "hydrolyzed" and "autolyzed" proteins that are about as close to the plant kingdom as a hunk of plastic is. So this week I went in search of a homemade faux burger crafted with real ingredients -- one that doesn't taste like paste or tofu. This one's for you, veg-heads!
In One Corner: Nourish
7147 East Rancho Vista Drive, Suite 107C, in Scottsdale
Nourish is billed as "healthy comfort food." Located in the gorgeous Optima Camelview Village on Rancho Vista just north of Camelback Rd., the eatery sports full glass windows, pretty glass tiles and two patios covered in climbing vines and other greenery. Owner and certified public speaker Kirstin Carey was smart in placing Nourish here. The flowing water fountains, gardens and overall chill vibe of Optima make you want to be healthy here. The pristine swimming pool and gym (for residents only, damn!) don't hurt either.
Nourish offers hummus, meat- and gluten-free pizzas, and salads like the fun Kitchen Sink with garbanzo beans, chiles, zucchini and a bunch of other random fresh produce. Earlier this month, Carey added Sunday brunch. Though you will find bacon on the menu, there are plenty of vegetarian options including veggie Eggs Benedict, waffle platters and quiche. I'm always wary of website testimonials, but Dave S.'s declaration that he'd "eaten countless veggie burgers in the last 5 months, and this was clearly the tastiest" piqued my interest.
There are two veggie burger options at Nourish; one a sweet potato and chickpea patty, the other a spicy black bean version with red potatoes.
I ordered the latter, thinking it might have more flavor. I wasn't disappointed there. The faux burger showed up on a bed of lettuce with a small stack of air-fried sweet potato strips (other sides like gluten-free mac and cheese can be subbed free and a gluten-free bun can be added for $2 more). Unfortunately, the first two things I noticed were that my fries were totally charred and the burger wasn't firm.
Veggie burgers made without all the chemicals and unpronounceable ingredients of the store brand (yes, Boca, I mean you) tend to be a little mushy. This one had chunks of potato that held together, but the rest of it fell apart onto my plate as my fork slid in. The burger was very starchy -- it had that unmashed potato grit, with the visible whole black beans lending an unfortunate pasty texture.
The flavor was much better. Every ingredient shined on its own. The earthiness of the potatoes and beans contrasted nicely with the spicy chopped bell peppers and onions. The only listed ingredient I couldn't taste were the cashews, which if ground up could've contributed to the odd pasty texture. If you've ever had fresh cashew butter, you know what I mean. Fresh cucumber slices on top gave the dish added crunch and avocado slices provided creaminess and rich flavor when mixed together with the other components.
Nourish's burger doesn't even resemble the real thing. But that's a bonus. There's no perfect substitute for real meat, so why try? Nourish's burger tastes like real, unprocessed food without trying to be something it's not.
In the Other Corner: Houston's
2425 E. Camelback Rd. in Phoenix
Unbeknownst to me until this battle, the Phoenix-based Houston's chain has a veggie burger that Yelpers, Urbanspooners and Chowhounders all seem to agree is the best around. LikeMe user Jessica Hill calls it "amazing." There are even folks on the 'net trying to clone their mock burger. Yes, Houston's, the restaurant known for ribs and juicy beef burgers. Who would have thought?
The Esplanade location is supposedly moving down the street to the old Chevy's spot this fall. For now, it remains as-is. Houston's has an upscale gentlemen's club vibe without making gals like me feel too out of place. The wood paneling is dark and rich, the amber lighting dimmed even during the day. Mirrors and brass rails are holdouts from a construction era gone by. I doubt any of this will stay once the restaurant moves to snazzy modern digs.
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The house-made burger is described as "Brown rice, black beans and oat bran recipe with sweet soy and melted Jack." Hmm... that sounded interesting. A gigantic bun showed up about ten minutes into my visit, overflowing with red-sauced meat substitutes. A haystack of crispy thin fries accompanied the massive burger. I bit in and...
Whoa! I have to admit the positive reviews I'd read were spot-on. There was a strong barbecue taste and a messy, crumbling texture that was more like a Sloppy Joe than a traditional meat patty. But it was delicious. The black bean, rice and bran mixture was hearty enough to stand up to the thick, soft white bun and didn't have that mealy soy taste that accompanies some homemade burgers.
Gooey melted cheese was a pleasant addition, but didn't overpower the main components of the dish. The star here was probably the sweet and tangy soy barbecue sauce that the "meaty" ingredients were drenched in, but who cares? The texture of the three main ingredients made for a palatable texture. The sauce was delectable. The cheese was a perfect accent and the bun fresh and warm. All in all, Houston's veggie burger was better than 90% of the beef burgers I've had in Phoenix restaurants.
The Winner: Houston's, hands down. If you want something truly healthful, head to Nourish. If taste is your primary concern, Houston's is the way to go.