Veggie burgers, once found only in the frozen food section of the local health food store or at the bottom of casual dining restaurant menus, are making their way into fast food. When the sales of McDonald’s Veggie Burger– aptly named the McPlant – fell off, it was taken off the menu. In the meantime, Burger King fans apparently loved The Impossible Whopper so much that the chain added another plant-based burger, the impossible king. Earlier this year, Chick-fil-A tested a cauliflower sandwich that mimics its classic chicken sandwich. Now Shake Shack has added the new Vegetarian hut On the menu. I wanted to try it.
Should a veggie burger taste like meat?
Veggie burgers exist since the 70s. You can find a wide range of options these days – grain-based, bean-based, soy-centric, and lately, engineered pseudo-meats that seem to replicate the flavor of beef so well you’d think that there was a cow involved.
One of my original favorites, garden burger, is made with oats, rice, mushrooms and vegetables. Its only resemblance to a beef burger is in the shape of a patty, but it’s well seasoned and, topped with lettuce, tomato and all the toppings, it makes a really good sandwich. The Garden Burger won’t fool anyone into thinking it’s meat. I don’t think he really tries.
Soy-based burgers like those at boca and Impossible, and Beyond Meat’s Pea Protein Burger have more of the color, texture and bite of a burger. But you wouldn’t compare them to a Garden Burger or, say, a black bean burger, because they’re totally different dining experiences.
These days, the race for the burger seems to be between food engineers at companies like Impossible and Beyond Meat. These brands are pushing for a plant-based burger experience that mimics meat so closely it’s hard to tell it apart from ground chuck.
How does the Veggie Shack taste?
We don’t have a Shake Shack where I live, but I was picking up my daughter from college in a town that has three. She’s a cooking student at Johnson & Wales, so I brought her along for an extra set of taste buds and an ‘expert’ opinion. She’s half vegan on her dad’s side, so she loves grilled jackfruit as much as a good Angus hot dog. I knew she would have the palace for this mission.
The Veggie Shack burger is hard to tell apart from Shake Shack’s beef patty, but visible chunks of carrot and greens (chives, we think) indicate we’re in veggie territory. Ingredients also include mushrooms, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and farro, a variety of wheat.
This mixture gives the burger a texture and a bite that I will call al dente. The mouthfeel and chew aren’t as textured as a turkey burger, but they aren’t as smooth as a bean or grain-based substitute.
When you don’t have the natural umami of meat, you have to make up for it in flavor.
“It’s well seasoned,” my daughter said between bites. “It doesn’t taste like meat, but I guess that’s not the problem. The goal is for it to be good. She took another bite.
His verdict: “It’s good.
The sandwich is topped with American cheese, pickles, crispy fried onions and the signature “ShackSauce”. I would have added bacon and avocado, but wanted to taste it as it was meant to be eaten.
“Anything with crispy onions will win my heart,” my daughter continued. And based on how quickly she gobbled down the burger, I’m guessing she’ll be a loyal customer.
Is the Veggie Shack a better plant-based option?
I initially wondered why Shake Shack would invest in a new vegetarian option when they already had the ‘Shroom Burger on the menu. But one bite of the portobello sandwich gave me my answer. Let’s say it’s not very tasty. This “burger” is two thin slices of mushrooms with melted muenster and cheddar in between, breaded and fried. After the initial crunch of breadcrumbs, you encounter rubbery mushrooms and an unappealing ooze of cheese. The flavor is somehow both strong and bland. My daughter’s opinion was quite simple: “No”.
Full disclosure: None of us are shroom girls, so the ‘Shroom wouldn’t be our pick anyway. But I can say with confidence that, for flavor, the veggie burger revolves around its mushroom-based counterpart. There is no doubt which herbal option I would choose.
But how does the Veggie Shack compare to the basic Burger Shack? I ordered one for comparison and found the beef patty tough, rather bland and boring. With no discernible seasoning of any kind, it seems to rely on ShakeSauce to carry it. However, the sauce is not up to par.
How vegetarian is he?
Any veggie burger can expect the inevitable question: does it taste like meat? For this reason, a plant-based meat substitute has to work harder to turn out to be attractive, tasty and appetizing. The Shake Shack veggie burger was actually better seasoned than the signature beef burger. It was tender without being mushy and substantial enough to fit under the fluffy potato roll even with the addition of gravy, pickles and cheese.
The other question about vegetarian fast food is, how vegetarian is the Veggie Shack? Of course, this one is not vegan. It’s topped with cheese and gravy (which contains milk and egg), and we can only assume it’s cooked on a grill with the beef patties and hot dogs. If, like me, you’re an omnivore who relies heavily on a plant-based diet, a little residual burger fat probably won’t bother you. If you’re a purist vegetarian, you’re probably not coming to Shake Shake anyway.
And, finally, is the Veggie Shack a healthy option? This will depend on your health goals. If you count the calories, the Veggie Shack is 630, the ‘Shroom is 510 and the Burger Shack is 500. All three are neck and neck on fat content – 30, 27 and 27 grams respectively – although beef burger is the highest in saturated fat. The sodium content is lowest with ‘Shroom (650), while the beef and veggie burgers both contain 1,250 grams. Both plant-based sandwiches have twice the carbs of the ShackBurger. If you’re watching cholesterol, the new vegetable is significantly lower than anything on the Shake Shack menu.
Would I eat the Veggie Shack again?
Honestly my all time favorite burger is at a local place called Cafe Europa in Greensboro, NC where they cook Angus beef to my favorite temperature, melt blue cheese in it and give me an apple cone crispy fries and a glass of chilled wine to accompany it. If I wanted to blow $20 for a hamburger meal at a fast food restaurant, I would go to five guys. If I wanted a burger as good as Five Guys, but half the price, I would go to Cook, a southern favorite. But if I’m craving a veggie burger, Shake Shack can have my money.