Have you noticed that Columbus has quietly become a leading veggie burger town? I call this the Northstar Effect. I became especially aware of the phenomenon recently while eating through a slew of new restaurants and being struck by how many now make their own veggie burgers. Let me clarify that: make their own veggie burgers that don’t suck a big dirty donkey.
This is a vast improvement over the bad old days when most local restaurants just “phoned it in” by offering frozen, mass-produced, crappy meatless patties — basically just throwing a textured-vegetable-protein-based bone to vegetarians. Then Northstar came along and created a veggie burger so spectacular that even carnivores like me regularly crave it. With the bar set so high, flavor-challenged, factory-made cryo-pucks just won’t cut the mustard here anymore (and can’t be saved by any amount of condiments). Which is why I believe it’s no coincidence that Columbus is home to the widely and properly praised — and available in 14 states — Luna Burger company.
Anyway, ranging from fast food joints to top 10 restaurants, here a few housemade examples of what I’m talking about.
Cheap and Easy: Graffiti Burger
Upon tasting this local fast fooder’s Black Bean Burger ($4.99) when the now-two-store chain premiered around the turn of the decade, I knew the Northstar gospel had started to spread. See, Graffiti’s beany patty exhibits a red shading, indicating the moisture and “meatiness” of beets, which is one of Northstar’s innovative main ingredients. Graffiti’s herby burger — which should be ordered on a crisply toasted, whole wheat bun — is earthy, oregano-leavened and multi-textured (you can see whole rice grains in it), if a tad soft. It’s fully customizable, but the comes-standard arsenal of melted provolone, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and Thousand Island-ish “Graffiti sauce” works great. I’d only add Graffiti’s mayo-free and aptly named “zesty slaw” to cap off this simply satisfying, hand-held meal.
UpSTARt: Stars Grill
Improving visits to the next-door “dollar cinema” since late last summer, this chef-driven new maller still flies under the radar, but its inexpensive Vege Burger ($7) is the sort of deal that should put it on the map. Starring brown rice, black beans and beets — i.e. the same holy trinity Northstar pioneered locally — Stars’ Vege delivers surprising complexity at its price point. Arriving on a nicely toasted, puffy Auddino’s roll, the cumin-kissed burger is pleasantly crispy in patches and has a Southwestern flavor profile not extremely far from a bowl of chili. Along with the expected burger fixins, it’s dressed with fanned-out fresh avocado and Stars’ proprietary “cardinal sauce” — a tangy mayo whizzed with paprika, corn and tomato.
Upscaler: The Worthington Inn
Named after guides who help climbers scale the Himalayas (it’s made with black beans and Bhutanese, i.e. “Himalayan” rice), Worthington Inn’s great Sherpa Veggie Burger ($13) is only available at lunch or in the jazzy pub area — and it’s worth the special seating. Placed on a locally baked, sesame-seeded and toasted Stan Evans bun, it’s a handsome big boy whose crusty edges and charred, beany heft winningly play off a bright and bracing, housemade pickle. Diners are asked to choose a “preparation,” meaning one of three garnishing strategies. I recommend the “Santa Fe” — whose chipotle aioli and guacamole-like toppings tease out a racy tang and smokiness that suit the patty perfectly. Bonus: the Sherpa comes with a top-notch side like killer handcut fries or a fresh “Carolina” slaw with a sweet vinaigrette.
The Trendsetter: Northstar Cafe
With exemplary structural integrity and an impressive meatiness that’s increased by a deep chargrilling, the massive Northstar Burger ($13.50), which started it all, is still this genre’s standard-bearer. It comes on a big glossy bun, is garnished with spiky mustard plus many-cuts-above fixins, and is served with a nifty salad, or if you prefer (I usually do), can be paired with a lively peanut-and-cilantro-accented slaw.
The Trendsetter’s Hermano: Third and Hollywood
Third and Hollywood’s Veggie Burger with Avocado and Corn Elote ($15) is a mouthful in every sense of the word. Beanier and much less “beety” than the original Northstar creation, 3&H’s attractively grill-crusted flavor-bomb is also nubbed with smoky/spicy chipotle bits. Reinforcing this south-of-the-border palette, the lettuce-and-cilantro-layered burger is showered with Mexican street-food-style corn — meaning kernels goosed-up with cheese, mayo and chile. An unusual side of goat cheese-daubed roasted red and yellow peppers provides color and contrast.
Over the Moon: Luna Burgers
Now fancifully packaged, these thick and hearty, heat-n-eat dee-luxe burgers (in bold flavors like smoky BBQ, Thai-riffing Spicy Peanut and Cilantro and extra-zesty Farmhouse chili) have a list of vegan, organic and “superfood” ingredients that reads like a Michael Pollan dream. And since hooking up with the moving-frozen-foods pros at Eat Well — the distribution arm of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams — Luna Burgers have become a lot more visible in stores (2 mighty patties/$4) and restaurants. From the latter group, there’s Heirloom cafe (Thai Peanut Luna Vegan Burger, $9.25, with cilantro slaw, Sweet Chile sauce and arugula on a kaiser roll); Hal and Al’s Luna Burger ($8; served with handcut fries and flattered with lettuce, tomato, onion and a roll made by Brezel — another Eat Well client); and the Veggie Burger from The Tavern ($8), gussied up with feta, roma tomatoes, spinach and avocado mayo.
A New Favorite: Till
“It’s so great, I know people who only come in for this,” said my server about the meatless masterpiece called the Till Veggie Burger ($13). Currently my favorite non-burger burger in town, this laboriously produced superstar arrives on a beautiful, soft yet crisply toasted homemade roll. The thick and grilled patty inside is an umami-bursting alchemical blend of rice, beans, oats, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, shiitakes and more topped with a nut-based, housemade vegan Cheez Whiz-riffing sauce. The complex flavor onslaught also includes gentle radicchio leaves, a tangy ketchup-y condiment, greens, homemade pickles and a saddle of roasted sweet red pepper. This might sound all-over-the-map, but it’s right on target. On the side come gracefully simple redskin coins cooked with onion and paprika.
A New Direction: The Sycamore
When I recently bit into the Quinoa and Chickpea Burger ($10) served at the white-hot, new Sycamore — i.e. Harvest Pizzeria’s foray into locally sourced artsy bar food — I wondered if our exalted veggie burger movement might be turning a corner. See, other recipes lean heavily on black beans to provide density and meatiness. Not this innovative sandwich. But if the QCB’s namesake ingredients are lighter than its brothers on this list, it’s not to the detriment of Sycamore’s big, puffy-thick, ample and substantial slamburger, which has a fantastic texture. QCB’s garbanzo-beany patty — it holds together excellently — also ably stands up to racy accoutrements, like killer spicy housemade pickles, grainy horseradishy mustard, raw onion and sprouts. Providing a perfect foil for the zingy ensemble is a sweet and soft, whole wheat bun. But wait there’s more! The darkly grill-crisped champ is served with Sycamore’s outstanding handcut fries — which I prefer sans the sweet mayo accompanying the plate.