The humble veggie burger, oft maligned by carnivores, loved by vegetarians… it’s a burger but not a burger. For vegetarians (myself among them) who miss some of the trappings of “real” burgers, but not the meat itself, veggie burgers are a staple. I am always searching for the new and different — anything but those packaged Gardenburgers. So I set out to find what our town has to offer in way of homemade veggie burgers. Here are the best I’ve found.
140 Shoppers Lane, Pasadena, 626.440.1008, thecounterburger.com
Big and delicious yet not terribly heavy, this burger is made of nine vegetables, brown rice and panko (crunchy Japanese breadcrumbs). It isn’t truly burger-like, because it is soft, verging on mushy. But what it lacks in texture it makes up for in flavor. Topping and sauce possibilities are endless (at least 60!) and include black olives, grilled onions, dried cranberries, sautéed mushrooms and many, many more. The “Fifty-Fifty” — an order of your choice of two of either sweet potato fries, regular fries or onion strings — is great for those who aren’t too calorie conscious. The Counter, for those of you who haven’t been, is a new branch of a local chain burger-counter-cum-pop-culture emporium, with colorful skateboards and paintings of sneakers on the wall. It’s packed with kids, especially at 6 p.m. on a Friday when I last went. One-third-pound burger and four toppings, $8.50 (premium toppings are extra).
320 S. Arroyo Pkwy., Pasadena, 626.577.6086, Houstons.com
With its dark wood, full bar and deep booths, Houston’s is definitely the fanciest – and most expensive – venue in town for a veggie burger. Its huge burger definitely has a char-broiled taste and is nice and crunchy on the outside, with a sweet and savory taste. Made with brown rice, black beans, oat bran and sweet soy, the burger also has melted jack cheese and is topped with – very fresh! – lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Sides include couscous, cole slaw, fries or a seasonal vegetable. I went for the broccoli but I ate some of my husband’s thin fries – they had just the right amount of crunch. $14.
La Grande Orange
260 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, 626.356.4444, lagrandeorange.com
It’s great to see new mainstream restaurants like this one, in the historic Del Mar Station (circa 1935), offering veggie burgers. I love the bright airiness of the space and the fact that this is a “nice” restaurant that also caters to families. Made with grains, nuts and seeds, the dense Shrangri-La vegetarian burger has a nutty flavor and comes on a homemade English muffin (the best choice) or toasted bun. Thousand Island dressing, tomato and onion are the accoutrements, and I got mine with cole slaw – which was fresh and not too mayonnaise-y. This burger is messy (I ended up using a fork and knife) and so hearty that I was still full many hours later. $12.
633 S. Arroyo Pkwy., Pasadena, 626.578.9017, my-vegan.com
About a year ago, my teenager and her friends found this order-at-the-counter café in a mini-mall so generic you’d never notice it. Sparsely decorated but clean and comfortable, My Vegan has a large menu with a number of meat-free burgers: bacon burger, lentil burger, lentil burger, pepper steak burger. We return for the Near burger — grilled soy with homemade sauce — which has a texture that is more like slices of meat than a patty. That aside, I must say it comes the closest to my memory of meat as anything I have tasted in my 30 years as a vegetarian. It is heaven, and so is the fresh sesame seed bun that it comes on. An added perk: They deliver. $5.95.
2005 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, 323.255.oink, theoinkster.com
I had a little help from my friends on this one. Emily Bates and Leonie Turlington, high school juniors – who better to judge burgers! – rave about the Oinkster’s patties, which look like a thinner version of a Gardenburger. Made with lots of vegetables, including corn, carrots and onions, as well as sunflower seeds, is rich, mild and not too dry. It comes on a white bun with lettuce, tomato, pickle and homemade Thousand Island dressing. The two also say this order-at-the-counter place has the best fries in town – hand-cut, thicker, twice-fried and buttery tasting. But true vegetarian take note: They are not vegetarian. The first fry is in oil, second in beef fat. So if you don’t want the beef fat, ask for the veggie fries, which skip the second step. Expect a crowd at peak times, but there’s always enough seating. We love the Oinkster’s motto: “Slow fast food.” The burger is $5.25, and it’s $8.25 for a burger, fries and drink combo.
Orean’s the Health Express
817 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, 626.794.0871, oreanshealthexpress.com
This fast-food vegetarian restaurant is unique to the area, if not the whole country. It is a totally vegetarian takeout and drive-through (although there are some outside tables if you want to eat there). Orean’s specializes in meatless, sugarless, non-dairy items without chemical additives. The Orean burger, its basic and my favorite, is made with three kinds of brown rice and spices, plain and simple. It has a barbecue sauce and comes with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion. This burger has a great crunchy quality and an excellent burger-like taste and is spicy, but not too. The Orean Salad Burger is more complex, with fresh-cut garden vegetables, sunflower seeds and black beans. $5.79 for either burger.