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 +

  • 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 -

  • 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

80 Comments

  • Todays thought/moral.

    If one wants a burger buy a fucking burger.

    I don’t ask for a Tofu kebab with foie gras do I?

    No

    Great post Zach!!!…. got most of MT bitching…………Ive seen I am Legend..i know you’re all flesh eating zombies really :)

  • Any word on on soy cheese or other non-dairy options?

  • They have soy cows now?……is that like Kobe…………

  • Matt – I’ve never eaten at this joint, but I’m with you all the way. I’m truly disappointed that Zach recommended it. It is obviously awful in every way. I don’t have to eat there to know that.

  • Die Zen Burger Die Die!!!

  • This concept is not completely original. Missoula, Montana (yes, way out there) has a place called Good Burger that is also a vegetarian fast food joint.

  • This man is making thousands of dollars from ads on the website. What began as his passion is now only a money-making venture. Clearly he has sold out – check out this ABC news article about the blog.

    http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory?id=4052653

  • Zen Burger and Zen Palate are both awesome in different ways. I have had some of the best restaurant owners in NYC (several of whom are investing) rave about the food when they try it. It is 2/3rds the calories and 1/2 the fat (even better now that they are baking the breaded chicken as of today, not frying it) and tones more vitamins and antioxidants than the death meat they serve at McDeath. It does not make you feel sick afterwards, and there is much less salt than other fast food joints, so yes you might not feel as full, but usually satisfied, especially if you don’t inhale it like most people do.

    To those that say the chicken is like rubber, I have had dozens of people tell me it looks like chicken and tastes better(especially the non-breaded), and I agree. HAVE YOU EVEN SEEN A McNugget (McLUGNUT)??? its chicken beak foam! Half of the people who eat it have no idea it is not meat and the Tuna is better than my mothers! (Sorry mom.) Plus there is tones of fiber in it.

    To the idiots here that say they don’t need to try it to know it can’t be good for you let alone taste good, that is idiotic. It is fast food, not fine dinging (that is Zen Palate!), but so much better for you than any meat based fast food chain. As far as the crowds are concerned, I have been to McD and Wendy’s and had to wait 10-15 minutes and often get cold fries there too.

    You can’t please everyone, now I don’t have to get my fast food fix and feel sleepy, bloated and sick afterwards. I also know for a fact that there is NO artificial flavor or textures and they are working on getting the 1% milk protein out of some of the items to make all the items vegan (that means no animal products)

  • The shrimp are not made of “rice cake stuff”, but are a root protein similar to Tarro root , called kanjack root. After living 6 years in New Orleans I can say that if the shrimp are hot, they do taste like a fresh breaded shrimp (which is not supposed to taste like anything).. only old shrimp taste “shrimpy”. If they are cold (like fries) then they taste lame, but they will make you hot ones if you say they are cold.

  • Yes, Mr.Lusk.

    But it tastes, and looks, like shit.

  • ..an calling you out, will you shut up you muppet.

    Everyone can make money from blogs.I know guys who make 8 figure bonuses working for the many FI’s in lower manhattan that do blogs ranging from bass fishing to snow boarding and yet happily bank the few quid they get from advertiz(s)ing on said blogs.

    You’re just a jealous, shallow little turd.

  • Mr. Lusk-

    Either you’ve done more homework on ZenBurger than you care to admit, or, you should state that you have some vested interest in the success of this chain.

    You should note that while your chain has less fat and calories than McD’s, that’s like saying “I drink 1/2 as much as an alcoholic”…it’s still really bad for you. And despite not being full (from my $12 lunch), I still felt very sleepy and sick afterwards.

    I am by no means a fast food conossieur, in fact I never eat it unless there is absolutely no other option, and in my entire life have never had McDonald’s (yes, seriously). However, I can’t imagine why anyone would willingly plunk down that kind of money for what is essentially fried nothing (you even said yourself that the shrimp is SUPPOSED to taste like fried nothing), when you can go somewhere like FreeFoods and for the same price fill up on quality, organic, healthy food.

    Good luck on your business venture, but it’s obviously not my cup of tea.

    And yes, calling you out, get the hell outta here-

  • i also had the pleasure of trying out zenburger yesterday for lunch and was completely disgusted. i went for the crispy chicken sandwich (minus the lemon aioli, plus cheese & bbq sauce). the “chicken” was one of the most disgusting things i’ve ever eaten. it tasted like a mixture of cardboard and fish. since i’m not a vegitarian, why would i want to eat “meat” that is meat-less when i can have the real deal?! the meal (the part i was able to get down) did not sit well either. i will admit that the fries were tasty and they have fountain sodas with crushed ice! that’s a big deal for some of us.

  • No meat, no thanks.

  • This is a vegetarian, fast food place. All flesh eaters, road kill eatersl cannot appreciate vegetarian food.
    First of all, most vegetarians/vegans don’t want their dishes to taste like MEAT! We just want tasty, healthy food that some animal didn’t have to endure torture, and milk or cheese with PUSS and BLOOD.
    Second of all, if you’re eating to get full, then you’re probably obese (a beast) unhealthy never exercised a day in your life, who wants to go on, “The biggest loser,” exposing your nasty fat on national TV looking to win money. When one eats a proper balanced diet it satisfies you, we don’t try to take up more space on the subway seats or squeeze onto the person’s lap next to us. Then all you fat heads are always giving us (the skinny people) dirty looks, because we aren;t fat and gross looking. Fat is not only a killer, it makes you UGLY, yes, UGLY, fat faces!
    Last of all, all you flesh eating greedy people continue eating your crap, “you are what you eat.” You take up too much space everywhere you go, and expect to be healthy, and act surprised when you get diabetes, high cholesterol and continue wobbling your way throughout. Those who wobble will fall down, babies wobble when they are learning to walk, and they do fall.
    We weren’t put on this earth to eat every frigging thing, we are supposed to eat to survive, not make eating your main focus in life.
    Flesh eaters continue eating shit, continue killing your brain cells, stuff yourselves and then fall asleep, one day you won’t wake up, your heart will fall asleep.

  • It takes discipline and self control not to be FAT!
    So all you gluttons keep getting fatter, don’t expect any sympathy because you are all so weak.
    I hope the airlines start charging more for overweight passengers, as technically they are overweight luggage! Move over fatsos, go home and eat yourselves into oblivion.

  • like matt i went there earlier this week to try it out. pretty mediocre. i had the zen burger combo and it was dry and flat and the fries were underdone. it is priced right for the neighborhood so maybe i will try something else but a first taste didn’t have me rushing back.

  • I’m curious how many of the bad reviews are coming from people who don’t generally eat meat substitutes? If you eat a veg chicken pattie, it’s not going to taste like chicken. The texture, appearance and scent are what is “chicken like”.

    I’ve never been a fan of Zen Palate (always get sick after eating there – the oil they use? dunno), and doubt I’ll try Zen Burger. If you don’t like Zen Burger, but are interested in trying other restaurants that do meat substitutes, I’d suggest Red Bamboo or something like the soy duck at Spice.

  • SMDNY–since you’re curious, i haven’t eaten meat in almost 20 years so i don’t really have the taste to compare it to. maybe i’m not the target audience since i don’t miss mcdonald’s or burger king. it’s fine but nothing special.

  • Angela…I suppose a dinner with veal cutlets topped with seared foie gras is out of the question?

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