The truth is that most meatless fast food burgers taste like they’re ashamed to be plant-based, instead celebrating their similarities to real beef. But Shake Shack’s latest offering, the “Veggie Shack,” doesn’t try to disguise its contents as anything other than good ol’ fashioned vegetables. The burger, already available nationally through app-ordering, and slated for an in-store rollout May 5, is filled with mushrooms, sweet potatoes, carrots, farro, and quinoa. As a fan of both vegetables and burgers, I decided to give it a try.
The current landscape of meatless fast food burgers is, to put it plainly, pretty bleak. In the past few years, fast food chains like Burger King and KFC have bet big on products like burgers and nuggets that approximate the taste and texture of meat as closely as possible. These chains have moved away from the idea that a veggie burger should contain actual veggies, and most of their forays into vegetarianism have flopped.
I had all of this in mind when I tasted Shake Shack’s addition to the veggie burger canon earlier this week. On first bite, I was pleasantly surprised at the apparent presence of actual vegetables—a rarity! It was flavorful and juicy, and full of discrete chunks of the aforementioned veggies, rather than an all-too-common mash of them. I could distinguish the crunch of a carrot from the chew of a mushroom. The patty was sandwiched between Shack Shack’s signature pillowy potato roll and slathered with Shack Sauce (a combo of pickle brine, mayo, ketchup, and mustard). The burger was stacked with American cheese, pickle medallions, and crispy fried onions (a texture win), and embodied all that I love about a quintessential Shake Shack burger—sans beef.
My particular burger, for reasons unbeknownst to me, seemed to feature three slices of cheese melted into a chunk—perhaps a fluke but weirdly, a welcome one as I bit through the very gooey-salty mixture. In all, the burger was strikingly heftier and more filling than my normal Shack Burger, despite its lack of meat protein. It’s not the chain’s first vegetarian menu item—they’ve long offered up a ‘Shroom Burger, composed of a breaded, cheese-filled mushroom. That one’s good too, but in my opinion, the Veggie Shack wins out with its well-rounded flavor.
The recent industry-wide clamor to deliver a vegetarian burger with broad appeal has seen iteration after iteration of sad patties promising to taste, look, and bleed like meat. McDonald’s 2021 pilot of its own meatless burger in collaboration with Beyond very quickly fizzled, a case study in what consumers on both sides of the culinary spectrum don’t want. Its meat-eating loyalists were left equal parts unswayed and alienated by what some perceived as a woke agenda, and plenty of vegetarians were unconvinced that such a burger could compensate for the corporation’s other environmental and ethical evils. It was a lose-lose for the brand.
Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but Shake Shack’s old-school veggie burger, unshackled from imitation meat, makes me hopeful that the tides may be changing. Perhaps brands will stop mercilessly courting carnivorous consumers who never actually expressed interest in meatless alternatives in the first place. It’s due time we embrace the veg, not mask it.