If you asked me on April 30 if a carrot-nut “burger” qualified as a burger, I’d probably laugh and quote the Good Book penned by the famed burger philosopher John T Edge:
“A burger is made with beef. As far as I’m concerned, there are no such things as salmon burgers or crab-cake burgers or shrimp burgers…don’t sully the name of the burger. Ditto grains and vegetables.”
But May is different. May is National Hamburger Month. A month where we are taught to be tolerant — nay accepting — of alternative food choices. So for the month of May, I’ll allow veggie and vegan and turkey patties to borrow the burger name. I took a break from my normal beef brigade to sample some of the vegetarian “burgers” Sacramento has to offer. I’ll try not to use air quotes every time I call them “burgers”, but no guarantees.
Maybe I should preface this all by saying: I hate vegetables. Hate is probably too strong of a word. I’m just trying to be fully transparent here. As a kid, we didn’t have the farm-to-fork capital’s bounty at our fingertips, so the canned, uber-cooked vegetables that were part of my “must clean your plate” dinner rituals as a kid put me off of intentionally choosing to have vegetables on my plate as an adult. In the past few years, thanks to some of Sacramento’s great chefs, I’ve grown to appreciate that vegetables on a plate doesn’t have to equal green mush. I intentionally ate my first brussels sprouts that didn’t make me vomit (and that I actually enjoyed) a couple months ago at bacon & butter. I say all this in the interest of full disclosure. Have your grains of salt at the ready.
Enough with the verbal selfie. First I tried the standard. This place seems to have won the hearts of omnivores and vegetarians alike. When you talk about good beef burgers around town, Sunflower Drive-In still gets namedropped. It usually goes something like: “Have you been out to Sunflower? They do an awesome veggie burger”.
The non-vegetarians either qualify their love with an adverb:
Or flat out emoji rave about how good it is:
Then they hit you with the friendly chicken warning:
Sunflower Drive-In in old town Fair Oaks has been a Sacramento area staple for over 35 years. Their legendary Nutburger is described as a “nutmeat” patty served on a whole wheat bun with sauce, onions, pickles, tomatoes, romaine lettuce and sprouts.
They can make this burger vegan upon request, but I ordered it “as is” and dug in with an open mind. The patty had a firm, dry, crunchy texture, almost like a granola bar. The most notable flavor in the burger was cumin and the only “juiciness” came from the fresh produce toppings and from the liberal amounts of mayonnaise spread on the toasted buns. The flavors and textures reminded me more of a taco salad I might make at home more than it reminded me of a burger experience. On the plus side, the patty held together well throughout the meal. On the downside, the whole wheat bun seemed a little too grocery-store-ish. Clearly they have a taste that people crave. No less than a dozen people came to the window to excitedly order the Nutburger as I lunched.
Oh, and I saw the chickens :)
Next up is the newcomer to the Sacramento vegetarian scene: Mother Restaurant in downtown Sacramento. Even though they only opened in January of this year, they’ve already earned sparkling reviews from just anybody you ask. Disclaimer: one of the Sacramento Foodways founders (not me) is a partner in this restaurant. He probably wouldn’t write about his own restaurant on principle, but with all their recent press it’d almost be weird if I left them out. I’d describe Mother as a hip, chef-y, farm to fork, casual restaurant serving comfort food that just happens to not have meat in it. I don’t know if there’s a stigma to “vegetarian restaurants”, but they seem to have avoided it.
They have a vegan Carrot Nut burger on their daily menu, but for those in the know (thanks Guido and Facebook), there’s also a few secret menu burgers that the chefs like to experiment with from time to time. One of the regulars on that secret menu is the Pro Burger which is described as having a carrot nut burger patty with pepperjack and cheddar cheese melted over house made onion rings, spicy pickles, harissa ketchup, mustard and iceberg lettuce on an Acme bun.
Aside from the orange carrot/nut patty, this sandwich definitely had the “look” of a good burger. A healthy looking bun, oozing cheese, with finely sliced pickles peeking out of the side.
The first bite “felt” juicy, and tasted a whole lot better than I expected a carrot nut patty to taste. Unfortunately, after the second and third bites, the patty became discombobulated. Usually on a juicy burger, the bottom bun is the first thing to go; on this veggie burger, the patty itself lost its structural integrity. On the upside, this felt and ate more like a burger with satisfying flavors that I’d try again. On the downside, I had to eat the most of the patty with a fork. I wouldn’t mind having a few of those Acme buns for my burgers at home.
Blackbird Kitchen & Bar restarted their lunch service a couple weeks ago and as I made my way through their chowder fries (and their ciders on tap) I spotted a “Risotto Burger” on the menu. I love risotto, and curiosity got the best of me as I tried to imagine how you could make creamy risotto into a handheld sandwich worthy of the name burger.
The Blackbird Risotto Burger is a completely vegan burger described as having a nut-seed medley, lettuce, tomatillo pico de gallo and vegan awesomesauce.
Because of the baked brown risotto patty (encrusted with cashews and almonds), this sandwich had the most burger-like first impression of the three veggie burgers I tried.
The first bite made me double take as I crunched through an exterior sear and then easily chewed through a perfectly al dente (but not soupy) rice interior. It honestly had the kind of crisp/moist one-two punch that makes a good beef burger. The patty itself wasn’t juicy, but when topped with their house made vegan cheese, fresh red onion salsa and sauced up bun, you get the full burger experience. They use a specially made vegan bun sourced from Estelle’s on the same block and it had definitely improved over the previous time I sampled it on their house beef burger. The chef was intentional with each ingredient and it showed in the final dish. Just writing this article and looking at Rachel’s photos makes me want to head back downtown to give it another try with a pint of Two Rivers Lemon Hard Cider.
$10 at Blackbird Kitchen+Beer Gallery, 1015 9th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814
This certainly isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of the veggie burgers available around Sacramento. You’ve got The Green Boheme and of course The Plum Cafe as well as many non beef burgers alongside some of my favorite burger places in town like Golden Bear and The Flaming Grill. Get your veggie burgers on during National Hamburger Month, but if you ask me on June 1st I’ll insist you call them vegetable sandwiches.