I went to New York City recently, which is a thing I generally avoid doing. The streets are overrun with rats dragging slices of bready pizza, all the palm trees are replaced with giant piles of garbage, and trying to read a Subway map is like staring into the Matrix.
But I was there, and as is the appropriate way to cope with uncomfortable situations, I ate. I reached out to everyone I knew who had ever been associated with the city for restaurant recs, and there was one place that kept showing up in the flurry of David Chang spots, far-away Brooklyn pizzerias, and white tablecloth restaurants I could never afford: Superiority Burger.
It’s a six-seat vegetarian burger shack opened by former Del Posto pastry chef and Born Against drummer Brooks Headley. And, in case you couldn’t tell by any of the words in that last sentence, it is very cool. The lettering on the sign is deliberately plain and askew, and the water comes from one of those ten-gallon Gatorade dispensers with a taped-on cardboard sign. It feels like a cultivated fast-food version of Jacobim Mugatu’s Derelicte campaign, which is not dissimilar to how a New Yorker might describe their first experience walking into Gjusta.
Superiority Burger became New York’s critical darling almost overnight. Pete Wells gave it two stars for the New York Times; three Eater NY writers sung its praises; then, one-upping every other ghost in the hype machine, GQ crowned the quinoa, bean, nut, and many other secret things-based burger the best in the nation. Not the best veggie burger; the best burger.
Then I ate it, and that weird thing happened where you’ve built something up in your mind for so long that you’re not quite sure what’s happening in your mouth. The patty was charred, the bun was squishy, the cheese was melty, the pickles were pickled, and it had all the trappings of a solid burger—I just don’t know if I’d put it up there with any of the best beefy competitors. Then again, Superiority Burger didn’t ask to be put there; the restaurant didn’t create the hyperbole, the critical pissing contest did.
After second and third guessing myself—Is the patty gummy? Does it taste too much like mashed carrots? Why do I fetishize iceberg lettuce so much?—I realized that I had never had a better veggie burger. Or I didn’t think I had. Or maybe I had and forgot, because veggie burgers aren’t typically a food you eat to remember. The only way I could make sense of it all was to go on a good-old-fashioned veggie burger crawl when I got back to L.A. and get a fresh perspective. Six restaurants, six meatless meat patties, one Saturday, and a whole bunch of traffic.
I wanted to find veggie burgers that fit the same down and dirty fast food style that Superiority Burger embodies; which is to say none of the wheat-bunned, alfalfa sprout-topped quinoa patties that might be found at your typical granola vegan bistro. This is by no means a comprehensive list of L.A.’s best meatless burgers—far from it—just the select few, predominantly Westsiders that I could get to in one day before passing out from a plant-based calorie coma.
Stop #1: Veggie Burger Double Up from Plan Check
(Full disclosure: I interned for Plan Check in college, though in my time there I never tried the veggie burger.)
The burger: This was the burger I was most optimistic about and the one that seems to most closely fit the Superiority ethos. The patties are made from kale, mushrooms, cashew, and yucca, and the house-made American cheese, butter lettuce, and fried onion strings give it the feel of a fast food burger with no intentions of it being otherwise. Though it’s not on the permanent menu (yet…) it makes very regular appearances on their special boards.
The verdict: Is it absolutely tasty? Yes. 100 percent. Is it as good as Superiority Burger? As much as I want to say yes and root for the Left Coast—shit, it just wasn’t. The double-stacked patties and hemorrhaging cheese made it feel consciously indulgent, like the burger was self-aware to the point of self-hatred. Any of that tasty yucca and cashew flavor gets drowned out by its delicious accoutrements and the intention behind the patty is never quite clear. At Superiority Burger, you know you’re eating vegetables, and you’re happy about it.
Stop #2: Black Bean from Umami Burger
The burger: I fudged up and this burger never should have made the route, but I had already called to order a “veggie burger” for pickup, so there was no turning back. Umami used to have a vegetarian option called the Earth Burger made with charred corn, beets, mushrooms, and tons of other good things that came highly recommended from vegans and non vegans alike. They’ve since replaced that on the menu with this chalky black bean patty topped with a bunch of offensively crunchy carrots and cilantro.
The verdict: Nah. Just…. nah.
Stop #3: VG-Cheeseburger from Veggie Grill
The burger: Though I tried to avoid any vegan chain restaurants, if you consult the map above, you’ll notice this was right next to Umami and Plan Check. Might as well stop in and see what’s up. It’s on a wheat bun—never a good sign—and the patty is made from a combination of wheat, soy, and veggie proteins. But it gets points for being a very burger-y burger, in the same way that a golden retriever gets points for being a very dog-y dog.
The verdict: If the goal was to make a vegan facsimile of the cheeseburger eating experience, Veggie Grill got this thing spot on. If the goal was to make genuinely good tasting food, they have some work to do. Biting into it brings back a flood of taste memories from elementary school cafeteria processed beef patties, but give me a pint of lukewarm chocolate milk to go along with this and that’s a balanced lunch.
Stop #4: Organic Quinoa Veggie Burger from Burger Lounge
The Burger: As the official, trademarked name would have you believe, the patty is made from organic quinoa (along with brown rice, zucchini, garbanzo, and corn), and it’s served up “Lounge-Style” with American cheese, grilled onion, leaf lettuce, tomato, and house-made 1000 Island.
The Verdict: You were so close, Burger Lounge! Look! You can even see the griddle-char on the patty! I wanted to love you so badly, OQVB, but I you crumbled and fell out of the bun after the first bite and left me picking up the pieces wondering what might have been. Even then, the patty was pretty soulless; there was no flavor, no complexity, and nothing other than need for nutrients that incentivized you to take another bite.
Stop #5: Vegan Big Mac from Doomie’s Home Cookin’
The Burger: It’s off-menu, but this triple-decker has become a staple at this Hollywood cult vegan joint. Three buns, a vegan cashew cheese spread that tastes cheesier than real cheese, iceberg lettuce, secret sauce, and two cruelty free patties. It’s an absolute spectacle.
The Verdict: It’s satisfying. It is so, so, so, so damn satisfying. It’s almost indistinguishable from a real Big Mac except that you get an extra flavor boost from what tastes like either autolyzed yeast extract or liquid aminos. But that doesn’t necessarily make it better than Superiority Burger. A chalupa from Taco Bell might be more satisfying than one of Wes Avila’s sweet potato tacos because it has more fat, salt, and MSG substitutes—and, when it comes down to it, we’re all slaves to our own biology and instincts.
Still, the burger at Doomie’s lacks any of the subtlety, balance, and—frankly—skill that you get at Superiority Burger. Anyone can slap a textured soy protein patty on a bun with a schmear of cashew cheese and call it a Big Mac, but the experience eating a Superiority Burger is absolutely made better knowing that someone crafted that mush of quinoa, beans, and nuts from their own hands. I don’t care, I’m gladly diving mouth-first into the artisan-industrial complex.
Stop #6: Housemade Vegan Burger from Burgerlords
The Burger: The patty is made from grains and nuts, some of which are left whole to add texture, and it gets thrown on a well-toasted bun with raw white onion, leaf lettuce, tomato, vegan Thousand Island, and vegan cheese. It’s pure, un-messed-with Americana in a bun, just without any of the cow parts.
The Verdict: Even though I was for sure losing the battle to palate fatigue at this point, Burgerlords for sure came closest to reaching the Gestaltian ideal of what a burger should be. The slightly nutty, sweet, and vegetal patty held up, the bun squished, the onions crunched, and the Thousand Island did its best In-n-Out impersonation.
So, now that we have a burger that can be placed in direct one-to-one comparison to Superiority Burger—was it better? Did L.A. do it? Did we beat the hype machine and take the veggie burger crown that, as a city that gets constantly ripped on for our restricted diets, rightfully belongs to us? NO. NO WE DIDN’T AND I HATE IT. I hate that Superiority Burger is that good, I hate that I resisted it in the first place, and I hate that I needed to spend five hours consuming thousands of calories just to emotionally understand a three-inch diameter mashed bean and nut patty.