When searching for beefless burgers, If you want to avoid the bum steer, look for nonstandard ingredients
by Graham Meyer
On the question of burgers without beef, the best strategy is the no-bull approach: If you want a hamburger, you should just order a hamburger. Turkey, vegetables, and tuna enjoy various culinary virtues, but impersonating beef is not among them. The standard hamburger fixings (sesame-seed bun, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, ketchup, and mustard) complement beef, so simply plugging in a different patty—no matter how good—condemns a burger to the status of redheaded stepchild.
The best no-beef burgers rethink the hamburger model altogether. The turkey burger at District Bar (170 W. Ontario St.; 312-337-3477) is a perfect example. Its surprisingly juicy patty is accompanied by corn relish, alfalfa sprouts, piquillo aïoli, and Chihuahua cheese. The mild flavors blend swimmingly, although the slippery whole might slide right out of the bun.
The turkey burger at Sixteen (Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago, 401 N. Wabash Ave.; 312-588-8030)—available upon request—deserves its acclaim as one of Oprah’s favorite things. The tamarind-glazed, somewhat meat-loafy hunk contains green onions and herbs and comes so blazing the heat radiates through the bun. The barbecue-sauce-like spread features chunks of pear and yellow currants. An assortment of hamburger toppings arrives with the sandwich, but anything more than the basics wrecks the carefully wrought balance of flavor. One caveat: Oprah has more money than you, so she doesn’t blink at dropping $26 for a turkey burger. Atwood Cafe (Hotel Burnham, 1 W. Washington St.; 312-368-1900) sells an honest turkey burger, based on a thick, simple disk of just turkey, salt, and pepper. Thought has gone into its architecture: goat cheese and caramelized onion and bacon aïoli on top of the patty and arugula underneath, all on a sturdy pretzel roll. Also notable on the turkey front is the version at Park Grill (11 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-521-7275), with its rich patty, guacamole, pickled onions, pepper Jack cheese, and guava barbecue sauce on a brioche.
With veggie burgers, the imitative problem takes a slightly different form—texture. Vegetables don’t hold together as well as beef, so many veggie burgers are loaded with grains or beans that deliver cohesion at the cost of moisture and bold flavors. Here’s a rule of thumb: The sloppier a veggie burger, the better it tastes. Exhibit A for the delicious, structurally unsound model is at Jane’s (1655 W. Cortland St.; 773-862-5263), which contains corn, carrots, zucchini, squash, quinoa, Parmesan, and mozzarella. Toppings of Monterey Jack and wild mushrooms add further depth, creating a complex, gloppy whole. Bandera (535 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-644-3524) uses potentially dull ingredients, but unusual flavors and textures balance things out. Elements include black beans, brown rice, oats, beets, yellow onions, jalapeños, and prunes. (Yes, prunes.) Accessories selected with care from the classic hamburger repertoire—namely mustard, shredded lettuce, long pickle slices, raw onions, and tomatoes—complete a fine burger. Don’t let the prunes scare you off.
Tuna burgers have to work even harder to distinguish themselves from a not-quite-hamburger because they face the extra hurdle of justifying putting good fish on a bun. The best of the bunch appears on the lunch menu at Sola (3868 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-327-3868). From the bottom up, the stack features a pretzel roll, ginger mustard, ground tuna (mixed with capers, red onion, and whole-grain mustard), raw red onion, plum tomatoes, a spreadable scallion mayonnaise, and the bun top. The slightly browned fish and the lightly toasted roll contribute textural variation, echoing the diverse sharp-sour flavors. Now, that’s a burger—even if it’s not a hamburger.