An omnivore, a vegetarian and a vegan walk into a burger restaurant… It sounds like the set-up for a bad joke, but in case, it really happened. I, the omnivore, was joined by Rumeli Snyder (a vegetarian for the last 29 years) and Steve Middlekauff (who’s been vegan for 18 years) to taste and judge vegan burgers offered at various restaurants in the East Bay.
I thought it would be interesting to see how our different perspectives, expectations and dietary restrictions would affect our judgment of the burgers we tried. As someone who eats meat (and who would choose a medium-rare cheeseburger as my last meal on earth), my taste is not the same as someone who chooses not to eat meat, and who may not even remember what real beef actually tastes like. I tried not to judge the vegan burgers as if they were made with beef, instead, basing my scores on whether they tasted good and were something I’d want to eat again. Still, I realized my carnivorous tendencies could affect my judgment. This is the reason I recruited Rumeli and Steve to help me score these burgers. Surprisingly, though, we ended up having many of the same reactions about the burgers despite our dietary differences.
However, coordinating with multiple people wasn’t easy and we had to make the hard choice of narrowing down our selection to six burgers. This meant we had to leave off a few spots we would’ve liked to try, including Hella Vegan Eats. And, one of the spots we hit — No No Burger — decided to call it quits a few days after our visit (Sadly, it was one of our favorites!) Although we weren’t able to score every single vegan burger in the East Bay, we did try six main contenders in Oakland and Berkeley.
Before you read the results, let me lay down the criteria for how we chose and judged the burgers.
The burger restaurants had to be located in the East Bay. They could be mobile or pop-up vendors, as long as they were available regularly. We ended up staying within Berkeley and Oakland.
The burgers we chose had to be completely vegan. We did not consider restaurants serving vegan patties with dairy cheese, real mayonnaise or buns made with butter or eggs, unless they offered vegan substitutions.
We ate the burgers as served, without special additions. We wanted to try the burger as the chef intended it to be eaten, so even adding a condiment, like ketchup, was not allowed.
We judged each burger individually, taking into account the texture and flavor of the patty, the toppings, the bun, the burger’s appearance and the combination of all its components together. We gave each burger a score, from 0 to 5 — with 0 being inedible and 5 being excellent. We did not judge the burgers based on price, nor by the sides — like fries or salad — that sometimes came with it, but I do list the cost of each burger and any included sides in the descriptions below.
So, without further ado, here is our assessment of six East Bay vegan burgers, in order of our favorite to least favorite.
Impossible Burger, Kronnerburger
Kronnerburger in Oakland is one of a handful of Bay Area restaurants that serves the Impossible Burger, a plant-based meat substitute by Impossible Foods, made from wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein and, most crucial, a molecule called “heme” that makes it resemble and taste (somewhat) like meat. Kronnerburger serves its Impossible Burger with a slice of vine ripe tomato, iceberg lettuce, charred red onion, dill pickle chips and a healthy slathering of vegan mayo. It’s worth noting that this burger is smaller, but more expensive than the others we tried. It costs $16 (50 cents more than the signature Kronnerburger, made with beef) and a vegan bun is an extra $2. We all enjoyed the overall taste and texture of this burger, although we all noted its diminutive size. Kronnerburger is at 4063 Piedmont Ave. (at 41st) in Oakland.
The holy grail of veggie burgers? Maybe! It’s definitely a next-level burger experience. [The patty] looks a lot like meat, but I think it is a little underdone. It looks pink in the middle, which has me intrigued. If I didn’t know better, I’d be concerned! It also seemed to hold a flame-grilled flavor. The mayo and pickles were really good, the veggies seemed fresh and the bun worked really nicely with the rest of the burger. Overall, it was great. Again, I’d prefer if it were cooked a little bit longer on the grill and it was pretty tiny, but it was excellent.
It’s meat-like but doesn’t gross me out. It’s been 29 years since I ate meat, so I don’t really remember what it tastes like, but I believe the Impossible Burger is the most meat-like veg burger I’ve tasted or seen. Plus it bleeds! I liked the toppings, but I would’ve liked ketchup. The bun was tasty with a good texture and toasted well. It’s tall (making it intimidating to bite into) and small (especially for the price). Full disclosure: I’ve cooked Impossible Burger and had it at other places and liked it better more crisped up and less “rare” inside, but it was still good.
As a meat eater, the Impossible Burger isn’t fooling me into thinking it’s really meat. Although it has a convincing appearance, and even texture, comparable to ground beef, it doesn’t have the richness or deep umami flavor of animal protein. But, it doesn’t taste like any other veg-friendly patty I’ve ever had either. It’s in its own class. I liked how Kronnerburger prepares the Impossible Burger as it does its meat burger — well-done on the outside, but “rare” inside. The puffy bun has a good flavor and is slightly toasted. The toppings work well to bring it all together, but the burger is very small.
Earth Burger, Kronnerburger
Kronnerburger serves another vegan option — the Earth Burger. This patty is made mostly from mushrooms, but has some tofu in it too, giving it a pretty deep — albeit vegetal — umami flavor. Although it was on average our second favorite burger, we had varying opinions on whether we really liked it and would order it again. Ironically, it was me, the omnivore, who liked it the best. The Earth Burger comes with the same toppings as the Impossible Burger (tomato, charred onion, pickles, lettuce and vegan mayo) and is also small in size. It costs $13.50 (plus $2 for a vegan bun). Kronnerburger is at 4063 Piedmont Ave. (at 41st) in Oakland.
It has some flavor I can’t put my finger on, and it’s kind of polarizing. I can’t tell if I like it. The texture of the patty is pretty solid, has a nice heft to it and holds together well, but I think the toppings are overpowered by the patty. I don’t think I can get passed this overwhelming patty flavor. It looks approachable, but perhaps a bit over cooked? And it’s so tiny!
It was okay. I’d happily eat it if it were free, but I wouldn’t order it again. The texture of the patty is so-so in the overall sandwich, but on its own, kind of pasty. It’s a bit too earthy (ha!) — very mushroomy, nutty and not burger-like. I liked the toppings, but they didn’t detract enough from the earthiness of the burger.
I would get the Earth Burger if I wasn’t in the mood for meat. It’s mushroomy, with a good depth of flavor, like a vegetable bouillon cube. I liked the texture of the patty, with its browned exterior and softer interior. It’s definitely not meat-like, but I’m totally fine with that. Although the toppings are good quality, personally, I think it could’ve use a little less mayo.
Black Bean and Quinoa Veggie Burger, Souley Vegan
Souley Vegan in Jack London Square is a bastion of vegan comfort foods. Here, you’ll find a large offering of animal-free renditions of soul food, like southern fried tofu, okra gumbo over grits and dairy-free mac and cheese. But, Souley Vegan also offers a few “burgers,” made with a variety of proteins, like fried tofu, seitan, portobello mushroom or black beans and quinoa. During our tasting, we decided to order the housemade patty made with black beans, quinoa and carrots. All burgers come with a side of green salad and are topped with ketchup, vegan mayo, iceberg lettuce, tomato, pickles and red onion. The Black Bean and Quinoa Veggie Burger is $9.50 and we added a slice of vegan cheese for an additional $1.25. Although this burger will not win a beauty contest, we all agreed its taste overcame its sloppy looks. It scored a solid 3 out of 5 points, placing it in third place. Souley Vegan is at 301 Broadway (at Third St.) in Oakland.
It looked sloppy, but it was surprisingly satisfying. The patty was a very standard black bean patty, nothing special or surprising within the genre. The patty kind of fell apart in the sad way veggie burgers can. It turns into mush and doesn’t hold shape. I liked the toppings, but the produce isn’t very fresh and crisp and the sauces together are a little overpowering. The presentation was sad. It looked like it was very recently smashed between two hands — maybe because it was put in a sandwich press to toast it? It was better than expected, based on toppings probably, but I’d order a different sandwich next time.
I liked it, but didn’t love it. As far as bean burgers go, it was good, but it’s hard to compare it with a fake-meat burger. It’s squishy and a bit grainy. The flavor of the burger itself was okay, but it doesn’t in the slightest remind me of actual meat. That’s not a bad thing if you’re not expecting it to taste like an actual burger. I liked the toppings, but the “cheese” wasn’t melted. The bun was unimpressive, but it didn’t taste bad. Not a pretty presentation, but it looked edible.
I was surprised I liked this burger because the appearance made me believe I would not. It was flat, the cheese slice was not melted and it was sloppy with the toppings falling out. Overall it looked kind of unappetizing, like something you’d get in a school cafeteria. But, the patty was well seasoned, and I liked that there’s a variation in texture with the quinoa grains and some whole black beans — it wasn’t too dry or too mushy either. Although the quality of the toppings weren’t extremely fresh looking, the classic combination of vegetables and sauces really came together. I don’t usually prefer a wheat bun, but this one was toasted well and it wasn’t dry. Overall, I thought it was pretty good, but I’d probably try something else on the menu on my next visit.
Bacon Cheese Burger, The Butcher’s Son
The Butcher’s Son is a vegan delicatessen in Berkeley. Everything served here is 100% animal-free and much of it is made in house, from the meats to the cheeses. Local vegans who like gluten-based fake meat flock to The Butcher’s Son, but there are a good number of omnivores who also have a soft spot for this deli. There are two burgers (Mushroom Blue Cheese Burger, Bacon Cheeseburger) and one patty melt on the menu. We opted for the Bacon Cheeseburger, since it was the most standard of the choices. It comes served on a toasted Kaiser roll with vegan mayo, deli mustard, a cashew-based pepper jack cheese, housemade pickle chips, red onion, red leaf lettuce, tomato and fakin’ bacon. As reported in a past article on Nosh, the bacon, which is not made on site, consists of soy and an Asian gelatin substitute called konjac. The Butcher’s Son burger is the most substantial burger that we tried. It costs $10.50 and comes with a choice of bacon macaroni salad, potato salad, creamy coleslaw, or whole house pickle. We got the pickle as our side. The Butcher’s Son is at 1941 University Ave. (at Bonita) in Berkeley.
It’s HUGE! The patty was hearty and satisfying to bite into. It was like a nicely-done seitan. It’s definitely going for more of a real burger thing. It was well spiced; I was really into the overall flavor profile. I don’t think I could make this at home, which makes it that much better. I’m not usually a huge fan of bacon, but it added to the flavor. I also really liked the cheese. The lettuce looked pretty wilty, and I usually like more fresh vegetables. The bun was nicely toasted, but the burger was sloppy to eat, due to all the bacon and cheese. Overall, it was complex, yet accessible. The flavor stuck with me, haunting me, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. The menu at The Butcher’s Son is just too big to repeat this order.
It was BIG! It’s more of a sandwich than a burger. The patty looked more meaty than a bean burger or Boca burger, but it didn’t taste meaty at all; it was good in the sandwich, but I didn’t much like it plain. I liked the overall flavor of this burger with the bun and toppings, except it had too much mustard. I liked the crunchy bacon and lettuce, but I didn’t love the cashew cheese. I prefer melted cheese on a burger. It would’ve been nice to have some sort of vegan mayo. Overall, I think it was so-so, not great.
I had high hopes for this burger, but it didn’t deliver for me. The patty’s texture had a good chew, almost (but not quite) mimicking ground beef, but I didn’t like the flavor, which had a slightly sour taste and reminded me of Tofurkey Italian sausage because of the fennel seeds (who puts fennel seeds in a burger?!). I usually don’t like bacon on my burger, but in this case, the bacon was the best part of this sandwich. I disliked the cashew cheese, which was more like a clumpy sauce than a melty cheese slice, which I prefer. I also don’t love red leaf lettuce on a burger, because it lacks texture — it’s too soft. I wish this burger had a “secret sauce” instead of mustard. The bun was fine in texture and flavor. Overall, the burger was intimidatingly large. I didn’t hate it, but I would not get it again.
California Burger, Saturn Cafe
Saturn Café originally hails from Santa Cruz; it opened its Berkeley location in 2009. Saturn has a ’50s diner vibe, with an expansive menu of comforting all-American and all-vegetarian fare, like soups, salads, sandwiches and burgers. Saturn has nine burgers, five made with its signature patty (made with organic brown rice, organic black beans, organic vegetables, almond meal, rice flour and spices) and four made with its “chix” (faux chicken) patty. We went with the California Burger, which can be vegan upon request, and comes with the Saturn signature patty, vegan jack cheese, sliced avocado, mayo, lettuce, red onion, tomato and pickles. The California Burger costs $12.75 and comes with a side; we got ours with fries. Saturn Café is at 2175 Allston Way (at Oxford) in Berkeley.
I thought this burger was middle of the road. The patty seemed like a pretty standard homemade veggie burger. It was a bit too soft, and not terribly flavorful on its own. The avocado, vegan cheese and onions really helped turn this into a burger that I wasn’t sad about. I also really liked the bun (seeds aplenty!); it felt very rich, like a hearty wrapper. The burger, overall, looks presentable, but it falls into the category of most of Saturn’s food — decent in a pinch, but not a destination for me.
I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. It was OK, in a health-food kind of way. The patty itself didn’t impress me. I liked the onion, tomato, lettuce and thought these all helped give the overall burger some flavor, but it lacked a “special” sauce, making it dry and not flavorful enough. I could not taste the cheese at all. The bun wasn’t bad, again, in a health-food sort of way. I liked the seeds, but it wasn’t a great burger bun. Overall, it was well-presented in that it didn’t look sloppy, but it looked as it tasted — healthy. I wouldn’t crave it.
This veggie burger lives up to the stereotype of its name. It reminded me of something someone who doesn’t live in California would assume healthy people in California would want to eat. The patty itself had a very soft texture, but with some whole beans inside. The flavor was a little muted, but there was a slight tanginess about it that I didn’t love. The toppings were fairly standard, with the addition of avocado. Instead of red leaf lettuce, I would have preferred iceberg or romaine, which would have been a nice contrast to the mushy patty and avocado. I didn’t love the mayonnaise — it had an off-putting, almost sweet flavor (In contrast, the other vegan mayos we had tasted very similar to real mayo). I didn’t mind the seeded wheat bun, but it was a tad dry. Overall, I felt like this burger was a little flavorless and bland.
No. 2 The Vegan Burger, Farm Burger
Farm Burger is a national chain, with two Bay Area locations — one in San Anselmo and one in West Berkeley, which it opened on Ninth Street in 2014. Farm Burger is mainly known for its meat burgers, touting that it uses freshly ground dry-aged, grassfed, antibiotic and hormone-free beef (it also offers sustainably raised pork and poultry). But it does have a vegan burger on its “Blackboard Burgers” menu, so we decided to give it a try. The No. 2 Vegan Burger is made with a quinoa and heirloom bean patty, served on a sesame seed bun and topped with a pile of arugula, seared cauliflower, a slice of golden beet and a sweet agave mustard sauce. It costs $9.50. Farm Burger is at 1313 Ninth St. (at Gilman) in Berkeley.
This is the canonical type of veggie burger people complain about. The patty was awkwardly smooshy; more like a paté than a burger, and it was rather bland, relying heavily on the toppings and the sauce. As for the toppings, I don’t like beets, so the yellow beet was a miss. The greens were overpowered by the sauce, which was too sweet. The bun was overly spongey and it soaked in the sweet sauce. The burger looked pretentious and hard to eat because it’s so tall. Overall, I did not like this burger. It was going in a direction that I’m not interested in, attempting to be healthy and fancy. And the sweetness was just not my thing. I have no interest in having this again.
The patty itself didn’t have much flavor. It was too mushy for me and too wet with the glaze, which was too sweet. The arugula and yellow beet looked pretty, but the cauliflower looked silly and made the burger way too tall — so tall, you couldn’t bite into it as-is. The bun had a good texture and I liked the sesame seeds, but it was overly sweetened by the glaze, so I couldn’t really tell if I liked it. I longed for mayo, ketchup or special sauce and pickles. The burger wasn’t great.
I almost gave this burger a 0, but I think it’s “edible,” if just barely. It was too sweet and did not taste like a burger at all. The flavors of every component of this burger did not go together at all. The arugula was too bitter. The cauliflower was barely cooked at all, so it was still somewhat crunchy. The beet was really random and added nothing (I actually thought it was a yellow tomato until I read the ingredients later). The sauce was sickly sweet and watery — it dripped over everything and basically overpowered all the ingredients of this burger. The patty itself had a slight crustiness on the outside, but was mushy within and had a gummy mouthfeel. It tasted bland, as if there were no added spices and not enough salt. The bun wasn’t toasted and had a spongey texture; I didn’t like it at all. The burger was hard to eat; everything falls out when you bite into it. I would never, ever, ever order this again.
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