Vegetarian patties — discs made of legumes or potatoes — have existed for millennia, while vegetarian burgers, in their modern forms, have been readily available from local grocers for decades. So it’s surprising that even in an era when meat-free fare is widely viewed as mainstream fare, America’s most prominent fast food chains haven’t really found space for a permanent, nationwide plant-based burger. Theoretically, if the highly paid corporate chefs of Big Food can find a way to make questionable cuts of cow not taste terrible, vegetables should be less of a problem.
There are, of course, a few notable exceptions. White Castle is testing out the ‘bleeding” Impossible slider in select cities; as I write elsewhere in the Eater universe, it would be great to see that patty go national. At Shake Shack, industry titan Danny Meyer’s rapidly expanding burger chain, there’s long been an meat-free option — but it’s not quite a vegetarian burger. That option is a fried portobello mushroom stuffed with oozing cheese, essentially a fatty bar snack sandwiched between a bun (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
But as of Thursday, Meyer’s chain has started testing a proper vegetarian burger, which it’s serving at New York’s Astor Place, Midtown East, and Upper East Side locations. The patty, formed from a blend of black beans, brown rice, and roasted beets, is thrown on one of the chain’s famous potato rolls and topped with a salad-like pile of lettuce, onions, tomato, pickles, and provolone. Unlike White Castle’s Impossible burger, this one’s not quite ready for primetime.
The exterior boasts a noticeable crunch — which is supposed to mimic the maillard char of a burger — but this crunch trends a bit coarse, with a flavor that can evoke a burnt eggplant. The crimson interior, in turn, is mostly sweet mush, with a few toothsome bites here and there, likely from those potatoes. I get a whiff of cumin, but otherwise, what Shake Shack has created is essentially a bland, over-sugared vegetable patty. When consumed with all the condiments, it’s an edible enough affair, but it doesn’t boast that head-spinning “Sometimes I’d rather have this than a beef patty” succulence that has turned Brooks Headley’s Superiority Burger into one of the city’s best patty joints.
But then again, Thursday was just the first day of this test run. And Shake Shack deserves credit for offering what’s essentially a lighter alternative to its portobello burger. That option, incidentally, was a wholly-flavorless mess of crunch when sampled earlier today, so I’d say the chain has a bit of work to do with vegetables.
The good news, however, is that the beef burger is still great. Though I suppose that doesn’t solve the problem at hand.