Veggie burgers are very much in vogue.

No longer considered a weird, alternative food, veggie burgers – like other vegetarian staples such as almond milk and hummus – have a fast-growing mainstream fan base. Local chefs with house-made veggie burgers on the menu report that they’re often top sellers.

At the Run of the Mill brew pub in Saco, executive chef Chris Loftus said the restaurant sells an average of 30 of its from-scratch veggie burgers each day. “It’s really popular,” Loftus said. “It seems to be getting more and more popular every year.”

Vegetarians certainly make up a portion of the restaurant’s veggie burger customers, but they’re not the only ones eating these plant-based patties. Even behind the closed doors of the kitchen, Loftus can tell not all the orders come from vegetarians, since some request bacon as a topping. In fact, he often tops the veggie burger with bacon, cheese and avocado and eats it himself.

Loftus isn’t tooting his own culinary horn, since the veggie burger he sells was developed by Kirk McLean, the chef at The Liberal Cup in Hallowell. The two restaurants have similar menus and the same owners. McLean said he sells about 200 veggie burgers a week, more the weekend of the recent Common Ground Country Fair.

“Hallowell is a hippie little town, and we sell a lot of veggie burgers,” said McLean, a self-proclaimed “meat guy.” “Some lunch shifts, it’s like ‘veggie burger, veggie burger, veggie burger.’ It amazes me how much it sells.”

At LFK in Portland’s Longfellow Square, head chef Christopher Neal sells 30 to 75 house-made veggie burgers each week.

“We like to cater to a vegetarian and vegan audience,” Neal said. “The veggie burger is very popular.”

Over the bridge in South Portland at Scratch, a small neighborhood bakery, savory eats manager Aaron Rose said the house-made veggie burger is “a good seller. In our hierarchy of seven sandwiches, it’s probably number 4.”

Adam Burk of Portland is a fan of veggie burgers, and reports he’s seen their quality improve as chefs “get more comfortable with veg options.” For him, “texture, stick-togetherness and flavor” are the hallmarks of a top-notch veggie burger. “My favorite veggie burgers might have a little crisp on the outside, and the variety of ingredients – beans, veg, grains – give texture.” Burk said. “I tend to like burgers that are a little spicy, too.”

When local restaurants want to add a veggie burger to the menu, the easiest solution is to turn to a commercial product. Maine even has its own ready-made frozen veggie burgers from Blue Mango. The burger was a popular item many years ago at the Blue Mango cafe on Spring Street in Portland. After the restaurant closed, its owners turned to making the restaurant’s popular veggie burger for the wholesale market.

The Blue Mango burger is featured on many local menus, but some chefs prefer to make their own.

McLean at The Liberal Cup said when the restaurant decided to add a veggie burger to the menu, “I went, ‘OK, maybe we’ll just buy something.’ We got a whole bunch of samples, and none of us were happy with them.”

So he started playing around with lentils, black beans and panko breadcrumbs until he developed a burger that passed muster with the staff. The burger also includes raw carrot and potato and green onions.

“The raw potato cooks, so you get a little bit of crunchiness but it’s still cooked,” McLean said. “We have a secret spice blend with this, but we’re never going to give that away.”

McLean deliberately made the burger vegan, rather than vegetarian (with cheese or eggs) because he wanted it to appeal to the widest possible audience.

“There’s no point in putting anything in there that’s going to shy anybody away,” McLean said.

Back at Scratch, Rose already had a vegan sandwich on the menu so his burger is not vegan. Since he’s not a fan of bean-based veggie burgers, Rose makes the burger from cracked wheat, oats, walnuts, mushrooms, eggs and vegetarian Parmesan cheese (most Parmesans aren’t vegetarian since they are made with animal-derived rennet).

“Personally I don’t like ones that are bean-based because of the texture,” said Rose. “A good veggie burger has to have some chew.”

Neal at LFK makes the restaurant’s veggie burger – using red lentils, leeks, roasted cashews and mushrooms – a couple times a week.

“It’s a multiple-stage process involving three burners, multiple pots and pans, roasting in the oven and a Cuisinart to blend,” Neal said. “It’s actually the most complex recipe we have.”

Like Neal, the other chefs I spoke with report that making veggie burgers from scratch takes a lot of time.

“It’s a constant prep item,” McLean at The Liberal Cup said. “But if that’s what people want, we’ll make it.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

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