Whether for health reasons or personal ethics, you’ve probably ordered a veggie burger, then been disappointed when your server delivered some sad brick of rabbit food. No more. Chefs are revolutionizing these hand-held treats by experimenting with new flavors to make them stand apart from—rather than mimic—traditional hamburgers. If you’re still wary, here are some don’t-miss places to start your quest. Go ahead, veg out!
1. The Counter
Instead of a menu, you’re handed a checklist. Start with the veggie patty ($9 for a third-pounder), above, made of 11 vegetables, cranberries, brown rice, and panko crumbs. Choose a toasted burger bun, English muffin, multigrain bun, or a bed of mixed greens. Then pick your add-ons—12 cheeses including brie, 21 sauces from apricot to tzatziki, and 30 toppings such as grilled pineapple and sun-dried tomatoes. For a protein boost, choose a fried egg; and for devoted carnivores, black forest ham or applewood smoked bacon should do the trick. Pair with an order of Parmesan aioli fries. 6416 Irvine Blvd., Irvine, 949-336-7272; 1104 Irvine Ave., Newport Beach, 949-642-0700, thecounterburger.com.
2. Rick’s Atomic Café
You’ll find this culinary star in a microscopic kitchen at a nondescript office building west of the airport. Owner Rick LeBlanc will probably be the one to cook your burger—a patty of lentils, mushrooms, cashews, leeks, onion, and bulgur wheat—to order. It’s a heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth creation called the Sputnik ($6.25). The Russians may have beat us to the punch back in ’57, but this is the first meatless burger to put us in orbit. 3100 Airway Ave., Costa Mesa, 714-825-0570, ricksatomiccafe.com.
It hasn’t been that long since burgers began creeping onto menus at upscale restaurants, and now veggie versions follow suit. Nick’s loads its House Made Veggie Burger ($12) with seasonal vegetables, and tops it off with the standard fare, plus crispy firestick onions. Start with an order of delicate shoestring fries to enjoy as you peruse the wine list. 440 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-376-8595; 110 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-481-4545, thenickco.com.
4. Mother’s Market and Kitchen
This alternative grocery, known for its organic, vegan, gluten-free, and other specialized foods, serves Ma’s Super Burgers ($7.50) in the cafés at all six O.C. stores. Loaded with fresh, wholesome ingredients on a multigrain bun, this burger is a no-fuss treat just like Mom would make—if she used tempeh patties and veganaise (vegan mayo). Want more variety? Load it up with delicious (yes, really) Fakin’ Bacon or Ma’s guacamole. Anaheim Hills, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Woods, and Santa Ana; mothersmarket.com.
5. Native Foods Café
With four veggie burgers on the menu, this vegan enclave would make our list if only for its variety of options. All are tasty, and choosing a favorite from chef Tanya Petrovna is downright impossible: portobello and sausage, Scorpion, Chicken Run Ranch, and Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger ($9 to $10). All are bright, colorful, and artfully prepared, often with local ingredients. Pair with a cool lavender lemonade or minty watermelon fresca. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-751-2151; 2453 Park Ave., Tustin, 714-259-0400, nativefoods.com.
You’ll find one of the county’s best veggie burgers at a restaurant known for its meaty entrées. Among the menu’s steaks, salmon, and pork chops is a vegan patty ($14 at lunch; $15 at dinner) of black beans, brown rice, and beets to give it a signature reddish hue. Food bloggers and amateur chefs eager to replicate its semisweet, juicy perfection can only guess at the secret recipe. 2991 Michelson Drive, Irvine, 949-833-0977, hillstone.com.
7. The Veggie Grill
Chefs shouldn’t have to make veggie burgers taste like beef, and most on this list don’t try. But if you really do appreciate a good imitation, look to this Irvine-based chain. The signature V-Burger ($9) looks, tastes, and chews like meat, and you can crown it with crunchy pickles, chipotle ranch dressing, and other toppings. 4213 Campus Drive, Irvine, 949-509-0003; 81 Fortune Drive, Irvine, 949-727-9900, veggiegrill.com.
8. The Stand
This small, red shack has been serving up healthful food since 1975. Locals have long praised its veggie burger ($8) although the patty isn’t made in-house—it’s a Boca product, made by one of the largest manufacturers of soy meat substitutes. Still, it’s a delectable creation worthy of acclaim: nearly as big as your head and stacked high with tasty toppings that include salsa and alfalfa sprouts. It leaves you pleasantly full without weighing you down. 238 Thalia St., Laguna Beach, 949-494-8101.
photography by Carly Hebert
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.