I quit eating meat in the mid ’90s, back when vegetarian options at most restaurants where I grew up in rural Michigan were limited to mac ‘n’ cheese and those baskets of crackers that come with soup. There were no veggie burgers (much less “bleeding” ones) or chick’n tenders or any of the other exciting meat analogs spoiled vegetarians enjoy today.
Now that I’m in Chicago, home to some of the most well-regarded restaurants in the country and with the vegetable-forward (ugh) trend on the rise, you’d think I’d be living my best life. But there’s a black cloud looming over my vegetarian wonderland. A bland, mushy cloud.
The black bean burger. The fat starch bomb that lurks on the menus of fine-dining establishments and grubby bar and grills alike. It’s the ubiquitous vegetarian default pushed to us at every non-vegetarian restaurant throughout America. And it is the worst.
Let’s start with why. The very first bite you take of literally every black bean burger ever made sends the opposite end sliding out of the bun and onto the plate. How does the only bite that will be encased by bun during this experience taste? Like someone mixed a bunch of different baby foods together. And then dropped it in the garbage disposal by accident. And then emptied the garbage disposal onto a skillet and cooked it for about 30 seconds until it’s lukewarm on the outside but cold and wet on the inside. Any other flavor notes? Nope, because all the condiments and toppings slid out with the rest of the burger.
And what about those condiments? A black bean burger can never just be a plain old burger with ketchup and mustard and cheese, unless you specifically ask for it that way. It’s usually accompanied by pico de gallo, a spicy aioli of some kind, maybe some limp tortilla strips—anything to distract from the flavorless hunk of bean meat between the buns.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that restaurants acknowledge the existence of vegetarians now. And I don’t even mind a mediocre frozen veggie patty as long as it holds up long enough to convey condiments and cheese into my mouth. Are frozen patties prohibitively expensive in the restaurant world or something? Why do so many places opt for the more labor-intensive black bean burger when they could be satisfying vegetarians with so much less effort?
I suspect the establishments that serve black bean burgers are doing so with the intention of punishing us for our “unhealthy lifestyles,” as my wife’s dad once referred to vegetarianism.
Here in Chicago, a well-regarded burger bar (with a heavy metal theme) used to offer the option to sub a veggie patty into any of their burgers. There was nothing remarkable about the patty itself. But in the context of my favorite burger with crushed garlic, hot sauce, pepper jack cheese, jalapenos, roasted garlic mayo and a big, greasy bun, it was heaven.
A couple of years ago, seemingly out of spite, they switched to a “housemade” black bean burger that was bigger and blander than any I’d ever tried before. Worse, the server told me about it like they were proud of it. Like, hey, isn’t this great? We made this inedible pile of shit just for you!
Thankfully, the Impossible Burger is now their vegetarian offering of choice—what genius came up with the idea of the bleeding burger, anyway? “Gee, you know what I bet vegetarians really miss when they stop eating meat? Blood!” It is more metal, I guess. I haven’t tried it yet, but pretty much anything is better than a black bean burger, so I have high hopes.
And hopefully someday, when gimmicky bleeding burgers won’t cost more than actual meat, other places will follow suit and help eradicate the black bean burger once and for all. I guess I’ll just have some of those little sesame breadstick crackers in the meantime.