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In Search of the Perfect Veggie Burger 

Four restaurants later, we found it. And it's made of beets.

click to enlarge The vegan burger at Hill's Restaurant - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • The vegan burger at Hill's Restaurant

I want a burger without meat. I want it big and messy. It should drip down my chin like the ones in those Carl’s Jr. commercials. And while it should be flavorful, it shouldn’t taste like meat. Most importantly, it should be made from real ingredients. (Try sinking your canines into a slab of Tofurky….)

But this isn’t easy for a vegetarian in the Inland Northwest. Most restaurants only cater to the meat elite, while they gag the herbivorous with frozen burgers made of God-knows-what from who-knows-where.

So I went looking for a delicious, handmade bean burger. About 50 phone calls and four restaurants later, I found some burgers that were delectably edible.

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives recently bestowed fame on HILL’S RESTAURANT & LOUNGE (401 W. Main Ave., 747-3946) for its pulled-pork sandwiches, so I’m a little nervous ordering the vegan burger — especially because it’s not on the menu. 

But this burger ($9.50) is bigger than my face. The spicy patty rests on a heavenly bed of lettuce, tomato and red onion, wedged inside a buttery bun. Its crispy red edges crumble at my touch. Three bites and it’s all over my notebook.

“I guess the vegan burger is kind of a secret,” says head chef and owner David Hill. “It’s mentioned on a sign at the door but I don’t want to give away the recipe.” After some prodding, he reveals that the patty is made with beets, black beans, brown rice and shiitake mushrooms, but he won’t divulge what he uses for a binding agent. (It’s not egg.)

Hill created the burger because “there are so many crummy veggie burgers out there,” he says. “I used to be vegan before I went to culinary school. This recipe is something I crafted over the years, but I’m not going to say it’s perfected.”

I beg to disagree.

But quitting my journey here would be too easy. And because the beer and the old boys at the bar aren’t enticing enough for me to stay for another round, I head toward the flickering beer signs of the TWO SEVEN PUBLIC HOUSE (2727 S. Mount Vernon St., 473-9766).

Kitchen manager Kevin Russell seems happy to talk about his menu.

“The secret to a good veggie burger is texture and flavor,” Russell says. “You’ve got to get the right combination of spices because without bacon, nothing tastes good.”

He tells me their jalapeño bean burger ($8.50) is made of anasazi beans, bread crumbs, cilantro, cumin, chili powder and mixed vegetables. His chefs are anomalous, he says, because they make veggie burgers from scratch.

“Lots of restaurants throw frozen crap on a bun,” he says. “When we decided to do the vegetarian burger, we wanted to make something that was substantial and delicious, not just a standard chunk of vegetable protein.”

The open-face burger is served with lettuce, red onions and tomato. At first bite, the burger slips out of my hands and reveals a tangy, orange-stained bun that tastes sweet and spicy, like a good Buffalo sauce.

The beans are blended, fried crispy around the edges, and have an almost nutty flavor that complements the jalapeño bite. Tomato and chipotle mayonnaise rain onto my plate. Mmm.

My fingers are sticky by now, and the sweet smell of black beans has settled in my hair. It’s been a good run so far. But how can I call myself an angry vegetarian (see first paragraph) if I don’t uncover every bun, every homemade burger this city has to offer?

So I leave downtown and head for DOWNRIVER GRILL (3315 W. Northwest Blvd., 323-1600), just a stone’s throw from Audubon Park, where tall trees and cottage-style houses dominate the landscape. Inside, the waiter looks confused when I order a bean burger. He hurries back to the kitchen.

Did I make a mistake coming here?

While I wait, I watch the jovial crew of cooks — all of them bearded, in baseball caps, discussing Frank Zappa.

Finally, head chef Shawn Wheeler and his bright red goatee come out to greet me. Wheeler explains that Downriver’s black bean cake ($10) is traditionally served under fish, but he’s excited to slap it on a bun.

“My favorite way is to serve it straight-up like an all-American burger,” he says. “It’s not going to blow you away with originality, but at least it’s not processed.”

Wheeler says the restaurant once served frozen burgers but now uses a patty of cumin, chili powder and jalapeños as a fresher option. “People kinda get stuck in the rut as far as what they think vegetarian food can be,” he says. “But with good ingredients, there are really no boundaries.”

Wheeler’s burger is gorgeous and tasty. Caramelized onions rest atop lettuce, tomato, red onion and some fancy sprout I’m not refined enough to identify. The flavoring is almost Southwestern and the creamy, pureed black beans, while good, would feel more appropriate on a tortilla.

By the time I finish this third burger, I’m grumpy: There is a reason the human diet doesn’t consist entirely of beans.

But indigestion be damned! I’ve got a job to do and one more burger to overcome.

The Pepto-Bismol jingle gives me some comfort in the car as I make my way back across, down and up to the 9TH STREET BISTRO at Huckleberry’s Natural Market (926 S. Monroe St., 624-3946).

My sloppy black-bean burger ($7.50) is on the small side of the spectrum. It’s made with cilantro, garlic and rice flour and served with the standard vegetables. The bun is soggy with tomato-pesto mayonnaise, but the condiments don’t distract from the black pepper, which torches my senses with a dry heat that makes me run for the ketchup. I wonder if it’s a bad batch, but it seems intentional.

Executive chef Nicholas Marinovich said the burger was “doctored up” to avoid tasting bland.

“You shouldn’t have to sacrifice flavor to be a vegetarian,” says Marinovich. “It’s easy to season different ingredients and vegetables.”

Despite the execution, Marinovich is dedicated to providing vegetarian options. (Huckleberry’s has five fake-meat-product burgers.) He explains that unlike the bistro, most restaurants cater to a specific clientele, and vegetarian options become an afterthought.

“Restaurants use frozen patties because they want an easy fix, but there’s no passion there,” he says. “These are the places that try to get people in to buy the $20 steaks rather than bring in as many people as possible.”

Oh, well, I’m happy to have found a few good burgers.

It’s even OK that these restaurants share similar methods and even recipes. Nothing beats handmade craftsmanship. That’s why Hill’s vegan burger trumps them all. The burger is creative and the flavors surprise with each bite. You can taste the time David Hill spent working on this.

Looks like I found the prop for my Carl’s Jr. commercial. 

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