The veggie burger may have infiltrated mainstream dining while millennials were still teething, but despite advances in the design and DNA of our vegetable-based-patty sandwiches, they still have a way to go before becoming a nationally accepted form of fast food, even in these plant-food-mad times.
Sure, there are local vegetarian restaurants and even some national chains (Hillstone comes to mind) that pride themselves on their hefty, griddled pucks masquerading as meat, but when’s the last time you had a truly impressive veggie burger? One that not only looked and played the part of its beefy doppelgänger but matched it in flavor and style? Say hello to Superiority Burger (430 East 9th Street, no phone).
For the better part of a decade, Brooks Headley worked as the ballsy, sweet Nancy to executive chef Mark Ladner’s savory Sid at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s contemporary Italian showpiece Del Posto; he created desserts, penned a cookbook, and won the 2013 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. But at the end of last month, the chef and punk-rock drummer left the fine-dining world behind, setting his sights on the high-velocity world of vegetarian fast food with Superiority Burger, his first solo venture.
The namesake sandwich, which Headley honed over the course of several years and flaunted at numerous events and pop-ups, relies on a nutty, quinoa-based patty formed with additional vegetarian proteins like beans and tofu. Tucked into its squishy Martin’s potato roll (slightly less flattened than the buns at recent fast-casual fried-chicken sensation Fuku), the patty easily achieves the closest approximation to that nostalgic “fast food” flavor of any veggie burger we’ve ever tasted. This is due to the nuttiness of the burger itself, combined with a familiar (and expertly utilized) combination of pickles, lettuce, cheese, oven-roasted tomatoes, and mustardy special sauce. There’s even a vegan version available, with a sourdough-looking bun and non-dairy cheese.
Sized somewhere between a slider and a standard fast-food-value-menu patty, it’s perhaps a touch petite for a $6 sandwich. You’ll likely have to add one of the excellent vegetable sides or double down on burgers in order to feel fully sated. The modest proportions make the $7 sloppy joe — a heap of piquant crumbled-tofu tomato stew topped with fried onions on a toasted sesame-seed bun — feel like the superior value. (Wet-Naps generously included.) Grab one of each for $13 and walk out holding your belly in satisfaction. There’s also a dish with rice, tofu, cabbage, and sunflower seeds available in wrap or bowl form (at $9, the most expensive item on the menu).
“Nothing on the menu is fried,” Headley boasts, beaming from the recesses of his kitchen. Folks will have to get their frites fix elsewhere, but on social media the chef has been teasing heavier dishes like vegan nachos and macaroni and cheese. For now the only listed vegetable side — a burnt broccoli salad — nearly steals the show, the florets piled atop a smooth eggplant purée and tossed with chiles, cilantro, and crunchy cashews. Greenmarket sides make an appearance, including sugar-snap peas tossed in breadcrumbs from Addeo Bakery on Arthur Avenue. They’re as composed and well thought out as you’re likely to find at any vegetable-minded outfit.
With limited space and a short standing counter running along its eastern wall, Superiority Burger occasionally commands wait times for its five coveted seats, which feature swiveling trays from which to eat. Otherwise, you’ll have to take your street food outside, onto the actual street. If you do snag a seat, the soundtrack’s aces — a mix of indie, punk, and rock, thanks to Headley’s musical background — and the stark, white-tiled space makes for a fairly comfortable meal. Also be aware that the restaurant is only open Thursday through Monday for dinner.
Headley’s background as a pastry chef informs the shop’s two classy desserts. Four-dollar scoops of intensely creamy vanilla labne gelato have a nice sour tug from the yogurt, and the strawberry sorbet tastes fresh and bright, fruity without being overly sweet. While they may not have the sass of a McFlurry, the frozen treats are of inordinately better quality. Unless you have a berry allergy or lactose intolerance, do as your cashier suggests and order them together.
Mixing equal parts Americana/burger nostalgia with the eco-conscious zeitgeist, Headley offers a compelling argument for greening up the fast-food industry, albeit in microcosmic fashion. Most important, he has managed to make everything taste so good, you won’t even want fries with that.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 2, 2015