When Masterchef Junior Edition recently asked its young participants to cook up a burger for an elimination challenge, the test seemed deceptively simple.
After all, a burger is just protein, condiments, vegetables and a bun. But oh! The combinations you can have! The chefs served up sliders, turkey burgers, Asian-burgers and classic all-beef hamburger patties, much to the delight of the show’s often-crabby judges.
It’s not surprising, though, that none attempted a veggie burger. A good veggie burger can be hard to find, said Celeste Cleary, who is a member of the CSRA Vegetarian Society. If typical burgers are the Rockies, then veggie burgers are Mount Everest: They can be crafted from a wide variety of vegetable proteins, including corn, soy, beans, tofu, nuts, mushrooms, even grains or seeds. Moisture, texture and taste (and whether the cook wants them to taste like meat) all come into play.
Eateries in New York, California and other non-Southern states typically make the lists of the nation’s best veggie burgers. But Cleary decided to make it her mission to find out: Who makes the best veggie burger in Augusta?
Her happy co-conspirators are the members of the CSRAVS. The group, which was founded in January 2007, has about 287 members who meet several times each month for potlucks, cooking classes and demonstrations, yoga and dining out. Although all fall within the general category of “vegetarian,” the group is widely diverse, according to organizer Ross Malick, who joined the society four years ago.
“You could be vegetarian, you could be semi-vegetarian, you could be pescetarian, you could be a vegan. You could be a fruitarian – just eat fruit and nuts … (or) raw foodists, that’s a new one,” he said.
Although Augusta doesn’t yet have a 100 percent vegetarian restaurant, a surprising number offer vegetarian options that go beyond just a salad or a vegetable side.
“There’s amazing things going on in vegetarian food right now, even here in Augusta,” Cleary said. “There are no dedicated vegetarian restaurants here; you have to go to Atlanta or Columbia for that. But you know, there’s lots more vegetarian options, lots more vegetarian-aware places you can go. Of course, you can always go ethnic” – Mexican, Indian and Asian restaurants often offer vegetarian versions of popular dishes.
The idea for the veggie burger battle came about one day when Cleary was talking to her waiter at downtown’s Mellow Mushroom.
“I was asking him where there were other good veggie burgers,” she said. She knew about Farmhaus and its house-made veggie burger, and her waiter also urged her to try Whiskey Bar Kitchen’s. “I thought, Whiskey Bar? I wouldn’t have expected that they would have a veggie burger. So it was like, we need to research this a little more thoroughly.”
Since the group started its monthly veggie burger lunches, “People are really invested in it. They have very strong opinions,” said Cleary. So far, the group has checked out Farmhaus Burgers, Whiskey Bar Kitchen, DiChicko’s Peri-Peri Café and Walton Way Deli; also on their list of contenders are Carolina Ale House, Chili’s in Aiken, Red Robin and Subway.
At a recent CSRAVS lunch at Boll Weevil Café in downtown Augusta, about 12 members gathered, all chatting loudly and excitedly. Cleary already had a unexpected frontrunner: Walton Way Deli, better known for its daily soups and deli sandwiches.
“They’re the one to beat,” she said. “They make a housemade burger there.”
Others who had already sampled Carolina Ale House’s asserted that their burger had an edge.
“It’s tastier,” said Malick, but he objected to its topping of fried onions. “I don’t know if it’s as healthy.”
Boll Weevil offers two contenders: The Tree Hugger, a vegetarian burger topped with provolone, lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions, and The Portabella, with grilled marinated portabellas replacing the meat patty. The manager, alerted to the society’s appearance in the restaurant, stopped by the table to inform the group of menu changes coming up, adding vegetarian appetizers, fish tacos and more.
“We’re trying to get creative,” he said. “We’re going to get a little more vegan and vegetarian friendly” – which caused the table to erupt into applause.
Once the burgers arrived (most of the group ordered the Tree Hugger), the table quieted.
“Bon appetit, everybody,” said Malick as the group began to taste and weigh in.
“This one looks good,” member Stephen Campbell. “(The patty) is soft, but it’s not falling apart … it’s tasty. It’s at least second place.”
“It’s got good veggie flavor in it,” added Cleary. “This may be in my top three. Walton Way, Whiskey Bar and this one are definitely my favorites.”
The group judges each burger on flavor first, then texture (not falling apart, yet not too hard). Meatiness, though, is a matter of opinion.
“Some people want a veggie burger that looks like meat, and some want one that has a lot more veggie flavor and texture and taste,” said Campbell.
“I’m definitely in the fake-meat camp,” Cleary said with a laugh. But for her, toppings are also important. “What makes a burger good is the barbecue sauce and stuff that makes any burger taste good.”
The final analysis? Boll Weevil’s Tree Hugger burger is among the best veggie burgers in Augusta, scoring high on taste and texture – at least until next month.
“It’s (been) a veggie burger death match,” joked Cleary. “(But) really, it’s about enjoying and exploring. It’s just fun to know we have different options.”
If you’d like to join the CSRA Vegetarian Society on its monthly quest to find the best veggie burger in Augusta, you can find its Meetup group at meetup/csravs.