THE IDEA: Two vegetarian comedians with very different worldviews take on the greatest challenge in alternative meats: Who makes the best veggie burgers in Portland?
THE PLAYERS: Andie Main—an optimist. She LOVES veggie burgers and only wants the best for them. Alex Falcone—a doubter. Considers veggie burgers to be a resting place for aioli and an excuse to eat fries.
This motley pair ran around Portland trying as many house-made veggie burgers as possible, rating them from one to five on a "Happy Alive Cows" scale, in three categories: flavor, texture, and rest-of-the-sandwich quality (ROTSQ). Their scores were averaged for this list of favorites.
DISCLAIMERS: Mushroom sandwiches are tasty if not particularly filling, but they are beyond the scope of this piece. Only burgers made in-house were considered. (Screw you and your outside-the-house-made veggie burgers!) French fries are the most perfect food ever created. If your veggie burger doesn't come with fries, we don't come with money.
Okay, conscientious eaters. Let's get to the list.
#5: Tied: Veritable Quandary
Andie says: This place was fancy as fuck, and in order to prove that point, they sat us safely away from the bourgeois elite, because they could smell our poverty. If you love pretension, mushiness, blue cheese, and classism, then you will enjoy eating this burger while thinking that poor people just don't work hard enough.
Alex says: Andie's not wrong; they did treat us like we were diseased. And the burger was pretty mushy. And it doesn't come with fries. But. BUT. It tastes great. The fried onions and blue cheese really boosted its ROTSQ score. Rather than pissing me off, VQ made me want to work harder so I won't feel so out of place eating mushy, tasty veggie burgers with the city's elite.
Average Score: 3.5 Happy Alive Cows
#5 Tied: White Owl Social Club
Andie says: White Owl is my favorite fucking place in Portland; despite how ironic their T-shirts are, the staff's love for their food is sincere and endearing. The Merc has written about their hazelnut and beet veggie burger in the past, and that's because this burger is magical. The bun is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, like a Motörhead love song; the spicy sauce complements the nuttiness of the patty, and if you miss your burger looking like it was killed, the color of the beets adds a nice bloody finish.
Alex says: Andie is wrong about almost every single thing here. The best thing I can say about this burger is that it didn't taste much like beets, which I was worried about. But the carrots and sprouts are too long and poke-y, plus it's too tall, causing the contents to immediately poop out the sides of the bun. (Please forgive me for saying "poop" in a food review, but it really is the best way to describe what happens with most veggie burgers.) It just doesn't make sense to me. Much like the bar itself, which is patronized by a confusing mix of punk rockers and Intel middle management.
Average Score: 3.5 Happy Alive Cows
#4: The Observatory
Andie says: There is only so much flavor a patty made from cornmeal, quinoa, and right-eous indignation can deliver, but the Observatory makes up for it with the texture and the ROTSQ. The lemon aioli made my heart beat like I'd just tried cocaine for the first time.
Alex says: The texture is really amazing. And since that's the thing most commonly missing in veggie burgers, they get high marks on that alone. It didn't poop out the sides at all (at all!). Overall, it was a high-quality burger that made up for how upset I was that cheese costs extra. I would like to add I've never tried cocaine—but if it's as good as lemon aioli, I might have to.
Average Score: 4 Happy Alive Cows
#3: Hungry Tiger
Andie says: I ordered the burger with a fried egg and tempeh because this experiment has taught me that the accouterments are the most important part of the veggie burger. It had a nice spice and fantastic consistency. The bun was strong and held all its shit together. The one thing I would say about Hungry Tiger's veggie burger is that I would not necessarily order it again, but that's because HUNGRY TIGER HAS THE MOST AMAZING VEGAN CORNDOGS THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN.
Alex says: Keeping up with Portland's fine tradition of serving good food in divey bars, Hungry Tiger makes a tasty veggie burger. The create-your-own menu makes it harder to review the ROTSQ, but the sauces are great and the patty is good and spicy, and it didn't poop out the sides. Plus eating veggie burgers at a place where it specifically says on the menu that vegan dishes are prepared in a separate area makes my intolerable food morality feel comfortably at ease.
Average Score: 4 Happy Alive Cows
#2: The Farm Café
Andie says: When I was a radical vegan, this was the fancy restaurant where my partner and I would celebrate special occasions, because they had an herb-crusted tofu concoction that rewarded my sanctimony and our milestones. That particular crusted tofu cutlet is no longer on the menu—at least it wasn't when we stopped in—and now they serve meat! WTF, Farm? I believed in you! Despite being sellouts, this veggie burger was pretty delightful. The patty was full of mushrooms, and looked so convincing I had to examine it pretty closely in order to confirm it wasn't meat. The red peppers, freshly harvested lettuce, and ciabatta bun were the best parts of this burger—and me pining for the herb-crusted tofu of my youth was the worst.
Alex says: The Farm is one of the most delicious ways to spend too much money. By their standards, the veggie burger is super cheap, though it was one of the most expensive in town at $12. While the burger didn't hold together very well (it pooped out the sides almost immediately), its flavor was excellent. And I'd let caramelized onions marry my daughter.
Average Score: 4.5 Happy Alive Cows
#1: Paradox Café
Andie says: I was delighted to find out that one of my favorite brunch destinations also has a killer veggie burger. It's solid and honest, like Ron Swanson's mustache. It's smushy, potato-based, and a total bargain. If Ron weren't so into killing animals for sport, he would fucking love this burger.
Alex says: As I've made clear, french fries are the best thing. And this burger tasted like french fries! What an awesome idea! And it came with even more fries! I had fries on fries on fries! It really was a great-tasting sandwich and a clear favorite for us both. If you want the best veggie burger in town and to be treated poorly by the staff while you eat it, Paradox is your jam.
Average Score: 4.75 Happy Alive Cows
Some notable veggie burgers that didn't make the list:
Little Big Burger
While they're not eligible for the main list because the patty isn't made in-house, it is made in-town and that's something. The bite-size veggie patty is made by Marie of Chez Gourmet, and the two companies are a great partnership—just like truffle oil and french fries.
It's unexpected that they even have a vegetarian sandwich, given their name is super gross and enough to keep most vegetarians out. But odds are your friends will want to eat here at some point, so we made it past the pig-murder signs and tried our luck. Sadly, the chickpea burger is on the dry side and much too tall for a human mouth. A tall-mouthed person might enjoy, but we are normal-sized mouth people. On the plus side, the bread is great (made by fellow Chefstable restaurant Philippe's Bread) and the fries are unfuckwithably delicious.
So many cafés have to choose between good taste and good texture when it comes to veggie burgers—you almost never get both. Vita went with texture and it's hard to fault them for it, but the patty is pretty boring. It's got a great selection of add-ons, so they know it's a problem, but making a great sandwich gets spendy quickly. Also the wait staff is super pushy on the upsells, which makes me feel like I'm ordering a veggie burger from a street-corner charity pusher.
We tried a couple of pubs and the veggie burgers mostly served as apologies for being dragged there. This one was way dry, which the "house sauce" could have helped—but they were super stingy with it.
The Deschutes quinoa and cashew burger has a remarkable texture (thus we are remarking on it!), but is incredibly boring otherwise. Like Mickey Rourke's face texture with Carson Daly's personality flavor.
Another establishment that was disqualifed for not making their own patties, at least they're supplied by Earthly Gourmet. It's not much to write home about, but with more excellent Philippe's Bread and milkshake/poutine options, the burger is enough to get by—but it won't ever be the star of your night.