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

  • Rudy McBagel material is A+.

    Katherine – notwithstanding your poorly phrased screed, this site is home to a lot of happy, well adjusted foodies.

    Your attacks would have more bite if they reflected reality in any way, rather than being figments of your bizarre and hate-filled imagination. You may be glad you never took an “office job,” but what office would hire a Harpy?

  • “uneasy relationship with this site”
    “eventually be reassured why I never took an office job”
    “avoid pubs”
    “sexist to “HUG” women”

    Katherine = surly umemployed self-hating fat chick upset at us getting our feed on

  • For all the haters who have been bombarding this site lately:

    (1) Acquire a sense of humor and compassion. Forthwith.

    (2) Don’t blame the site for the readership’s carnivorious inclinations. If I judged a website by its visitors, I’d probably never use Google again.

    (3) Don’t hate on vegetarians and vegans for believing what we believe, and accept the fact that we all made our dietary choice for different reasons. It’s utterly indecent to think that any one of us speaks for all of us. Does Goerge Bush speak for all of Christendom?

    (4) Develop a fucking sense of adventure. Like Zach, the uber-carnivore who was gutsy enough to eat at Zen Burger and admit that he kinda liked it. After all, his adventurous palate is probably why most of us read this site to begin with.

    So, the point is let Zach do what he does best, which is inform and entertain us, and leave the personal attacks out of it.

    Thanks for reading, void where prohibited, restrictions may apply, results may vary.

  • just got back from zen burger for the second time two months into their open. every part of the experience was underwhelming or frustrating. the ordering process was still best described as “chaotic” with no line and cashiers yelling for customers. the cashier made it clear i was just an obstacle to her next customer. i’m no buddhist, the closest i come to zen is being a fan of nirvana, but this didn’t seem zen at all to me, i couldn’t wait to get out of there.

    the burger meal is listed as $6.50, but with tax it goes to $7.04. really? so maybe they could speed up the line if their cashiers didn’t have to make 96 cents in change every order.

    I should have been suspicious when my food only took a couple of minutes to arrive, but they were busy and maybe had a lot cooking. it was stone cold when i opened the package. it honestly looked just like the “other hamburger chain” burger the major chains will show in their ads. I was so impressed by how unappealing it looked i took a picture i’m planning to send to the company. the “zenbeef burger” patty itself was a cold pressed puck of something. it tasted like every other frozen veggie burger i’ve ever had, though there were strong notes of soy sauce. the lettuce was leaf and seemed reasonably fresh, there were plenty of onions (good thing i like them, i was never asked if i wanted them). and the whole wheat bun was welcome, if smashed.

    the only part of the entire experience that was enjoyable were the fries. they were pretty good. perhaps even ideal. great flavor, crisp outside, even as they cooled. and very evenly cooked. oh, and the diet coke was perfect, though i did have to ask for a cup with my meal.

    the first time i went a couple of weeks ago, i had the harvest burger, it was mediocre as well,

    so i would definitely not recommend zen burger, but if you really have to try it for yourself, i can only assume the zen”beef” burger is improved by being warm, you might try to check it’s freshness before you leave. i would assume mine was made two hours prior to my ordering it.

  • I tried Zen Burger and yes, it ‘s not haute cuisine. What do y’all expect? I thought the burger was ok, the fries were very good and the shrimp was excellent. They do serve salad but I couldn’t bring myself to order it – It’s a fast food joint! The point of eating fake meat is it’s better for you (up to a point), better for the environment and better for the animals. If you don’t care about any of that, just go to Micky D’s and eat a ground up dead cow (oops I meant hamburger).
    And this is for you, Rudy McBagel. Get a life.

  • This is for you sheila.

    Get a partner that dosn’t take AA batteries.

  • The snow was coming down, so I Decided to eat as close to my office as possible -opted out Metro because I wanted something healthy! What a mistake–The shrimp I HAD ( LITERALLY) because I THREW them in the garbage. They were dry as a piece of cardboard and had no taste. Then trying again I ordered a hamburger–wrong again –cold,with a scrap of lettuce and the same cardboard. Somebody better wake up there. Is there any management or food quality control? I really won’t make the same mistake by eating there again and Iadvise all my friends to do the same .

  • The snow was coming down, so I Decided to eat as close to my office as possible -opted out Metro because I wanted something healthy! What a mistake–The shrimp I HAD ( LITERALLY) because I THREW them in the garbage. They were dry as a piece of cardboard and had no taste. Then trying again I ordered a hamburger–wrong again –cold,with a scrap of lettuce and the same cardboard. Somebody better wake up there. Is there any management or food quality control? I really won’t make the same mistake by eating there again and Iadvise all my friends to do the same .

  • Hey gourmet eater – you and Frezzer should get together.

  • Seems that Gourmet Eater/Frezzer has something to gain from trashing Zen Burger (twice without even bothering to change up his comments)… maybe he owns the Subway next door?

    Anyway, I’ve eaten at Zen Burger over 12 times now and I think the food and the service are excellent. Yes, the first few weeks had it’s problems but give these guys a break!… They just opened this place and it’s the first of it’s kind… EVER! So, i’m sure there were some things that they didn’t anticipate like the massive crowds they were faced with upon opening.

    I give Zen Burger a lot of credit for what they are trying to do (providing a healthier option to the fast-food experience) and wish them all the luck in their expansion plans.

    I will definitely be a loyal customer of theirs and hope to see more in the city (and across the country) soon.

  • Hey Captain Veggie – you and Peter Lusk should get together!

  • I ate at Zen Burger, for my first time, today. I had the… Zen [Beef] Burger meal, with super-sized fries of course. Despite the reviews here, I enjoyed the meal. The fries were strangely similar in taste and texture to McDonald’s, but less salty, and supposedly less starchy. They were also hot and crispy, which occurs less than 50% of the time at McD’s. The burger was much larger and nicer looking than the pics posted here. I did’t really like the burger, because of the ZenSauce and lack of cheese (shoulda thought o’ that when I ordered), but that’s just preference. It seemed quality and I enjoyed that it was on a whole-wheat bun. Next time I think I’ll try the ZenDog with the organic homemade chili and organic american cheese.

    Also, despite the comments about poor service, my experience was great. There was a manager-looking fellow standing at the door, handing out menus and walking aroung asking myself and others how we liked the food. If the service sucked before, they must have heard it, because it seemed like they were trying hard to please – the bus people won’t even let you throw away your own trash; they ask to take your tray as soon as you look like you are getting up to leave. I also noticed a line manager barking commands at the register people, to make sure they were remembering sauces and procedures.

    To those comments about the processed nature of the food: I’m sure it is, but the rear of the menu clearly states that the fake meats are made from “100% natural, protein-rich vegetables, grains, and non-GMO soy with no antibiotics, hormones or artificial flavors”. Works for me.

    I eat meat, though I don’t feel righteous about it (atually, a bit guilty). I, for one, hope this place takes off. It may not be the healthiest, but anything that is a step in the direction away from McDonald’s and factory farms, seems like a good thing. Plus, it’s cheaper than Better Burger.

  • BTW – They now have a special sandwich that is a Filet o Fish! (along with some other specials that aren’t listed on the regular menu behind the counter, but be sure to ask!)

    I heart ZenBurger.

  • Well, the truth is ‘ you can’t please everyone ‘ ! but I don’t understand why there are so much of negative attacks. I am a vege for spiritual and enviroment political reasons. Yes, I said ‘ enviromental’, no one here mention about the slogan printed on Zen Burger’s serving tray paper. It is good that Zen Burger is bringing the awareness to the public. Meat consumption is the number one global warming contributor. If you don’t believe me there are plenty of evidences and researches out there including UN and IPCC reports. We, the human,are eating out planet to death.

    And yes, this is a fast food chain, all the fried food might not be the healthiest. I try to eat healthy but I am no a saint, once a while I love to have some junk, as a vegetarin I am just glad that there is one more option out there for me.

    Stop accusing people, fat people, meat eater, vegtarin, whatever, we need to be more loving to each other, we should be happy that we are here in U.S. to experience the most prosper ways of life style. More than 1/3 of earth population live in starvation. But we have the luxury to have many options and to complaint about the foods. Have some compassion people !!!

  • To Matt (Jan 10 2008):

    FUCK YOU. Don’t you EVER fucking review my restaurant with your filthy little butthole of a mouth again.

    ASSHOLE!

  • one good point about swine flu….all the pasty faced wheezy vegans will be the first to pop their(ethically sourced) Clogs.

  • I went there today at the height of lunchtime with my co-worker, and the doors were locked and we could not get any service. What kind of place doesn’t open for lunch during the business week? I am fed up with this place and will probably never eat there again. My co-worker agrees with me.

  • Gee Rudulfo, believe me, you sound charming. I’ll stop right in!

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