More Americans than ever are eating veggie burgers on a daily and weekly basis than before. This includes millions of people who still eat meat, but like the healthiness and flavors of veggie burger options. Much of this change in eating habits is due to new plant-based veggie burgers from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. More and more fast food and fast casual chains have at least one plant-based burger on the menu.
The global plant-based meat market in 2022 is estimated to be valued at $7.9 billion. While plant-based meats have been hit and miss for fast food chains, it looks like these options are here to stay.
I have been an ovo-lacto vegetarian since 1989, so veggie burgers have been a big part of my diet. However, in the early years of my new diet, veggie burgers were always something you made at home. Those frozen burgers you find in grocery stores didn’t become a thing until the mid-1990s. Finding a veggie burger at a restaurant, other than at vegetarian-focused restaurants, was extremely uncommon. In the late 1990s, you could find a decent veggie burger at the fast casual chain T.G.I. Friday’s.
When I talk about veggie burgers, I’m talking about the format, not specifically about a meat-like patty inserted between slices of bread. Restaurants have long played loose with the definition of burgers, often calling menu items that are sandwiches with protein and don’t involve beef, “burgers.”
The best veggie burger I’ve ever eaten was the Portabella-bachi at the old Swagger restaurant on Wornall Road near 85th Street in Kansas City, Missouri. Swagger is no longer around, but this burger/sandwich was amazing. Tempura battered portabella mushroom, pepper jack cheese, Asian mustard, Siracha chili sauce, and wasabi coleslaw. All of this on Swagger’s fresh toasted buns. The wasabi coleslaw was the magic ingredient. The slaw was featured on a episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (more on that below).
This burger hit all the right notes for me because it had so many great flavors, a “protein” that had been grilled, fresh bread, a variety of crunchiness, and plenty of moisture. The lack of moisture in a homemade veggie burger or sandwich often make those creations very dry and boring. Like any regular meat-based burger, you gotta have toppings and sauces.
When I mentioned this essay to Dining Companion #1, their eyes lit up at mention of Swagger’s Portabella-bachi burger. It impressed them too, so much that they started reciting the ingredients without prompting from me.
Dining Companion #1 and I discovered Swagger after it was featured on Guy Fieri’s series “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives!” I was a regular viewer of the series at the time and took note that it featured several restaurants in Kansas City that year. Swagger was what is commonly called a “neighborhood bar and grill.” It had a popular bar, but it had an ambitious menu with table service. Think Fric and Frac for something currently open. Swagger closed in 2014 as a result of a lawsuit and tax issues.