Three L.A. chefs squared off with their gourmet veggie burger creations to reveal the best one on the Street.
DINING On July 30th the competition was on. It was not a ruthless battle — well, perhaps is was for the diners. (More on that later.) Chefs Kajsa Alger (Street), Mike Garber (Mohawk Bend) and Jet Tila (The Charleston) raced to the gourmet vegan burger event of the year. With large television monitors appropriately displaying London Olympic Games highlights, a true victor would be decided. Alger and Garber performed floor exercises while Tila dined as an impartial judge. Hats off to the sous chefs who valiantly stepped up to the plates, serving hundreds of entrees throughout the night. Warmed by a fireplace, judges and specially invited media personalities occupied an intimate area within the dining room of Mohawk Bend restaurant.
The restaurant was filled to capacity with a 70 minute table wait by 7PM. Most restauranteurs would kill (or butcher) for a crowd this size — on a Monday night nonetheless! If you weren't one of the privileged invitees, an extra 25 slider plates were auctioned off on a first-come-first-serve basis. (Well, not actually auctioned but I wish I had a paddle.) Fortunately, the complete menu was available. My opponent was a full-size Mohawk Bend Vegan Black Bean Burger with a side order of rosemary French fries.
Sizing Up Mohawk Bend Veggie Burger With The Competition
To all the carnivores out there, let's establish that no vegan burger can match the texture and flavor profile of a properly prepared beef burger. The absence of fat means the patty is not juicy. No vegan cheese has been perfected — at best it's an acquired taste. The challenge is to construct a patty that does not degrade to mush when bitten and, though subtler than meat, imparts a delectable flavor. A common way to augment dryness is to add guacamole or a sauce. Too much can send the contents sliding out the opposite end of the bun. The bread should not be so thick that it obscures the taste of the patty but not so thin that fingers break through moistened bread.
The Mohawk Bend Vegan Black Bean Burger has a firm patty with a delightfully smokey flavor. Avocado slices softened the stiff vegan cheese texture. The burger was finished off with lettuce and a tomato slice. The whole wheat bun was lightly dabbed with mild chipotle aioli. Overall, the burger held together well but I longed for a sauce or at the very least, some real cheddar.
If sauce was the criteria for judgement, from what I could see at a distance, The Charleston delivered. It was the only burger smothered in sauce. But after the ballots were cast, the avant guard anti-burger by co-owner of Street, chef Kajsa Alger, won the hearts and palates of epicurean judges. With a mini pickle toothpicked atop crustless sourdough bread, it resembled a diminutive hat at a royal wedding. The slider shortage netted me a voucher to dine on Alger's home field where the champion burger can be enjoyed in its full-size glory.
Taking Sides to The Mat
The Vegan Black Bean Burger has a regular place on the Mohawk Bend menu, right beside meaty alternatives for omnivores. The vegan burger is garnished with homemade slaw and pickle. The slaw has a delicate citrus or apple cider tanginess. The pickle could be fairly judged as sweet or dill and hold up to the best of either.
Blame it on the crowd or Olympic ferver if you must but I wrestled with my side order of rosemary gremolata fries. They were over salted — not a little. I'm talking tongue-burning, water-gulping salty. Like when the cap falls off the salt shaker. Just before resorting to dipping my fries in my glass to reconstitute sea water, I appealed to the referee that I was out classed and requested an unsalted rematch. An identical opponent returned for round two. Persistence, motivated by love of rosemary, prompted a Michinoku Driver II maneuver that landed the fries into my cloth napkin, tapping out as much salt as possible. At the bell, it was a draw since the fries still managed to retain a healthy dose of sodium. Diners wrestling with hypertension beware.
Reviewing the menu, I see what may have contributed to the problem. On the website menu, fries come with three choices of seasoning: "salted, mole, or rosemary gemolata." The daily menu offered "plain or seasoned w molé or rosemary gemolata" options. "Salted" was conspicuously missing. But the kitchen was salting rosemary gremolata fries as though they were unseasoned. It was an unfortunate incident by which the entire establishment should not be judged. Several of the patrons with whom I spoke were loyal regulars who had great praise for the menu.
Many vegetarian restaurants reside in strip malls. A trip to Mohawk Bend is like going to the theater — literally — that's what it looks like from the outside, complete with marquee. It's a beautifully retrofitted 100-year old Vaudeville theater with a cozy interior under a cathedral ceiling designed by Spacecraft. There is an open bar serving over 75 beers and kitchen that houses an earthy wood-fire oven churning out personal-size artisan-crust pizzas all night long to please vegans, vegetarians and lovers of all things animal.
If you are wondering about the origin of the name Mohawk Bend, it becomes quite obvious if you look around when you arrive. (Plenty of time for that this night.) The restaurant is on Sunset, right where Mohawk Street bends. Clever? Metered street parking and valet service is available. My automobile happened to be parked on Mohawk Street, just beyond some quaint vintage Mohawk Studios apartments. This year there was confusion about tickets and reservations. (Honestly, I phoned ahead.) The stage is now set for next year's rematch. Thank you Mohawk Bend for hosting an event to be remembered and congratulations to chef Kajsa Alger for wowing the judges.
Tags: alternative burgers, competition, foodies, gastronomy, la's best, smackdown