Chris Tobin knows better than most people how little preparation can go into the typical restaurant veggie burger.
“Nine times out of ten, you’re probably getting Morningstar patties or something else that’s been frozen,” says Tobin. He details the regression of one former employer, where the black bean burgers and mushroom burgers they’d made early on eventually lost out to the convenience of premade patties that could be purchased in bulk. “When you factor in labor, it’s cheaper, but it tastes like a freezer. It’s just not the same.”
But that’s not the way Tobin—a kitchen manager at Ashley Christensen’s Wilmington Street burger outpost, Chuck’s—does it these days. Instead, Tobin and the rest of the kitchen tackle a slow, stepwise process of soaking and stirring, pressing and frying that takes time and produces Raleigh’s essential veggie burger—as moist as meat, but with an external bite that mimics the charred exterior of ground chuck cooked on a very hot grill.
The kitchen first soaks lentils for several hours before cooking and cooling them and, eventually, turning them into a paste. They then hydrate porcinis and transform those mushroom into a second paste. Thinly shredded sweet potatoes and the ancient grain farro join the mix, stirred until the latter ingredients and the pastes converge into a thick dough. The kitchen presses the combination and chills it, allowing each patty to firm so that they don’t fall apart. They then toss the patties in coarse panko bread crumbs and wait for an order. When it arrives, the kitchen does the completely unexpected, dropping the burger into a deep fryer for about three minutes rather than on the flattop.
“When you pan fry or flattop, you have to worry about putting it next to a burger. And then you have to worry about getting it crispy without burning it,” Tobin explains. “By adding the panko and frying it, we can combat it getting so mushy.”
The process makes the patty adaptable. Sure, there’s a “Veggie Burger” option spelled out on the menu with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayonnaise, and a novel combination of Swiss and American cheese they concoct in house; with strong, raw onions, that’s how Tobin prefers his.
But this veggie burger can easily slide into any of the seven standard burgers Chuck’s offers, with that outer bite and internal softness working perfectly as a beef substitute. I typically go with the slaw-and-cheddar topped Dirty South, replacing chili with avocado and roasted poblanos. It is indulgent and excellent, a meal that truly makes skipping meat easy.
When I tell Tobin this, his eyes light up: “Oh, man. I’m going to try that.”