Until Amanda Cohen opened Lekka Burger, whose vegan patties will make anyone want to go out onto a rooftop with a megaphone and declare them to be on par with the carnivorous fare at Shake Shack, she had never served a veggie burger. This wasn’t necessarily a huge omission. At modern vegetarian restaurants like Cohen’s Dirt Candy, chefs tend to shy away from fake meats — along the lines of the laboratory-engineered Impossible Burger — or anything overly manipulated. Our prevailing vegetable-heavy zeitgeist favors creative toasts, grain bowls, pastas, dosas, juices, and a variety of other lightly handled dishes.
Then again, sometimes people just want a burger. And it’s a sad reality that ambitious brasseries and taverns haven’t pursued plant-based patties with as much dedication as they procure bespoke beef blends. There’s also the fact that if a given venue offers a veggie burger, it rarely serves more than one.
Lekka sells five of them.
New York, in other words, could use a few more places like Lekka, a vegan hangout where there’s hard kombucha and nitro matcha on tap, where a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game helps kill some time before the food arrives, and where a large, restaurant-quality burger, brimming with as much flavor as good beef, runs just $10 to $12.
South African philanthropist Andrea Kerzner, who recruited Cohen, opened the fast-casual venue last fall to overcome “the damage and negative carbon footprint created by the cattle and dairy industry,” per the website. The burgers contain no soy, gluten, or dairy. But while notions of environmental stewardship and “health” function as key draws for the conscious consumer, the principal attraction at Lekka is simple: The food tastes great.
A few minutes after ordering, you retrieve a guacamole burger, hop on an orange swivel stool at the blond-wood bar, and inhale. The burger smells of smoke and packs a crisp char. The texture inside is warm and soft, while a slick of guacamole imparts a fatty richness. Jalapeños add heat; onions add crunch; petals of cilantro give off a grassy perfume; and a Japanese-style milk bun acts as a pillowy conveyance mechanism. You pair this with a strawberry shake ($6.95) made from oat milk, the true dairy-free milk of the gods. The cool creaminess tames the heat of the chiles, while the fragrant sweetness counteracts the saltiness of the patty.
They’re some of the city’s finest burgers and shakes. And if all goes according to plan, Kerzner could open up nine more New York locations over the next five years.
To understand the importance of Lekka Burger and venues like it, consider the following: When I mentioned to a colleague that I was reviewing veggie burgers, they replied that I should test-drive a particularly good one at a nearby coffee shop. Unfortunately, that outlet no longer offers it because the kitchen switched to the Impossible Foods variety — the kind used by Burger King nationwide.
The Impossible Burger is a solid fast-food option because it takes a uniform cut of (low-quality) real meat and replaces it with a uniform cut of (high-quality) fake meat. But the true beauty of vegetable burgers is that they exhibit a more bountiful diversity of flavors and textures than Silicon Valley-manufactured patties — or, quite frankly, their gourmet beef-based cousins.
These days, it’s as if every other restaurant is dishing up yet another bovine blend — by Pat LaFrieda or whomever else — that’s only marginally different from the next one. That’s not the case with veggie burgers. Some are pleasantly coarse and mysteriously beefy, like By Chloe’s thin tempeh and lentil version. Others are wonderfully squishy yet toothsome, like the Superiority Burger. Once upon a time, April Bloomfield even sold a very good one with garam masala, beet, and sweet potato vermicelli.
Restaurant veggie burgers, in short, serve as a chance to try something handmade from wildly eclectic ingredients — instead of defaulting to a pre-packaged Angus variety (or meat alternative) from a marquee supplier.
Lekka’s masterful patties, inspired by Cohen’s experimentations with yuguanfei, an ancient Chinese meat substitute, are a superb addition to the burger community. The chef is secretive about much of the process, but the ingredients include portobellos, beans, gluten-free grains, smoked onions, and an under-wraps substance that gels everything together amid the heat of the grill. Each patty boasts a lofty height — nearly an inch — and a diameter on par with $30 beef burgers.
Unexpected flavor combinations also let Lekka stand out from the pack. The guacamole burger is a good place to start, as is the peri peri version, spiked with a kick of warming South African hot sauce. Or consider the masala option, loaded with papadum crisps for crunch and doused in tamarind ketchup for a wicked kick of acidity. The latter didn’t have much of a sear on the night I tried it, but that wasn’t a problem. The soft mouthfeel recalled the loosely bound texture of the Red Hook Tavern burger, albeit with a pleasant hint of mushroom-y bounciness.
Ordering proceeds as at most fast-casual venues: Patrons wait in line, pay, pick up their food when a buzzer activates, and take it back to a blue-cushioned booth. Those who order at the bar, which is stocked with draft chardonnay and local beers, pay after eating.
Be sure to consume the burgers quickly, letting their piping-hot temperature warm up your GI tract like chicken soup. Unlike an animal burger, whose juiciness and mouthfeel improve as it rests, every Lekka specimen I sampled deteriorates upon cooling. The complex flavors remain, but the soft, nimble texture turns a touch gritty.
Also beware the classic cheeseburger, as the blend of warm lettuce, pallid tomatoes, neon green pickles, and (fake) cheese sauce mimics the impure odor of a Big Mac. For those who find that sort of thing enjoyable, however, rest assured that this option is about as tasty as the fast-food staple — or a run-of-the-mill pub burger.
Too bad the crinkle fries ($3.95) aren’t better. Even if they’re the first thing you eat, they can turn out dense and mealy. Better are the “messy fries” ($5.25) drenched with cheese sauce, veganaise, hatch chile sauce, and tamarind ketchup; the condiments render the crisp tubers spicy, sticky, and pleasantly limp. Should Lekka ever open in Hell’s Kitchen or the East Village, where it’s not uncommon to find a bar or restaurant filled with revelers well past midnight, those sloppy frites and a burger would make a fine late-night snack.
For now, the venue shutters at 10 p.m. on a quiet slice of Warren Street in Tribeca, though patrons continue to come in just before closing. Few seem to be ordering those oat-milk shakes, which is their loss, because the vegan beverage is closer to a sippable, meal-friendly drink than the dessert-like indulgence one might encounter at McDonald’s or Black Tap. Try one with chunks of halvah, which seem to double the natural nuttiness of the oat milk. Or for something thicker and richer, a cup of vanilla and beet soft serve, more tangy than sweet or vegetal, sates without overwhelming the stomach.
Well, it might overwhelm a little. Every now and then you hear about how much better people feel after converting to a plant-based lifestyle. I’m not one of those people. Meat, in modest portions, gives me life force. When I eat a few slices of prime rib or a plate of vaca frita, my gums tighten up and my body seems to glow as if it spent an hour out in the sun. When I eat Lekka’s burger, by contrast, and pair it with a shake and fries, I feel as lethargic as I do after a hefty order at Shake Shack. This is as it should be. This is junk food, no matter the disguise or elevation. And for this overhauled American indulgence, the pleasure justifies the pain.