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Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Belly (and Taste)-Less Veggie Burger at Big Chef Tom's Belly Burgers

Posted By on Thu, Jun 4, 2015 at 11:05 AM

Big Chef Tom's Belly Burgers' Veggie Burger - TREVOR FELCH
  • Trevor Felch
  • Big Chef Tom's Belly Burgers' Veggie Burger

Vegetarian dining across the board is getting better in the city. Chefs are paying more attention to plant based cooking and we’re learning more than ever about different global niche cuisines that boast incredible meat-free dishes, not just for the sake of being the vegetarian option.

Veggie burgers on the other hand — my friends, there is work to do. Across the Bay in Oakland Chris Kronner of the new Kronner Burger in Oakland put together an Earth burger with far, far more care than the typical veggie burger usually receives, down to the yuba “bacon.” The same can be said over at Mission Bowling Club, as this writer chronicled two years ago. Some of the mini burger chains like Super Duper and Roam have worthwhile veggie burgers (especially the version at the latter that literally is purple from all the beets). This begs the question about how is the veggie burger at one of the city’s most scream in your face shrines to swine? Let’s head to the Western area of SoMa where there aren’t new lofts and start-up offices every block, to Big Chef Tom’s Belly Burgers for belly-less burgers.

In the end, the news to report is not good. My hopes were dashed after the initial optimism knowing how chef Tom Pizzica was a Food Network favorite, and the pork belly-adoring masses still come in daily a year after opening. (Is it me or does it seem like every other San Francisco chef we write about these days was on Food Network and/or “Top Chef”?). Pork belly prowess doesn’t breed success in the veggie realm, however. Taste and texture proved to be the veggie burgers downfall. As in, a vehement lack of taste and texture.

The patty is made of roasted eggplant, chickpeas, fried onions, and shredded carrots. You won’t taste any of them, though I did manage to detect a few pieces of eggplant. Ultimately, it tastes like mush. That’s not the worst thing — think oatmeal with no raisins or brown sugar. It’s just, to be diplomatic, not particularly invigorating. Some “salted” pineapple and “Thai” peanut sauce in theory were supposed to get the real action going as the style topping. On cue the anticipation ended with a fairly loud thud. This patty had no structure, and an almost mousse-like texture that would be better for cream cheese. Forget about the strong, juicy patties burgers should possess. This was a spread. The sandwich ended up tasting mostly of the bun and a satisfying wedge of iceberg lettuce, with a few choice areas peanut butter. There resides another non- veggie patty problem: about half the bites even had notes of peanut butter, and half of those even had pineapple. What made the Thai peanut butter “Thai” escapes me, as it sure seemed a lot like Skippy or Jif. I wouldn’t be surprised if a bit of tamarind was thrown in there, but it sure wasn’t apparent.

Burger style options run the deli gamut from the banh mi inspired “Banh, Baby, Banh” to the “Philly Porker” that actually has no pork, but does have a traditional roast pork sandwich’s accoutrements: herb mayo, broccoli rabe, and sharp provolone. I opted for the “Tong Po,” since it seemed like the highest risk/reward scenario. It was not executed with the greatest of success. To echo my colleague Peter Lawrence Kane's 2014 piece on the belly burgers, chances are that diners will be hungry after one veggie burger. But they won’t want a second.

As a side, the rainbow kale doused in no shortage of olive oil provided an equivalent, over-the-top grease fix as to that which proper pork belly supplies. The liberal sea salt was at a McDonald’s-fries-level, to boot. It was exactly the type of experiment I would’ve tried in my studio apartment in Vegas with next to no pantry to work with. This kale suffered a similar fate. The menu promises “charred to perfection,” and if above medium-well means perfection, success reached. Don’t follow my lead. This is a pork belly place, so check the whole virtuous healthy living thing at the door, and get some fries and onion rings already.

Big Chef Tom's Belly Burgers, 1550 Howard 415-513-1331.

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Trevor Felch

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