I've been a vegetarian for 20 years, but here's the deal: I don't eat sprouts, I don't like tofu, and I don't know (or even want to know) what tempeh is. I like to eat well, sometimes at fine-dining places, but even more often at the same everyday sort of places my friends and family like.
And the boom in burger joints has me just as excited as the next person. Sometimes a vegetarian craves savory, salty, fatty goodness between two pieces of bread like any other red-blooded American.
Lucky for folks like me, burger restaurants aren't just serving up those prefab slabs with squared edges that look like they were made in a factory along the New Jersey Turnpike. On a recent survey of the veggie burger scene, I found more than a few places turning out original, creative, deeply flavorful vegetarian options.
H2 Burger Co.
You can tell there's a Cordon Bleu-trained chef in the kitchen at this divey new burger spot inside the Red Goose Saloon in downtown Fort Worth. The veggie burger is more ambitious than most, with one of the best house-made patties around. Made largely from rice and carrots, it manages to be moist without losing its structure and falling apart. But truthfully, most of the flavor comes from what's on top: Garlicky arugula pesto, fresh greens and balsamic caramelized onions lend an intensely savory and complex flavor. Choose from the homemade ciabatta or a pretzel bun, both more interesting and hearty than ordinary buns. Anyone who's not afraid of garlic will like this burger -- at least two of my carnivore friends say it may be even better than H2's beef versions. 306 Houston St. (in the Red Goose Saloon), Fort Worth.
There are two area locations of this national chain, although the one in University Park goes by the name "Hillstone." (Don't ask; it's not that interesting.) The veggie burger here has been justly famous for years. Someone even started a Facebook page for it that includes an attempt at replicating the recipe, which has 18 ingredients, including a teaspoon of beet juice. The patty is made largely of brown rice, black beans and oat bran "with sweet soy." It's also more appealing to the eye than most veggie burgers, flecked with juicy red beet pieces and covered with stripes from the grill, where the patty is fused with a slice of melted jack. 5318 Belt Line Road, Addison; Hillstone, 8300A Preston Road, Dallas, 214-691-8991; www.hillstone.com.
Twisted Root Burger Co.
The veggie patty here is a straightforward spicy black-bean version that's not made in-house, but the variety of gourmet toppings is what makes this one great. You can get a veggie version of any of the specialty burgers (such as green chile, guacamole and pepper jack, or blue cheese and tangy buffalo sauce), or build your own from a list of top-quality ingredients that includes house-made ancho ketchup and horseradish mustard and great cheese options like Danish blue and a Dallas goat cheese. In other words, if it doesn't taste good, it's your fault. Six area locations; www.twistedrootburgerco.com.
You might not even miss the cheese when trying one of this vegan restaurant's several burger options. The place does three styles of patty (the classic burger style is good, and so is the nut burger) and three styles of trimmings. The best combination is a classic patty on the El Paso burger, which comes with guacamole and chipotle mayonnaise. 1314 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth, 817-332-8834; 1101 N. Beckley Ave., Dallas, 214-948-4747; www.spiraldiner.com.
M&O Station Grill
The delicious black-bean patty is the way to go here (a commercial Gardenburger patty is also an option), and the toppings make things even better: M&O grills the onions, sautes the mushrooms and tops it all with a house chipotle mayonnaise. And all veggie burgers come on a hearty whole-wheat bun (meat lovers should ask for it, too). 200 Carroll St., Fort Worth, 817-882-8020; www.fwscreen.com/fwscreen.com/M&O_Grill.html.
Many restaurants sensibly give up entirely on creating fake hamburger patties and just put a marinated, flavored portabella mushroom between two buns. The results can be quite good, but they mostly tend to taste the same. Here are three to know about.
Give chef Tim Love maximum points for originality. Portabellas tend to release all their juices and turn a burger into a knife-and-fork mess long before you finish. Love Shack solves this problem by battering and frying the mushrooms first to seal in the moisture. The rest of the burger, though, may remind some people too much of a fast-food children's burger: It's very small, it comes with American cheese, and it's free of fussy gourmet toppings. I like all that, though, and also give a big thumbs-up to the chile-dusted Parmesan chips. 110 E. Exchange Ave., Fort Worth; 817 Matisse Drive, Fort Worth; 115 E. Hickory St., Denton; www.loveburgershack.com.
Dutch's makes a well-marinated, flavorful portabella burger that holds up well to the moisture (the extremely bread-y buns here probably help). 3009 S. University Drive, Fort Worth; www.dutchshamburgers.com.
Pappas also has a flavorful portabella burger, although the advertised feta cheese sauce tastes mostly of mayonnaise. Pappas is not as shy about portion sizes, though. Like every restaurant with "Pappa" in the name, it will dish up the biggest serving it possibly can. I've had portabellas here the size of hubcaps, if that's important to you. 2700 West Freeway, Fort Worth; pappasburger.com.