Our take on vegan analogues of meaty (and/or dairylike) foods is firm and unwavering: If they taste good, more power to them, even if they’re not a one-for-one for the original item. Vegan cheese generally seems to fall short of the real deal; we don’t have time for it. But vegan meat (like the stuff made at The Herbivorous Butcher) is often good or downright delicious in the right context. And there are enough good veggie burgers out there (Fitger’s leaps to mind, although that’s merely vegetarian) that we’re always happy to give them a shot.
So we were intrigued by all the positive buzz about the Big Mac-ish Dirty Secret ($15) at the recently opened J. Selby’s in St. Paul — two falafel-esque “beaf” patties from The Herbivorous Butcher, onions, lettuce, three slices of sesame seed bun, pickles, vegan mayo (which we quite like, particularly with the menu’s excellent Buffalo wing-ish batter-fried cauliflower florets), vegan American cheese (sigh), all stacked up in a jumbo-sized, meatless approximation of the perennial best-seller at McDonald’s.
This faux Big Mac works. It really, really works. Now, if you closed your eyes and took a bite, there’d be absolutely no chance you’d mistake it for an actual Big Mac. It’s missing the fatty richness of ground beef, and the additionally unctuous gift of legit special sauce, and the plasticlike binding power of American cheese. But there are elements in common: that doppelganger of a bun, which seems to have arrived at J. Selby’s on the back of a McDonald’s truck, and the pickles, which play together with the bun in a way that triggers some strong McMemories. And while the vegan cheese lacks the chewy richness of dairy-based American cheese, and the nicely seasoned and spiced patties are closer to falafel in terms of dryness and texture, everything works well together. The sandwich has a compelling savory depth and a nice balance of bun to “meat” to veggies that puts a lot of flavor into every bite.
Value is the question. While most of J. Selby’s sandwiches are $10, the Dirty Secret is $15, which would be expensive (although not unheard of) for a traditional gourmet hamburger just about anywhere. (It’s worth noting that tip’s included, and you do receive a side, so it’s not as brutal as it looks on paper.)
Our stance is that this particular burger — with a clean, balanced flavor and no horrible post-burger meat hangover — is better than more than 50 percent of its meaty competitors, particularly when you take into account all the depressingly lame $15-$20 burgers at hotel and chain restaurants around the metro. But if your opinion is that your $15 is better spent at Parlour or buying three fancy little burgers at Constantine, or, hell, three Big Macs, that’s a legitimate stance. At $10, the Dirty Secret would be an unmitigated success story, but even as it is, it’s a nice option to have in a town full of compelling burger-related choices.
J. Selby’s, 169 N Victoria St, St. Paul; 651.222.3263