What makes a good veggie burger? As there’s no meat patty involved, what should take its place? It depends who you ask. On one extreme, a burger made from 'lab-grown meat' was unveiled in London a few years ago and hailed as the future of 'meatless meat'. (Whether such 'cultured meat' should be considered vegetarian is another issue entirely). On the other hand, there are those unimaginative chefs that simply slap a few slices of mushrooms or halloumi cheese inside a bap and call it a burger.
We spent several weeks chomping through the capital's veggie burgers, and discovered the traditional patty replaced by everything from pâté (well, almost) to pakora. There are wildly different takes on what a veggie burger should be, and something to suit every taste and budget. Here's our pick of the best.
Classic Burger and Polish Burger (£8 each) at Mildreds
By far our favourite veggie burgers in London by a mile, these two gems take a pride of place on this contemporary vegetarian mini-chain's short burger menu.
The Classic is simply a quintessential veggie burger. Made from lentils, smoked tofu and piquillo pepper, the tasty patty is dense yet light, and comes with sweet relish, basil mayo, sprightly rocket leaves, red onion and tomato in a good focaccia bun.
The same bun is used in the colourful and characterful Polish burger, made from beetroot, white beans and dill. It comes with crisp iceberg lettuce, basil mayo, pickled cabbage and gherkin.
Both have the option of extra vegetarian and vegan cheeses. What makes them so special? Well, vegetarian patties often tend to be 'double-fried' — fried once and kept aside, then again when the customer places an order — resulting in overly brown, often burnt burgers. In contrast, these have a sparklingly fresh taste and appearance.
Unlike brioche — the bun of choice at most burger joints — focaccia isn't distractingly sweet and rich, and doesn't fall apart while eating. So if you only have time to taste one veggie burger in London, make it one of these two.
Mildreds, 200 Pentonville Road, King's Cross, N1 9JP. Other branches are in Soho and Camden. Note that the King's Cross branch is closed until around early October 2016 for refurbishment.
Bun Tikki (£5.80) at Roti Chai
Vibrant with Indian street food flavours, the Amritsar-style potato tikki burger at this casual Modern Indian is a joy both in terms of taste and good looks. Delicious, lightly spiced sultana-studded potato patty is topped with salad leaves, red onions and pomegranate seeds, snuggled inside a good toasted bun.
There's a small pot of tamarind chutney on the side; and a cup of their lovely masala chai is the only other thing you'll need. The restaurant is tucked into a little alleyway opposite Selfridges, behind Marks and Spencer Marble Arch, and is an ideal place to meet friends.
Roti Chai, 3 Portman Mews South, W1H 6HS
Fritter Burger (£7.50, including chips) at Honest Burgers
We're addicted to the rosemary salted chips at this friendly, handsome restaurant chain — and the veggie burger that comes with it ain't bad either.
A mildly spiced cauliflower and sweetcorn pakora (we couldn’t really taste the tomatoes and shallots) sits cosily inside a pretty good bun, slathered with a thin layer of tasty, raita-like cucumber and coriander yoghurt. The fritter was a bit overcooked on our most recent visit — but this is one of the tastiest and most imaginative veggie burgers in town.
Honest Burgers, 189 Portobello Road, W11 2ED. There are many other branches.
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Portobello 'Dig It' Mushroom Burger (£8) at Patty & Bun
Mercifully free of faux Americana — but popular with hipsters and tourists — this expanding burger chain has recently opened a cosy, friendly branch in Goodge Street. The veggie burger is a braised, lightly breaded portobello mushroom stuffed with garlic and parsley butter. The breadcrumb coating is thin, which prevents it from being stodgy. The hefty patty comes in a good toasted brioche bun that's light yet substantial enough to stand up to it.
The relishes are generous and don't make the burger soggy. They include cheese sauce, tarragon mayo, coleslaw and crisp lettuce — and you'll also need chilli sauce or mustard to cut through all that cheese, butter and egg extravaganza. The burgers come in greaseproof paper bags; no crockery here. One of the most enjoyable veggie burger experiences in London.
Patty & Bun, 55 Goodge Street, W1T 1TQ. There are several other branches.
Vada Pau (£3.90) at Dishoom
Not to be confused with the aloo tikki burger above (also delicious), this slick Bombay café sells another variety of classic Indian potato burger: vada pau. This is a spiced mashed potato fritter, here distinctly flavoured with curry leaves, ensconced inside a mini-bun. It's topped with little crisp nuggets of chickpea flour batter that Indian kids usually fight over, which give the burger a good, varied texture. There are also coriander and tamarind chutneys; plus, as is traditional, 'red hillbilly ghati masala' to sprinkle over and a couple of fried green chillies.
Vada pau/pav is hugely popular Indian street food, and you'll also find a deliciously garlicky version for a mere quid at the no-frills Shree Krishna Vada Pav cafés in Harrow and Hounslow. They also sell tasty dabeli – another famous regional variant on the Indian potato burger — plus a whole lot of other things like samosas and pakoras stuffed inside burger buns.
Dishoom, 22 Kingly Street, W1B 5QB. There are several other branches.
Bean Patty (£7.95) at Byron
Good old-fashioned breadcrumbed bean patty, rarely seen elsewhere these days, can be found at this renowned burger chain — and it's done very well indeed. It comes in an excellent bun with roasted red pepper, baby spinach, tomato, red onion and aioli, with a delicious pickled gherkin on the side. (More pickles for us, please.) You can oomph it up with extra cheese or chillies; and also try their sweet potato or courgette fries on the side. The burger may be old school, but it's hearty, satisfying, and given a successful contemporary makeover. Staff are wonderful: friendly, brisk and efficient, yet unobtrusive.
Byron, Westfield White City Shopping Centre, The Loft, W12 7GF. There are several other branches.
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Mushroom, Celeriac and Truffle Burger (£16, including chips and salad) at Grain Store
This little-known posh veggie burger is part of the all-day menu, served at the bar of Granary Square's popular vegetable-centric restaurant. The combination of mushrooms, celeriac and truffle gives is a distinctly earthy, autumnal flavour; and it has a crumbly, almost semi-soft, pâté-like consistency. You'll need cutlery for this one.
The burger is a large patty inside a good bun that’s fluffy yet substantial enough to hold it. Pickled cucumber slices and the accompanying bitter leaf salad are needed to cut through its richness; and it comes with very good chips and a little pot of herb aioli. To drink, we recommend the aubergine sour cocktail made from aubergine rum. Okay, it doesn’t sound convincing, but trust us on this one.
Grain Store, Granary Square, 1-3 Stable Street, N1C 4AB
Veggie Boom (£7) at Boom Burger
This buzzy, cosy Jamaican burger joint, which overlooks Portobello Road and Acklam Village markets, serves a small veggie burger with a big personality. Tender roasted sweet potato comes in a soft bun with delicious chilli jam, mashed avocado salsa and rocket leaves. The plantain fries, made from very ripe fruit, are too sweet for our taste (but they sell potato fries too). There's a laid-back vibe here, plus lively music and outside seating.
Boom Burger, 272 Portobello Road, W10 5TY
'Shroom Burger (£5.50) at Shake Shack
This American chain serves a tasty basic veggie burger. There's nothing fancy about it: it's simply a fried, lightly breadcrumbed whole portobello mushroom filled with melted cheese. The bun is fairly bog-standard, garnished only with crisp lettuce, tomato and their house sauce. But it works — and, oh, the chips! The crisp, crinkle-cut, non-greasy fries are incredibly moreish, and we can never stop eating them. There's also a great selection of frozen custard shakes and ice creams on the menu.
Shake Shack, 24 Market Building, The Piazza, Covent Garden, WC2E 8RD. There are a few other branches.
The Greatest Burger Of All Time (£14.70, including salad and sides) at Wild Food Café
Despite its confident name, the unique burger at this vegetarian, vegan and raw food restaurant will divide opinion. There's nothing else quite like it, which is reason enough to include it. The vegan, raw food-friendly burger is made from good, nicely-textured, substantial mixed seed and breadfruit 'bun', filled with somewhat strong, clashing flavours of jerk root vegetable and shiitake mushroom patty, pineapple salsa, pink and black olives and 'cultured sauce (presumably made from nutritional yeast).
We also ordered extra 'pulled jackfruit' (the currently fashionable vegan alternative to pulled pork), which was delicious — we could eat an entire bowlful. The burger comes with a green salad, ackee-fresh coconut salt 'physh', and tasty coconut oil-roasted plantains. Staff are lovely, and the small restaurant is always busy, often with queues snaking out the door.
Wild Food Café, 1st Floor, 14 Neal's Yard, Covent Garden, WC2H 9DP
So which is your favourite veggie burger in London? Do you like old fashioned bean and lentil patties, or more adventurous flavours? And is it time to banish the brioche and bring back proper sesame seed buns? We would love to hear your thoughts.