Travel Post: New York

A bit earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of heading to New York for just under a week. It goes without saying that I was excited from from a foodie perspective, and quickly got to researching what was on offer veggie burger-wise. I read articles about some of the best the city had to offer – including one that is part of a $295 10-course tasting menu in a 3 Michelin star restaurant – unfortunately I wasn’t able to sample as many as I wanted, due to the large amount of other great cuisines (mainly pizza) on offer. I did get to try out one veggie burger establishment, a tiny little below street-level establishment in East Village, aptly named Superiority burger.

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One of the most amazing things about New York is that you can have completely contrasting neighbourhoods within the same boroughs (admittedly the boroughs are a bit bigger than their London equivalents), sometimes right next to each other. Nestled between the massive skyscrapers of the Financial district and Midtown, are the trendy ‘village’ areas of Greenwich and the East Village. The East Village has a particularly neighbourhood feel about it, with it’s rows of red brick townhouses, and each street dotted with a few tiny bars or restaurants on the ground or basement floors. Superiority burger on E9th street was one of these establishments. As restaurants this go this is certainly one of the smallest I have ever been to. The white shop front is the only thing that stops you from walking straight past it. When you enter it has the feel of a takeaway burger bar, but on closer inspection you notice it probably seats about 5 or 6 people in little banquettes hidden in the window bay and under the stairs with fold up tables like you get on the front row of seats on an airplane. The menu is pretty varied and unique, with a number of different burgers and wraps on offer, and a couple of sides – notably no fries (of any variety!) – which they describe as being all ‘vegetarian, a lot accidentally vegan’. I went for the namesake Superiority burger with a side of burnt broccoli salad.

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The burger was small, slightly larger than slider size, but packed full of veggies and served with melted Munster cheese and lettuce, inside a sweet brioche bun. I ate the thing in about three bites. The burnt broccoli salad was spicy and filled with a pleasantly surprising east-asian kick. Amazingly it was one of the cheapest meals of the whole trip, the burger – albeit tiny – was only $6! It was a real whistle-stop lunch though, in part because we had a lot more to see and do that day, but also because I was absolutely desperate for the loo, and they didn’t have a customer toilet!

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As mentioned above, unfortunately that was my only veggie burger experience in NYC. It was a great trip for the tastebuds though. Aside from all the slices I picked up from Joe’s Pizza, I had my first ever experience of veggie fried chicken, in the form of buffalo chicken and waffles at Sweet Chick on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. Another great bite was the Eggplant baguette from Jack’s Wife Freda in Greenwich – probably one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten! Needless to say I left New York with a full stomach and an empty wallet. Although the burger experience in was brief it was good to get one in there amongst all the other delights on offer. I’ll be sure to try some more when I’m back, probably not in the too distant future!

 

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 6/10 

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

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Travel Post: McDonald’s

Ok, I know what you’re thinking, this blog has taken a nosedive. Reviewing McDonald’s what’s he doing?? Yes, McDonald’s is not part of the burger revolution that our great capital is currently in the wave of, and yes, unless you’re feeling drunk, hungover, sorry for yourself, or skint you probably wouldn’t end up in Maccy’s for dinner, but this is a travel post! I was not in London, and not having dinner, but merely partaking in a cultural exercise where different cultures and cuisines clashed to make something potentially beautiful – I went to McDonald’s in India!

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Before I went to India I was excited more that usual, mainly due to my expectations of the vegetarian cuisine. In terms of vegetarianism, India really is the Holy Grail. With nearly half of the population – 500 million people –  vegetarian, and the majority of the rest not eating beef or pork, the likelihood was that more than anywhere I had ever been before in my life, India was going to be the place with the biggest and tastiest selection of vegetarian dishes for me to sample. But would this be the case across the board? Just after landing in Mumbai, I spotted a Burger King across the road from the main terminal building advertising it’s chicken-whopper, which posed the question: how do international fast-food beef burger brands adapt to such a veggie heavy market?

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It certainly wasn’t as easy to find an Indian McDonald’s in India as it is in London, surprisingly even in the downtown of a megalopolis like Mumbai. The branch in the the tourist area of Colaba (an area famous to most for being the setting for much of Gregory David Roberts’ epic Shantaram) was closed for refurbishment. Aside from that there was only one other branch in the south tip of the Mumbai peninsula, and that was opposite the majestic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus building, which meant that we didn’t have to go too far out of the way on our day of sightseeing (one would argue that this was a sight in itself…). One thing you realise as you walk into a branch of McDonald’s in India is that the clientele is very different to what you would find over here. There were a lot of families, true, but also quite a big crowd of young professionals, and older middle class customers too. The biggest difference, as expected, was the menu! Of the eleven burgers on offer, a massive five were vegetarian (with the other six comprising of five chicken burgers and one fish burger), with even more veggie options available in the form of wraps. The best thing, though, were the names. Conspicuous in it’s absence was the Big Mac. The main burger that took it’s place was the brilliantly titled Maharaja Mac, available in both veg and chicken. Also available was the McSpicy Paneer, the McVeggie, and lastly – from the saver menu – the Aloo Tikki (40p). To try and sample as much as I could, I split a Maharaja Mac and a McSpicy Paneer with my mate, and got a McAloo on the side.

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Unfortunately, this is where the romance with the Indian McDonald’s started to fade. After getting past the momentous moment of having my first ever doubled tier burger, the two patties in the Maharaja Mac were very run-of-the-mill. The McAloo Tikki – a potato and pea burger designed to get in new customers with its cost, and by supposedly replicating the flavours you would get in typical Indian street food – was pretty flavourless reflecting it’s cost. Even the McSpicy Paneer (essentially a deep fried battered slab of cheese) wasn’t even spicy!

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Whilst the burgers disappointed, for the entire fortnight preceding my trip to McDonald’s my tastebuds were tantalised by an array of curries, dosas, and thalis of such variety and flavour that I could’ve happily eaten for the rest of my life. It was a shame that this wonderful Indian ability to spice and flavour their food had been lost – or at least dialled back a considerable deal – when it came to this collision of worlds. The lunch at McDonald’s was hands down the worst meal I had in the whole of India, but I don’t regret trying it one bit. For one, it gave an almost immediate comparison to the food I was eating whilst in India, allowing me to appreciate it even more, and secondly, it gave a glimpse (perhaps only in Beta mode) into some sort of utopian future where international fast-food conglomerates have to bow to the pressure of a majority vegetarian population. Hey, we can all dream, right?

 

VEGGIE BURGER RATINGS: 4/10 (average)

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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Travel Post: Glastonbury Festival 2015

I love London, don’t get me wrong, but come the end of June there is one place where I wouldn’t rather be: traipsing around a farm in Somerset, along with 170,000 other revellers, seeing some of the world’s greatest artists and soaking up the vibes at Glastonbury Festival. Despite all the excitement that my second impending Glasto weekend had in store for me, whilst I was on the train down to Castle Cary, I was struck by another realisation about what makes the festival so great – the food! That many people need to be fed, and at Glastonbury they are fed well. The festival’s policy of only independent food vendors means that a general high quality of grub is on offer. On top of that, with the positively alternative nature of the Glastonbury festival-goer, there is a strong lean towards vegetarian (and even vegan-)friendly cuisine. A raver two-steps on his stomach and, with five days of partying ahead, I would need a fair few veggie burgers to get me through.

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The Park

With my first ever Wednesday night surprisingly reaching dawn (after earlier thinking the music would be over by midnight!), an afternoon on the hill above The Park munching on a tin of beans and veggie sausages (don’t judge me) before catching the preview of the excellent Amy documentary was much needed. The party restarted again, as well as my appetite, in Stonebridge bar with Mike Skinner in particularly good form reloading everything he and the Murkage DJs played, and led me to my first burger of the festival. Such an occasion as this required a visit to a British summer festival stalwart and a favourite of mine: Vegan & Vegetarian. Usually the prime spot to pick up a banging felafel in pitta, my attention was focused towards the burger menu, where one has the choice of either an ‘Organic Tofu’, a ‘Spicy Mexican’, or a ‘Traditional Veggie’ – I went for the latter. The Traditional Veggie – a soya based, meat substitute burger – is fairly ordinary in it’s appearance. It comes served in a wholemeal bun, with vegan mayo and packed with the leafy green salad synonymous with this particular stand. The flavour of the synthesised patty really comes through as succulent and juicy as I imagine the beef patty it’s trying to replicate would be. What really set it off was a massive dollop of hot pepper sauce which added some much needed contrast to the otherwise fairly straight ensemble. (6/10)

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The rest of Thursday night, and in fact the whole of Friday, flew by. Plans for a burger were made, but one minute I was standing at the Pyramid stage getting rained on whilst grooving to the soulful sounds of Alabama Shakes and the indomitable tones of Mary J. Blige, and the next I was at the Stone Circle watching the sun come up, reflecting on JESUS’s closing set at Shangri-La Heaven.

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The whirlwind nature of Friday meant the main agenda of Saturday was nutrition, and lots of it. A free vegetarian lunch curtesy of the Hare Kirshnas set me on my way but the evening meal meant a rendezvous at one of my favourites from last time around: The ‘Fresh Organic Veggie Burgers stall. This is a must stop for the veggie burger enthusiast. Located equidistantly between the Pyramid, Other and John Peel stages, it has a prime location and one that me and my mates met up at especially this year for a veggie burger reunion. What’s special about this stall is that they offer a ‘create your own’ experience, where you can combine one of their three homemade ‘mushroom magic’, ‘spicy bean’, or ‘balti burger’ patties with two of six special toppings. I went for the spicy bean, with a topping of vegan coleslaw and satay sauce. Again served in a wholemeal bun (no brioche here), and with a healthy serving of lettuce. The flavours from this burger cut through the dulled sensations that the festival had rendered on my taste buds. Equally fresh and rich at the same time the burger propped me up for the night to come with the nuttiness of the satay combining with the spiced patty brilliantly (9/10). They also do a scrummy thai tofu peanut curry for the less burger inclined. Just as well my belly was full because Saturday night proved to be one of the best periods of the festival, first seeing Skepta performing at his peak to a a rowdy crowd, before witnessing the ‘greatest living rockstar on the planet’ in the shape of Kanye West at the Pyramid Stage. Love him or hate him, he was definitely worth his slot as Saturday’s headliner, and managed to somehow hold the enormity of the Pyramid stage all by himself. Later, the killer combination of DJ EZ and ShyFX at Wow!, and – even later – Four Tet at Genosys, provided the other highlights of the night.

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Kanye West at the Pyramid Stage

Sunday arrives and by day five your running on fumes, but by this time the vibes are in full flow and everyone is at optimum festival mode. Lionel Richie set up the day perfectly with a set easy like the sunday afternoon it was on. With seemingly the majority of the acts I wanted to see performing on the Sunday there was barely time to fit in one more burger but I managed to find time between the sun-soaked Future Islands set on the Other Stage and FKA Twigs slot on West Holts. I went to ‘Gourmet Burgers’ for my last stop which had a fairly a simple burger menu selling four different burgers (Beef, Lamb, Pork & Felafel). Being a burger store I was expecting a felafel patty but instead, unfortunately, got given a white bap with a few felafel balls and salad in it, with garlic and sweet chilli sauce – a poor man’s felafel wrap (without the poor man’s prices). I took a bite and couldn’t have anymore. I don’t know whether it was my distaste for the burger or just my excitement for the night to come, but my appetite just wasn’t there, so I shared it out with my mates and got on with my night (2/10). It was a bit of downer as it was to be my last burger of the festival but all was forgotten once I got back to the music which culminated at the unparalleled drag-queen disco, NYC Downlow.

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When I left Glastonbury after my first visit two years ago, I left with feeling of general satisfaction. Not incredibly overawed by anything in particular, I had a feeling that they just managed to do everything slightly better than every other festival managed to. This time though I left with a feeling that I had experienced something truly special. Knowing my way around the festival better, experiencing new aspects that I hadn’t last time, and going a bit more with the flow probably also helped. The fact is, that from the wide-eyed first-timers to the weirdos, face-down in the Stone Circle at 10am, the festival is being enjoyed by all and is absolutely unique to itself in the amount of effort it puts in to making that happen. Whether it’s in the company of the people you love, or the new friends you’ve made, or even just enjoying the beautiful munch you’ve had along the way, Glastonbury is an experience like no other.

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 6/10 (Ave)

OVERALL RATING: 10/10

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Travel Post: Zanzibar!

For the first few days of 2015 I found myself on the northern tip of the Island of Zanzibar, Tanzania, in the idyllic setting of the small, beach village of Kendwa. Kendwa, with it’s white sands and azure sea has become a popular travel destination over the years attracting a strange blend of wealthy Russian and Italian tourists, along with the usual mix of Western-European and Antipodean budget travellers. This latter group meant that veggie burgers were most definitely on the menu of the numerous restaurants that lined the sandy shore.

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After the amazing party at the beach of our hotel Kendwa Rocks, which brought in the New Year, the resulting hangover meant that I couldn’t look past the veggie burger on the hotel restaurant menu. Looks-wise it seemed exactly wanted I wanted, a big bun packed with fresh salad and goodness. Unfortunately though, much to my displeasure, the burger was below the standards of even the other distinctively average fare. The patty, which was akin to badly made bubble and squeak, was served in a weirdly sweet bun (a trait synonymous with all the bread served up at Kendwa Rocks) and the chips were too floury – not great for my hangover, and not a great first meal of 2015 either. My mood was lifted substantially, later on, by this though. 2/10

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The second day of the year brought another burger at the near by Essence, a slightly more high end restaurant also on Kendwa beach (the burger, subsequently, was the most expensive I had on the island coming to a whopping £4 …including fries!). The surroundings were a lot more pleasant and I certainly felt in better shape than the day before. When the burger turned up (second time lucky, after initially being brought it’s meaty counterpart) I was happy to not be disappointed like the burger I ate the day previous. The burger at Essence provided me with all the veg that I’d been craving over the previous 4 or so days on the island – aubergines, courgettes, gherkin – but that’s all it was, grilled vegetables. Melted cheese and an aioli sauce complimented the crispness of the veg, but the lack of anything to take command as the centrepiece of the burger meant it was a great sandwich rather than a good burger. The fries were delightfully light, and served with a very English-tasting ketchup – if that doesn’t sound too #britsabroad. 6.5/10

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January 3rd, and a third burger in three days meant that year had already been veggie burger consolidated. This third offering was at a restaurant called La Grande Luna – one of a bunch of Italian restaurants catering for the large contingent of Italians on the island. I had been there a couple of nights previous and the penne arrabiata was delicious. The burger however, was not. Although the patty itself – a blend of vegetables, tomato and mashed potato –  tasted good. It was let down by everything else though with the bun resembling – and having the consistency of – a savoury scone. The chips were of a quality similar to those at Kendwa Rocks, and the only thing that got me through it was an ice-cold bottle of the Tanzanian beer Ndovu. 1/10

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Really though I didn’t mind. The situation didn’t warrant good burgers. I think the fact that I found places selling veggie burgers in the first place forced my hand into buying them when I should have really eaten anything else. The fact that they weren’t great wasn’t really a surprise. The truth is that from all of these places you could hear the sound of the waves outside and, in the case of La Grande Luna, you could even feel the sand beneath your feet. There is good food on Zanzibar and good vegetarian food at that but, when you’re up on the northern tip of Zanzibar, steer clear of the veggie burgers, and just enjoy the beach.

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 3/10 (AV. SCORE)

OVERALL RATING: 10/10 (AWAY FROM THE RESTAURANTS!)

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Travel Post: Hans Im Glück vs The Flying Shuttle

I have been out of London the past couple of weekends and thought I’d use it as an opportunity to try out the burger scene, both nationally (Suffolk) and internationally (Germany). The two burger eateries I visited are from completely different ends of the restaurant spectrum. The first one I visited was a place called Hans Im Glück (translated as Hans in Luck) in the German city of Cologne. I was over in Cologne for the christmas markets and read about Hans Im Glück in a New York Times article which describes them as serving ‘probably the best burgers on the continent‘ – I couldn’t miss out on that! The following weekend I was up in Suffolk for a different reason, but again a burger caught my eye. The Flying Shuttle in Haverhill – a Marston’s pub – serves a mac n cheese burger as their veggie burger. The only person I know who has tried anything similar is an American, when he was back in America, so this was another opportunity I couldn’t pass up on.

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Walking around in Cologne on the Sunday before the Christmas Markets started, I was shocked at how few places were open and how few people were out on the streets. Therefore, the first thing that struck me about Hans Im Glück was just how busy it was. The aforementioned NY Times article was 2 years old, and you can never really judge just how popular a place will still be – but it was. Very. Even for an early Sunday dinner the place was packed and we had to join a queue to wait for our table, luckily as the only group of two waiting, we got offered some seats quickly. The english menu was brought over and it soon became apparent that there were 10 different veggie burgers to choose from(!) Most, if not all, veggies will understand the excitement/panic this instilled in me as I actually had to make a choice – especially as I may never get to try another one, on another occasion. Out of the four different patties with different topping/flavour combinations I eventually settled on the Heuernte, a walnut patty with blue cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, in a sourdough bun.

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In Suffolk I was presented with no such issue as to what I was going to choose. The Flying Shuttle is one of those places where a party of four could each have a dinner from a different cuisine – my focus was solely on the burger section, there in bold letters – MAC AND CHEESE BURGER – which I ordered with a side of sweet potato fries.

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The burgers themselves were delicious. The Heurente‘s walnut patty was delightfully, subtly nutty and was of perfect consistency – moist enough to not get stuck under your tongue and dry enough to not break apart in your hands. It also felt like it had been pan-fried, rather than deep-fried, which is rare for a home-made veggie patty of any sort. The blue cheese and sun-dried tomatoes worked wonders with the late summer feel of the burger, and if you thought I was missing out on the usually trimmings, they were in there as well, just tucked away underneath. Surprisingly, the Mac and Cheese Burger held together pretty well also. What caught me off guard was how un-sickly it was. At no point during eating it did I think ‘wow, there is a novelty to this, but really it’s gross’. Not too cheesy, nor too liquid, the breadcrumbs giving it a veggie burger feel – I was pleasantly satiated. Sides-wise it’s pretty hard to go wrong with sweet potato fries, but the onion rings were cold by the time I ate them – not great.

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In Cologne, to wash the burger down, I had a cheap pint of Erdinger. Unfortunately I hadn’t grown accustomed to drinking the local Kölch from small glasses yet – as the locals do – but actually drinking Weissbier in Germany felt suitable enough. At The Flying Shuttle they had a few real ales on tap, I settled on the Marston’s own Pedigree Bitter.

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Honestly I think my burger at Hans In Glück was one of the best I’ve ever had, and it sets a benchmark for what a burger restaurant can do when it comes to a veggie burger. Although the menu looked a lot more clogged up than those of the american-style burger joints we have here in London, every burger that came out looked delicious. The Mac and Cheese burger, although also tasty, was a unique thing to try but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to get it again.

For a vegetarian, the Christmas markets in Cologne offer up surprisingly a lot of veggie fare amongst all the brätwurst and meat-on-a-stick. As flavoursome as the schupfnudeln and the flammekuechen were, the winner of my German foodie sejour – and this international battle of the burgers – was the Heurente at Hans Im Glück.

COLOGNE

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 9/10

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

HAVERHILL

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 7.5/10

OVERALL RATING: 6/10