Summer reissue: Kind-of vegetarian Alex Casey brings you the only meat-free fast food burger ranking you’ll ever need.
First published October 31 2020
At the start of the year, several centuries ago, I went vegetarian. Kind of. As a coward with commitment issues, I decided to enter into a dietary Yes Man situation, where I would always say “yes” to eating vegetarian unless there was no other option left but to eat meat. It’s an extremely effective lifestyle choice that means I now basically never eat meat, with the exception of when I find myself randomly at the Federal Deli holding a chicken salad sandwich.
Throughout the course of this extremely mild social experiment, I have sampled what feels like every vegetarian burger option in the land. Cloying black bean and quinoa mushclump from a well-meaning regional pub. Thick golden slabs of haloumi, nature’s permission slip to eat a whole block of cheese in polite company. A fake meat burger so rich and juicy that it caused a close contact of mine to, and I quote, “shit their pants” at their place of work.
But this isn’t a boutique veggie burger ranking – your Fuels, your Wisconsins, your Velvets, your Murders, your Burgers, your Betters. This is a ranking of fast food veggie* burgers. The crazy ones. The misfits. The literal rebels™ on a meat-mad menu. On the one hand, they make you feel like pious Mother Teresa in the drive-thru line. On the other hand, they’re probably a greenwashing scam to keep Big Clown stomping all over the rainforest with his big clown shoes.
On the other hand, opting for a meat-free version of something isn’t the worst thing you can choose to do. We’re all just doing our best. Especially those of us who have three hands.
8) Wendy’s Salad Burger
In the words of Jack Torrance: Wendy. Darling. Light of my life. All salad and no patty makes me a sad girl. At the cheapest price of $5.10, you get what you pay for here. But at what cost. It’s sad (limp lettuce), so sad (pale tomato), it’s a sad sad situation (radioactive guacamole) and it’s getting more and more absurd (sweet chilli sauce???). I would just like to remind the jury, your honour, that this burger has already been found guilty on three counts of not having a patty.
“Who says that salad has to taste boring?” pleads Wendy on her website, with the same desperation of David Brent asking whether famine has to be depressing. This paltry effort honestly feels like the time I asked my mum for a vegetarian lasagne for my birthday and instead of subbing out the mince for something else, she did away with the bolognese altogether and just served up layers of pasta sheets and white sauce. Desgusten.
7) Burger King Salad Burger
Before we get to the judge’s critiques, I would like to publicly acknowledge the heritage of the Burger King Salad Burger, which I understand to have been the ONLY actual vegetarian fast food burger option available for the longest time in this country. So, kudos to this trailblazer, the first to take non-meat eaters seriously and not just expect us to sheepishly pack an empty cheeseburger full of chips and call it a night (although this is yum and fine too).
BUT we have since moved on as a society and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we simply do not have the emotional capacity to deal with this much onion in 2020. It’s absurd to dish up deep fried onion rings AND giant pieces of raw onion in the SAME burger. It’s onions two ways, it’s Tony Abbott’s fantasy and it is Shrek’s wedding vehicle. Don’t cry because the BK salad burger days are over, but don’t laugh either because your breath will kill a mid-size bird.
6) Burger King Big King XL
I’m obsessed with the trend of fake meat burgers constantly trying to out-macho each other, through thickness, size or meatiness. Burgerfuel’s American Muscle is a great example, a jacked-up fake meat burger that simply does not need to be as angry as the roid-rage branding or gargantuan heft suggests. Honestly, the second that any fast food chain comes out with a fake meat patty that isn’t the size of an actual bodybuilder’s bum cheek, it’s over for you bitches.
Anyway, while we are trapped in this weird machismo marketing dick-swinging competition, the Super King XL is about as hectic as it gets. I understand it’s exciting that fake meat is nearing simulacrum, but Burger King has flown way too close to the sun here. Doubling down on the fake meat patty works only to highlight the flaws and amplify the weird unnatural squeak that comes with the dried-out edges of the patty. It’s a fake meat fake Big Mac and it’s too much.
5) McDonald’s McVeggie
Mike Posner taking a pill in Ibiza < me eating a McVeggie in Wellsford. This burger was an absolutely unparalleled trip. Shrouded in controversy and confusion for not actually being vegetarian at all, the McVeggie fuels its own chaos by only being available in selected stores. I can attest to its availability in Wellsford, but if you try to veg out in Point Chevalier you are going to be met with the advice to “pop an egg in there instead” and that’s your journey.
It might be for the best that you can’t get it everywhere, because this burger feels like it contains an ancient curse. The patty vibes like a corn fritter, but then reveals itself to be basically a post-mammogram croquette. It contains cheese (!), cheerful bits of corn and green flecks and carrots which made me feel nostalgic for The Old Days when coffee was black or white instead of latte or mocha at some trendy site.
Would I marry it? No. Would I eat it again? Probably.
4) KFC Vegetarian Burger
Full props to this humble burger for starting the public conversation about something many of us know in our most private and shameful of hearts – that anything is basically fine if you put a hash brown in it. There’s a real subversive freedom to menu items like this, same food family as the burgers you can buy with glazed donuts instead of buns, or those Mexican Tank salads that you can get corn chips crushed into and it’s fine because it’s salad. I appreciate the no-nonsense, delicious approach that very much makes sense with the wider KFC fantasy.
Extra for experts: I know that I’ve stayed strictly “on menu” up until this point but if I may make a rogue suggestion – get supercharged sauce on this. You won’t regret it.
3) Carl’s Jnr Veggie Burger
I’ll be honest, I did not see this coming either. I had extremely low expectations for Carl’s Jr in the meat-free market, given that they are mostly known for quadruple-stacked beef burgers and making ladies writhe around on sudsy cars in their underclothes. But after trying their veggie burger, I was so stunned and impressed that I had to physically restrain myself from donning an American flag bikini and ascending onto the hood of our Mazda Demio.
This burger is crazy, good, and crazy good. It’s got smoky tomato chutney in it for god’s sake. Crispy fried onion straws! Pickles! Aioli! Cheese! Lettuce! A sundried tomato, potato and kūmara patty! Full respect to Carlton and the team for actually giving non-meat-eaters a bit of texture and excitement to work with, but this should absolutely not be in the “lighter eats” part of the menu as I predict it weighs about three kilograms. That’s value.
2) Burger King Rebel Whopper
Obviously The Whopper is a classic of the genre and Burger King’s plant-based alternative certainly appears to fool many Kiwi punters on the telly. But we need to be honest here, you can still tell the difference. Past the distractions of pickle, aioli, tomato – and cheese if you’re fancy – the patty is still not quite there. Rip a bit of it off on its own and you will still feel the unnatural rubbery feeling, the slightly laboratorial taste.
All that said, it’s still a bloody, bloody good burger and one that would happily get anyone through a hangover and/or roadie with no problem whatsoever. What holds this back from the top spot for me is that I feel like there’s a lot of places to hide in the Whopper format, and you could probably put a patty made of mouse crap in there and it would still taste pretty good. What this reviewer likes is confidence and simplicity, embodied by burger number one….
1) Burger King Rebel Chook
With only four no-frills elements – shredded lettuce, tangy lemony mayonnaise, a fake chook patty and the classic elongated bun, there are simply no bells, whistles or machismo to be found with the Rebel Chook. Chicken is easier to fake, given that chicken nuggets are basically made of knuckles and sawdust, which gives this meat-alternative a huge advantage. BK is so confident in its fake chook that you can also buy it in tender form, which speaks volumes. I haven’t seen any fake beef rissoles on the menu, put it that way.
What else to love? Another close contact pointed out to me recently that this is “the perfect driving burger.” And, as we all know, food consumed in the car, the airport and the movies doesn’t count, so that’s another tick in its favour. Fake chicken can be a bit on the dry side, but the Rebel Chook anticipates this with lashings of zesty mayo and crisp lettuce. Mark my words – the Rebel Chook is perfect and the future is officially here. You don’t need real meat to have a nice time when you can just get this rebel without the claws. No further questions.
*many of these are not technically vegetarian, but neither am I really
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