Tell anyone you're vegetarian and a classic response is: "Man, I'd really love to do that, but burgers are just too good."
It's true. Burgers are delicious. But veggie burgers can be, too.
Now, I'm not talking about the frozen-in-a-box kind. Those are pretty bland, to put it nicely, but there are restaurants that take veggie burgers to another level, making a patty so tasty it can satisfy even the biggest meat-eaters. For a vegetarian or vegan, those are the greatest discoveries to make. But a succulent treat that still fits into a restrictive diet is not that easy to find, so we're always on the hunt for them. My quest for the best veggie burgers in Tampa Bay has lasted three years so far (it started pretty much the day I became a vegetarian) and although it's not over yet, it's reaped some delicious rewards.
Some of them have been found in expected places, like the vegetarian restaurant Consciousness Blossoms in Palm Harbor. Their harvest burger is made with a mix of brown rice, mushrooms, onions, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, soy, rolled oats and bulgur wheat. Served on a toasted multi-grain bun with tamari mayonnaise, the burger has the texture and taste of a turkey burger. Its lighter taste is matched by its side item: a vegan coleslaw with sesame seeds and lime dressing.
But sometimes you just need that traditional side of fries. Bar food that tastes like it. For that more authentic burger-and-fries grease, there's Crowley's in downtown St. Petersburg. Made with fresh oats and dried veggies and topped with sautéed spinach, garlic shallots and chipotle mayo, Joe's Oat Pattie Burger has a little spicy hint and can be vegan or just vegetarian with some extra cheese on top.
I'll admit I haven't tasted an actual meat burger in three years, but when I found Alfresco's Black Bean Burger at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort, an omnivore friend tasted it and gave her "tastes like the real thing" stamp of approval. This one is made with rice, barley, mushrooms and, of course, black beans, giving it a little Tex-Mex flair. It's a bit messy and best eaten in pre-divided halves, but worth the work.
Also best eaten with a fork and knife is Square 1 Burgers' Very Vegan Veggie Burger. It's only fair this place has a few vegetarian options, since its extensive burger menu even includes venison and ostrich burgers. A house recipe, the Very Vegan Burger patty is served with sun-dried tomato and artichoke hummus and fresh avocado. It's a more gourmet version of a classic, but stacked high, it's just as indulging as the meat ones.
At South Tampa's Pane Rustica, my tried and tested burger du jour was the White Bean and Farro Veggie Burger on a tomato focaccia bread. The patty is made vegan with no eggs, dairy or meat. Cannellini beans, rolled oats, roasted eggplant, roasted garlic, barley and Umbrian farro make the bulk of it. Then there are the toppings, changed frequently, that in mine included arugula, fontina cheese and grilled onion aioli. This may not be the most authentic all-American burger, but it is delicious and enters my Veggie Burger Hall of Fame. The place has many other options on the veggie burger front, as sous chef Brent Belcher makes a different one every day to keep veggie customers happy and satisfied.
This vegetarian is hoping for more chefs and restaurants like that, so this quest will last a lot longer than three years.