Every day I read about new vegan fast-food places opening up in one part of the country or another, but most of them are nowhere near where I live. PLNT Burger, Plant Power, Next Level, Hart House from Kevin Hart and the iconic Atlanta vegan chain Slutty Vegan are all making inroads to expand across the U.S. and offer plant-based fast food to those who want to eat less meat, avoid dairy or adhere to a strictly vegan diet.
As someone who is mostly plant-based but less concerned than some with the possibility of cross-contamination in the kitchen (where the same utensils may be used on vegan burgers and beef burgers cooked on one grill), my goal is to find healthier plant-based fast food that has fewer chemicals and additives, is better for humans and the planet doesn’t harm animals and allows you (and me) to taste our favorite fast food meal of burgers and fries, but without the unhealthy animal ingredients. Nor do I love the idea of eating highly processed fake food!
I have tasted quite a few of the vegan-only burgers, including at Veggie Grill in Chicago, PLNT Burger in Union Square, and Plant Planet when I was visiting LA, but when I am hungry and it’s well past lunchtime and I have a hankering for vegan fast food, there is only one option within walking distance of my apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan. That is Shake Shack.
Luckily for me, they have a vegan burger that is not only dairy-free, meat-free, and plant-based (once the Provolone cheese is removed and the bun which contains dairy is swapped for a gluten-free option) but it’s made from ingredients that I love, and recognize – like beans, onions, brown rice, and beets, and it’s not overly processed like so many meat-free burger alternatives these days. Give me a good old-fashioned bean burger any time over something that is made with more than 10 ingredients, most of them unpronounceable.
What Is the Best Vegan Fast Food Burger?
When it comes to answering: What’s the best vegan burger? Or, Where can you find the best plant-based or vegan fast food? These are pressing questions, ones that we spend time on in meetings here at The Beet. Consider this one important step on the road to finding out.
And while we are on a quest to find the best vegan burger on the planet, there are more than a few places that are not solely vegan fast food restaurants that need to be considered, not because they serve up ready-made Beyond burgers or Impossible meat, but because they formulate their own vegan burger out of veggies or create mushroom burger creations that are satisfying, healthier for you, and 100 percent delicious. Of course, you can go to a local chain or restaurant, but in looking for a national chain, the logical place to try would be Shake Shack.
Shake Shack Offers Two Meatless Patties, Only One Vegan
Since I was last there, the Veggie Shack has been officially added to the menu, joining the Shroom Burger, which is made with real dairy cheese, so it is only vegetarian, not vegan. The Veggie Shack on a gluten-free bun – hold the cheese – is easily a delicious vegan option, made with real whole food ingredients and vegan mayo.
Once a stealth menu item you had to know you could ask for, the Veggie Shack has come out of hiding and hit the menu board. But even though only a handful of states offer it as part of the official menu, if you ask for it they might have it to offer. The Veggie Shack is made from black beans, brown rice, and roasted beets, and you can have it topped with shredded lettuce, roasted tomato, onions, pickles, and vegan mustard mayo! Up to you whether you go ahead and add the provolone cheese since that makes it vegetarian but not vegan. I skipped it.
The other vegetarian option is the Shroom Burger, made with portobello mushrooms, which of course are super healthy for you. (Mushrooms contain powerful compounds that have been shown to stop tumor growth in the lab and help fight depression, studies have found.) While eating a mushroom burger, even one with lots of other ingredients in it is better for you than eating meat, if you’re vegan you will want to steer clear of the Shroom Burger, since they stuff the mushrooms with real cheese, and also add a big slice of cheese onto the patty for serving (which of course you can ask to skip). For anyone avoiding meat, this choice works, but know that you’re getting full-fat dairy in the deal.
Non-Dairy Shakes from NoCo Plant Milk
I had last been to Shake Shack to taste test their non-dairy milkshakes made with NotCo dairy-free milk, and had not been disappointed in the thickness and texture as well as the deep chocolaty taste. Okay, so anything chocolate is my idea of a taste treat. Vegans can delight in the full vegan fast food experience at Shake Shack since their crinkle-cut fries are 100 percent vegan. However, the company’s website says the Shack Fries are not vegan, so order the crinkle cut.
Now that the Veggie Shack is on the menu you can order a full meal including crinkle fries and a plant-based milkshake and know that you are in good hands if plant-based fast food is your guilty pleasure, as it is mine! There is one big caveat though, and that’s what happens in the kitchen, where everything is cooked on the same grills using the same utensils.
Cross Contamination is real. Note to vegans: The grills all share the same greasy surface and the utensils are used on all the burgers, so if you require zero cross-contamination this may not be the spot for you. The helpful person taking my order pointed that out to me and asked me if I was allergic to dairy since she wanted to make sure I knew that she could not guarantee the stuff coming out didn’t touch dairy or cheese. I assured her I was not but totally appreciated her conscientious questioning since I know that milk allergies are no joke and people have died from them.
“We’ll have One of Each! The Veggie, Shroom, and a Regular Cheeseburger”
Along for the ride, today are my husband James Danziger, and Bonnie, the 60-pound, tall white Maremma sheepdog, who is game for any adventure but especially one that involves burgers. I order my husband’s cheeseburger, we decide to split a side of fries, and then I tee it up: One mushroom burger, one veggie burger (which she assures me comes with a gluten-free bun as if that makes it any more vegan) and I ask her to hold the cheese.
For the sake of taste-testing the two options, I ordered the Shroom burger with cheese, not because I am an idiot – since I know cheese is not good for me nor is it vegan – but in order to try to entice my husband into taking a liking to a shroom burger and next time give up his usual beef order. (This proved futile since he was very happy with his cheeseburger.) I also ordered a dairy-free chocolate shake (for me, because I can’t help myself) and an orange cider, which sounded healthy but turned out to be a sugar bomb.
All the food takes a while so we grab a seat in the narrow side alley beside the restaurant, where Shake Shack allows you to take a brief respite from the loud activity on East 86th Street and enjoy a few minutes in the sun, at an easy distance from the bustling city. It is delightful. Finally, they call my name and I go inside to pick up a tray lined with fresh burgers.
The fries feel a little lightly dealt – with only about 12 full-sized fries in all, so it forced me to eat them slowly and relish each one. That worked. Whenever I “split” one order of fries, to my horror, I always scarf them down so fast that I end up having to get a whole new order for my dining partner. This time I savored them and left plenty for JD.
All lined up on the tray, we first had trouble figuring out which was vegan. They all had lettuce and tomato, but since James didn’t want pickles and onions, that was the easiest way to tell the difference. Plus, his beef burger was unevenly shaped, while the veggie burger and shroom burger were round. I bit into the veggie burger and it didn’t disappoint: Made from all these whole food ingredients, it had just enough burger texture to satisfy, and under the toppings of lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and vegan mayo it was convincingly burger-esque.
One Health Note: To my delight, the Veggie Shack came with fresh sliced avocado on top, which I had not asked for so it’s standard. This detail of adding fresh (not puréed paste) avocado slices made me believe that this vegan burger is even healthier than most of the other places I’ve tried. The bun, a gluten-free option, was a little dry but I didn’t mind because all in all, I know staying away from gluten is a good idea and helps drive down inflammation.
The Shroom burger was a bit more controversial, not just because it had cheese, but because you can really taste the portobello texture and flavor. That means if you like mushrooms and are a fan of that texture, you’ll love this. (Many people hate mushrooms!) I usually am a fan of portobellos and value them as part of a healthy plant-based diet, but with the cheese and sauce, it was all a bit much for me. One quick bite was all it took for me to decide that this was what I call a bad compromise: Neither vegan nor tasty, and neither healthy (due to all the cheese) nor satisfying. Next time I will pass on that one.
Bottom Line: When I tried the Veggie Shack at Shake Shack, I Loved It
While you may love to go to a vegan fast food place, not everyone in your group wants to give up their favorite order. When that happens, head over to Shake Shack. It has a great, healthy, whole-food-ingredient vegan burger – and everyone can get exactly what they love!
For more plant-based recommendations, check out The Beet’s Product Reviews.