A (Literal) Dissection of the New Zen Burger

This past week saw the grand opening of a entirely new concept in fast food eating right here in Midtown.  From the owners of Zen Palate (a mid-range mini-chain of vegetarian restaurants here in the New York), comes Zen Burger, a vegetarian McDonald’s that they hope will change the face of the fast food business. 

Now, when I say Zen Burger is a vegetarian McDonald’s, I really mean vegetarian McDonald’s.  From the backlit menus behind the counter, to the numbered list of combo meals, this is a fast food joint through and through.  They even have the option to super size.  Those expecting some sort of crunchy, granola bar eating, meat hating, haute cuisine vegetarian concept are going to be sorely disappointed.  Zen Burger is cheap fast food-  and this might surprise you (considering there is no pork anywhere on the menu), but I actually really like it.

Curious what this Zen Burger food looks like?  I do something you never want to do at McDonald’s (take a bite and look inside), after the jump…

I actually don’t mind vegetarian food.  “Don’t mind” might even be an understatement.  Sometimes, I downright *like* vegetarian restaurants.   While I love meat, and can’t understand how anybody can discriminate against any kind of food, in a lot of cases, I find that good vegetarian restaurants go out of their way to make things taste good.  A veggie burger may not be a replacement for the Burger Joint, but it still can be a damn good sandwich.

Contrary to what you might have assumed, Zen Burger is not that kind of place.  While they clearly were concerned about things tasting good, their larger concern was making things taste like fast food- without the meat.  Everything on the menu is called what it is supposed to emulate, meat words and all- a fact that might alienate some vegetarians, who don’t even like meatless food that is meant to taste like it comes from an animal.

Zen Beef Burger, ZenChicken Sandwich, Zen Chicken Tenders & ZenShrimp don’t have any meat in them, but they are without a doubt meant to taste like they do.  And what would a fast food joint be without some sort of crazy sandwich (Bullseye BBQ Burger anybody?).  Enter Combo #2.  The Southwestern ZenBeef Burger.  The signature Zen Burger (which is slightly bigger than a regular McDonald’s hamburger), toped with a chiptole sauce, tomato, lettuce, and onion rings.  Onion rings???  This is my kind of health food!  How could I not…


The last thing you want to do when you’re eating McDonalds is to take a bite, and look inside at what you’re eating… but with Zen Burger my curiosity was too much.

The onion rings could have been a little crispier, but the taste was good.  The fries were like fast food McDonalds fries-  frozen shoestrings, dropped into hot oil.  The whole thing isn’t good in the way that a good Midtown hamburger with fresh cut fries is good.  But it’s good, like fast food good.  And that’s the way all the food on the menu is. 

Crispy Zen Chicken Sandwich:

And the innards…

This one could have been a little bigger, but the taste was still good.  And it looks like chicken!  I heard the ZenChicken tenders are outstanding (and come with your choice of three dippping sauces), but I figured they taste similar to the chicken sandwich- so I went with the Zen Shrimp instead.

And what do fake fried shrimp look like on the inside?

These were really good (how could they not be, they’re fried!), and seemed to be made from the same rice cake stuff that the fake shrimp on the by the pound buffets are made from.

By now, you may be thinking, “This stuff can’t be healthy, it’s all fried.”  And you’re right.  That’s what makes Zen Burger the perfect foil (and why I love it so much).  It’s not necessarily healthy.  Sure, the ZenBurger is much healthier then a McDonalds hamburger (no meat means close to zero cholesterol and saturated fat) but the fried things are still fried.  And the fries are still fries (despite being “low starch”).  Not healthy, just healthier.

One of the best parts of the concept, and why I think it will ultimately be successful is the price.  The combo meals with tax and come out to around $7.  That’s a sandwich, WITH fries AND a drink, for $7.  In Midtown, that is almost like free.  You might think the food tastes too much like meat, or not enough like meat, or the portions are not big enough, or maybe you just don’t like the taste.  But nobody could leave this place saying it’s too expensive.  And if you don’t want fountain soda, you can have one of their three lightly sweetened, all natural ice teas (Peach, Hawaiian and Green) instead.  Delicious, and included in that $7 combo. 

It’s almost a perfect replica of the fast food experience with only two things missing.  First is the filet of fish, which they plan to offer sometime in the next month as a limited edition item.  The other is the double burger.  If they truly want this place to be enjoyed by fat people, and vegetarians alike, you’ve gotta offer a double Zen Burger.  Who could argue with that?

According to the owner James Tu, they are hoping to roll the concept out as a nationwide chain (as the focus moves entirely away from the Zen Palate restaurants).  The next Zen Burger is already slated to open in Hollywood in the middle of the year (on Sunset Blvd. next to the Director’s Guild of American Building).  With dreams of large scale expansion, Tu is clearly hoping to drastically change the face of fast food in American.  According to him “If you eat McDonalds, and then eat at Zen Burger once, and then go back to McDonalds-  there is a problem with your brain.”

I don’t know if McDonald’s should be quaking in their boots just yet, and most fast food lovers are not going to give up their quarter pounder with cheese, but if you’re interested in something that tastes like fast food, but is 30% more healthy- Zen Burger might be your new favorite place.


  • The perfect place for the Vegetarian with McDonald’s envy
  • The perfect place for the fast food lover, who would like to pretend they’re being healthier
  • It tastes like McDonald’s, without the disgusting feeling you get afterwards.
  • The price is amazingly cheap, considering that it comes with french fries and a soda
  • The Iced Teas.  It could my favorite part of the whole place
  • They seemed to have worked out the kinks of the opening few days, and food is coming out pretty fast now.
  • The fries are pretty damn close to tasting like fast food french fries (except without the salt).


  • The food is not healthy, just healthier.  30% less calories then McDonald’s is still pretty fattening.
  • The food is not gourmet, made to order, vegetarian food.  It’s all frozen, pre-processed stuff (just like fast food), that is not made from any meat.  And in the end, it still tastes like fast food (which to some may not be a negative!)
  • For those who think vegetarian automatically means organic… it’s not organic.
  • The portions are not huge like fast food.  The chicken sandwich is pretty small, and the ZenBurger is only slightly bigger than a McDonalds hamburger.  If you are a hefty eater, you may be left hugry- or spending more than $10
  • No Yam Fries!  If you are a fan of Zen Palate, and were hoping for yam fries, they are conspicuously absent.  I don’t think they fit into the low price, fast food model…
  • Where’s the Double Zen Burger???
  • They don’t add salt to the fries, and they taste like frozen french fries.  If i’m going to eat fried slices of potato, I want them to be the best. 

Zen Burger, 465 Lexington Ave. (btw. 45+46th), New York, NY, 212-661-6080


  • Oh god………Zach’s on the turn……run from the light…run Zach, RUN!!!!

  • OMG so excited. I’m going tomorrow on my half day of guests-in-town indulgence! Mourning the lack of yam fries though.

  • But seriously….

    Isn’t it just alittle sad/alarming that corperate america is trying to turn what one percieves as healthy food into more performed/hydrogenated/give you and arse the size of texas crap?

    33% healthier than McD? So is whale meat, but i wouldn’t want that on a seeded bun either.

  • The tomato on that “chicken” sandwhich is so translucent I first mistook it for an onion.
    So disappointing.

  • It’s funny.. the bun on your sandwich looks identical to their cartoonish logo.. impressively disgusting.

  • I know a lot of fat vegetarians.

  • I agree w/ DDR, the tomato isn’t that red. But at least you know that it’s not artificially colored!

    One of your best reviews Zach. Well done.

    *runs over and grabs Zen Shrimp*

  • Is a chain with 3 locations really corporate america? But yeah-this place looks nasty. If you want fast food you might as well go whole hog and get the real stuff.

  • Rudy, I have to say I agree with you. The only thing I have to say in defense of my desire for veggie fast food, is sometimes when you’re drunk, you really want to eat crap. Consequently I can’t help but wonder if Zen Burger really wouldn’t be more suited to an East Village location? Because truthfully I can see myself eating lunch there maybe every few months at most, but if it were placed in front of me after an extended happy hour (which occurs more frequently) I’d be chowing down a lot more.

  • Sarah what you need young lady is a decent chippy :)

  • yea go get the “real stuff” thats not an oxymoron

  • If they are giving up on the Palate I will be sad! I already mourn the closing of the Union Square location, though I understand that the rent must have escalated out of control there.

  • I am with Rudy on this one; corporate Amerika is killing our country. I would rather have do-gon-a-stik than a fucking Zen Burger.

  • Damn I want a chip stand and some whale meat (fried of course)

  • I know. I will chow down on some fried fish. I wish Chip Shop wasn’t so damn expensive. Every time I’m at Floyd it just sings to me.

  • i want to knwo what they actually put in those things look and taste like meat. Somehow, I think 100% real meat would be easier to eat without wondering what crap went into it. Screw the healthy part, I dont want expertly seasoned newspaper sandwhiches!

  • I’d love some whale meet to go with my blackened Flipper sandwich

  • ‘meep,meep,meepbeep!!’ ‘ whats that flipper, matt’s taking the piss?’

    :) lol

  • thanks for the report! i definitely have to try it out. 30% less fattening is still good when you have a fried food craving.

  • OK, I actually just tried this place for lunch, and believe this is one of the worst lunches I’ve had since moving to NY. I had the grilled ‘chicken’ combo, with fries & iced tea, and also a basket of the fried ‘shrimp.’

    The bad:
    -$12 and I’m not the least bit filled, I would probably need to
    spend $25 to fill myself up

    -It took 18 minutes for my food. Granted, they’re a new place, but people who ordered after me got their food in under 5 minutes.

    -Everything tastes like greasy nothing. I can feel a mass of grease sitting in my stomach. The fries were bland, shrimp tastes nothing like shrimp, and the chicken was like eating grilled sponge (which actually might taste better than what this was).

    The good
    -Given the extremely greasy nature of this ‘food’, it should be out of my system fairly quickly.

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