Brooks Headley opened Superiority Burger last night, officially unleashing the veggie burger apocalypse on New York City. Eater critics Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton, along with burger columnist Nick Solares, stopped by and somehow managed to make it out alive. Here’s what they thought.
Robert Sietsema: Punk Rock Fast Food Hits the East Village Like a Buzzsaw
A light rain had begun to fall when word spread like a hallucinogenic gas that Superiority Burger had finally opened on East 9th Street just off of Tompkins Square. I should explain, in case you've been hiding under a mushroom the last few months, that Superiority is the fast food project of Brooks Headley, punk rock drummer, cookbook author, and former executive pastry chef at Del Posto. The burger in particular, and to a lesser extent the broccoli salad, have been on the drawing board for over two years, having enlivened countless events both public and private, from the Choice Eats Festival to annual charity cotillions at Housing Works to Bon Appetit and Lucky Peach parties.
I arrived by bike from Bushwick to find a knot of people milling around in a cone of light issuing from the space. It was not the kind of crowd that likes to line up. Customers were sitting on the nearby stoops and standing up, waiting for their orders or munching happily on vegetarian hamburgers. Inside, the vibe was laid back in the white-tiled front room. The six seats arrayed along the walls were all taken, each with a desk top that hinged upward and then penned you in like an adult high chair. On the walls, a photo of the Shaggs — a legendary all-sisters garage rock band that were famously tone deaf; an old-fashioned menu board, letters askew, listing the six offerings; and a White Castle advertising placard circa 1960, assuring you it's okay to eat burgers for breakfast.
The burger is unqualifiedly delicious
Pointedly, the entire menu is vegetarian. As the menu board excitedly proclaims, throwing punctuation to the winds, "Everything is vegetarian a lot is accidentally vegan just ask!" The namesake burger ($6) is quite a different animal than the one that first appeared on the scene two years ago. The present patty looks just like beef and has a nutty and grainy texture and savor. The bun is squishy and the toppings are limited to mustard and dill pickles, making it more Whataburger than White Castle. It is unqualifiedly delicious.
Switching gears, the "burnt broccoli salad" ($8) might be mistaken for Thai food, buoying slices of bright red bird chile and fronds of cilantro. "Hey, this is spicy," a fellow diner intoned with appreciation, or maybe she was complaining. To my taste, the best thing on the menu is the sloppy joe ($7), a dish common 30 years ago but now so discredited I can't think of anyone else serving it. This version is red and slightly sweet, flavored with bell peppers and flecked with tofu and strips of what might be tempeh. There's a hint of cumin in the spicing.
The last and perhaps least exciting selection was a burrito labeled a "hippy wrap." It harkens back to the days, circa 1970, when vegetarian cooking was all brown rice and steamed veggies, and flavoring was limited to onions and a light touch of curry powder — before we realized that real Indian cooking is virtually all spices. The hippy burrito ain't bad, man, it's just not as exciting as the other selections.
Superiority Burger is the latest installment in the field of fashion-forward fast food. Headley's entry outflanks the Shake Shack burger and Fuku chicken sandwich ethically by being vegetarian and probably less calorific; it also incorporates a touch of whimsy the others lack. As one friend pointed out, "This food is ugly!" Like a Sex Pistols song, it's all sharp edges and dissonance, but you can't help going away humming it.
P.S. None of the foregoing applies to the vanilla labne gelato and strawberry sorbet. These are the work of a master pastry chef, and as good as you've ever tasted in your life.
Ryan Sutton: This Veggie Burger Is Proof That Fast Food Burgers Don't Need Meat
In our chic era of vegetable-heavy cooking, produce, while often seasoned with succulent bits of meat or fish, is still supposed to taste like actual produce. A cauliflower steak is meant to taste like cauliflower, not steak, and it's meant to taste good. It's a kick-ass culinary ethos that has convinced certain refined omnivores to eat more plants, and to appreciate vegetables for what they are, as opposed to what they aren't. And this is all what makes Superiority Burger, which opened in Manhattan's East Village last night, such an intensely interesting outlier. The venue's veggie burger doesn't taste like veggies. It tastes like a burger. And based on visit just hours after opening, it tastes pretty darn great.
Superiority's space, manned by Brooks Headley, Del Posto's recently departed pastry chef, is small; culinary historians will recall it as the original home of Amanda Cohen's Dirt Candy. Here, Cohen sold broccoli hot dogs that actually tasted like real hot dogs. The history of fake meat on East 9th street is STRONG.
The menu is small too. No fries are offered, just a broccoli salad, a wrap, a vegetarian Sloppy Joe, and the burger.
I won't deign to opine on whether Superiority is the best vegetarian burger out there, as such comestibles aren't regularly part of my critical or civilian diet the way caviar, foie gras, prime rib, carnitas tacos, lamb shank, pork trotters, nduja, or tripe are. So I won't compare it to the heralded veggie burgers at Hillstone, Candle Cafe, Bareburger, and elsewhere. But here's what I will say, from the perspective of someone who ate a bit too much fast food while growing up on Long Island: The Superiority Burger is a more refined and more delicious substitute for the McDonald's quarter pounder.
Think of it this way: Just as you'd never throw your hands up in the air and exclaim, wow, these McDonald's chicken McNuggets really do taste like chicken, you wouldn't say that the chain's burgers taste like beef, at least not for more than a second or so. But you would say a McDonald's burger tastes good (maybe), because you're eating what's likely a focus group-tested and scientifically engineered combination of fat, protein, salt, sugar, and carbohydrates.
And so when you eat a Superiority burger, you get all of those gorgeous sensations, except you're eating something concocted by a world-class chef. The patty — which a secretive cashier tells me is made from grains, beans, and a bit of tofu — has a gorgeous char evocative of Shake Shack's griddled bovine specimen. On the inside, the faux-beef is super soft, like a warm French terrine minus the pork and lard. Cool pickles add acidity while warm tomatoes add sweetness. The potato bun boasts just the right amount of squish. And the patty itself packs a neutral taste, with malty, salty, slightly peppery overtones. This veggie burger isn't an essay in the intrinsic beauty of vegetables, it's about mouthfeel and umami and letting the zip and zang of the condiments shine. More importantly: You don't feel like garbage after you eat it. You feel kind of good, in fact. It simultaneously tastes like fast food and real food. And not a single animal had to die to create it. The only gustatory pleasure you sacrifice with this meatless creation is that nano-second of beefiness, after which your McDonald's burger essentially turns into a greasy mass of textured salt protein. I know this is true because I had a quarter pounder with cheese after my Superiority Burger, and it made me want to yak.
So to repeat: I'm not saying that Superiority Burger is better than other veggie burgers; I'm saying it's better than most real fast food hamburgers – ambitious and delicious outliers like Shack Shack notwithstanding. This is no small matter. Imagine if chain restaurants sold Superiority burgers instead of ones made from craptacular commodity beef? Imagine all the cattle that wouldn't have to be slaughtered. Imagine how much smaller a carbon footprint Big Food would have. Imagine how many more people would develop a deeper appreciation for meat-free, plant-based nourishment.
Falling in love with vegetables, for certain urban omnivores, is a product of eating out at reasonably expensive restaurants that serve butter-drenched mushrooms (which cost more by the pound than dry-aged steak) and Michelin Bras-style gargouillou salads (whose components are plucked from bespoke farms). But if you want to convince Americans as a whole to eat more vegetables, you serve them vegetables that (kind of) taste like meat. You serve them something affordable. You serve them Superiority burgers. Or broccoli hot dogs. Or vegetarian Sloppy Joe sandwiches (which, in the case of this establishment, simply uses firm soy protein to carry the flavor of cumin). The truth of the matter is that when you're eating most fast food burgers or frankfurters, you're not really tasting the meat, you're tasting everything else that covers up the meat. So in many cases, you might as well just skip the meat.
Oh, and as a reward for eating your vegetables at Superiority, you get a cup of labne ice cream with strawberry sorbet for $4, a creamsicle in a cup by one of our great pastry chefs. It's a good deal. It's a strong buy.
Nick Solares: Never Mind the Bollocks — Here's Superiority Burger.
"Eastside Jimmy and Southside Sue both say they needed something new"
It’s 7:20 pm on the bustling opening night at Superiority Burger. Gates of the West by The Clash pulses over the sound system while a cadre of cooks wearing prim white paper hats form a phalanx across the kitchen; a kid in Black Flag t-shirt is scarfing down a veggie burger as hungry art lovers from a gallery show across the street spill into the space. Brooks Headley is sweeping the floor. Superiority Burger’s spartan website states that the restaurant's core value is humility. That certainly seems to be so.
There are all sorts of homages to burger culture here: The seating features flip-up tables, just like the ones that used to exist at the shuttered Prime Burger and were know colloquially as "the track." The paper hats the staff wear, along with the gleaming white tile, harkens back to the birth of White Castle. The poster for said pioneering fast food chain that hangs proudly on the wall exhorting you to eat burgers for breakfast completes the montage. It's as if Headley is telling you, "It’s okay to feel nostalgic about burgers, but now you know better — Superiority Burger is better." At least from the perspective of health, but also, arguably, from an ethical standpoint: Everything on the menu is vegetarian and many items are "accidentally vegan." The menu is sparse, utilitarian, and laid out like a punk fanzine. It contains two sandwiches, a wrap, a side, a dessert, and a drink.
Now you know better – Superiority Burger is better
Now I must admit that while my knowledge of hamburgers is as deep as my punk rock record collection, I have about as much knowledge of veggie burgers as I have prog rock or disco albums. So I brought along an expert: my vegan, punk rock girlfriend who hasn’t eaten meat in seven years (she has great taste in music, but terrible taste in food and men). We order both vegetarian and vegan versions of the Superiority Burger and the sloppy Joe. We skipped the hippy wrap because, well, it’s a hippy wrap. The principal difference between the sandwiches we order is that the bread on the vegetarian one is the virtually ubiquitous Martin’s potato roll (which contains milk) while the vegan option has a more artisanal bun. The vegan sandwich also obviously forgoes the cheese in favor of a non-dairy substitute.
But aside from those two differences, the burgers are appointed in an identical fashion with a slow-cooked tomato, lettuce, pickles, and a non-dairy special sauce variant. Bundled in brown wax paper, the sandwich emerges tightly molded and looks remarkably like an actual hamburger. So much so that biting into it is a little disorientating because it tastes nothing like an actual hamburger. Certainly the toppings, which form a wonderful melange of flavor, are the real deal, but the patty isn’t going to satisfy a vociferous carnivore. Despite having a truly impressive sear and a somewhat meaty texture it doesn’t have the mouthfeel or the juiciness of meat. How could it? It is constructed from tofu, beans, and grains.
But that isn’t the point. The salient question is how does Superiority Burger compare to other veggie burgers, and here my girlfriend was unequivocal in her praise: "It’s the closest thing that I have had to a traditional hamburger in seven years. It doesn’t crumble and fall apart, and it’s not too wet or dense — it holds together nicely." She adds that she liked the cheese substitute, which is usually waxy, heavy and glue-like. "This one was greasy in an appropriate way, and had an appealing flavor that complemented the patty. I don’t even like tomatoes, but the toppings here were perfect, no avocado or fake bacon, which are totally played out." Her only criticism echoed my own: The vegan bun is too dense and unyielding, pushing out the patty rather than conforming around it. The bun also doesn’t span the patty all the way, leaving much of it exposed. But these quibbles aside, this is the best veggie burger she has had.
I was far more impressed with the sloppy Joe than I was by the burger. It came much closer to replicating the experience of the meat version because the sandwich comes in a sweet and tart tomato sauce that dominates the palate. In fact I didn’t feel I was missing out on anything eating this sandwich.
"Or in a ghetto cellar only yesterday, there’s a move into the future for the USA"
There must be something cathartic for Headley, who happens to plays drums in a punk band, to cook such visceral, lumpen food compared to ornate, bourgeois (dare I say effete?) work at his last job as pastry chef at the four-star Del Posto. But this is punk rock food beyond the mere aesthetic trappings of spray painted signs and The Clash playing in the background. The adoption of a strictly vegetarian menu taps in to moral and ethical zeitgeist that is an important part of the future of food. I would love to see what this world-class chef could do with a real hamburger, but I also have a great deal respect for the fact that Headley went in the opposite direction.
Would I come here and eat the Superiority Burger instead of going Veselka, Black Market, Whitman's, or The Brindle Room for a burger? Not a chance, but the East Village obviously already has enough great burgers. I'll be coming here regularly with my girlfriend to eat the sloppy Joe while she enjoys the best veggie burger on earth.