What To Expect When Going To A Plant-Based Burger Joint
“How is that even a thing?” asks a friend, when I tell her I’m going to a new vegan burger joint.
Next Level Burger, or “NLB” as the owners and staff sometimes refer to it, is the nation’s first plant-based burger joint. Their new location in the Roosevelt Square Whole Foods is the first outside of Oregon, where the company got its start.
Matt de Gruyter, CEO and Founder of NLB, who sat down with me for an interview, also generously covered the cost of the sample meal so I could write this article. But rest assured, all opinions are my own, and no one at the company saw this before it was published.
Since opinions are my own, it’s probably a good idea to let you know where I’m coming from. I don’t eat that much meat, but I’m also not vegetarian and definitely not vegan. And I happen to be a dietitian, but I love French fries as much (or maybe more, if we’re being honest) as the next person. So I’ll be commenting on what to expect from the perspective of someone who doesn’t mind eating veggies but is used to burgers with meat.
That’s okay, Matt tells me. He doesn’t want NLB to be known only as a place for vegetarians.
“Next Level Burger isn’t about what you’re not going to get, it’s about what you’re going to get,” he says. “You can take the same expectations (sans the bison burger) that you would take into any awesome burger joint that’s rocking awesome ingredients, and not even have to give a second thought to the fact that all of it’s made out of plants.”
And it looks like a typical burger joint, with very little hint that it’s all plant-based, until you look more closely at the menu or walk up to the counter, where a team member cheerfully greets you with a short orientation for first time visitors.
One hesitation many people have about trying plant-based foods is that it doesn’t taste like the “real thing.” NLB has both meat substitutes and foods that never had any meat to begin with, so there’s something for everyone, no matter how hesitant you are. Their menu includes burgers, hot dogs, chili, fries, salad, and shakes.
Anything that’s normally made with dairy (like cheese or milkshakes) is made with some kind of vegan substitute, which can be quite different if you’re not used to that kind of thing. For example, the shakes come with your choice of coconut or soy soft serve ice cream as a base.
Anything normally containing meat (like sausage, bacon, or hamburgers) is made with tempeh or other vegan ingredients. One example is the “bacon” made of strips of tempeh, a soy product originally from Indonesia.
On the other hand, there are other menu items that are just food that happens to be plant-based. Examples include the house-made black bean and veggie patty featured in the Spicy Bean and MexiCali burgers, and the house-made umami mushroom and quinoa patty in the Signature burger (and several others). (These burgers contain the vegan “cheese” but if you’re not up for trying it, just order your meal without it.)
My friend and I order based on suggestions from Matt and Veronica, the incredibly friendly team member who’s taking orders when we walk in. The order includes:
- The Signature burger, a house-made umami mushroom and quinoa patty topped with organic sliced avocado, Cheddar or Swiss style cheese and roasted garlic thyme (egg-free) mayo
- The Sausage Bacon, juicy sausage style patty topped with smoky tempeh bacon, Cheddar or Swiss style cheese, mayo and yellow mustard
- Crinkle fries, fried in organic oil, and ordered “with style” (meaning they’re covered in toppings. It’s recommend we try the “Special” option with grilled onions, melted Cheddar style cheese and special sauce)
- One Dark Chocolate PB Cup shake, made with coconut soft serve ice cream
There are several house-made items, which makes the food taste fresh and interesting. In our order, this included the mushroom and quinoa patty, the garlic thyme mayo, and the special sauce, which Veronica tells us is “like Thousand Island, but with an extra kick.”
Burgers at NLB are a little smaller in diameter than some restaurants, about 4 or 5 inches across compared to the 5 or 6 inch buns at some other places, but they’re stacked high with all-organic, fresh veggies, and are big enough to cut in half if you want to share multiple burgers to try more menu options.
If you want to share other things too, the fries with style are large enough to share (or order multiple fry options and share them all), and you can ask for the shakes to be split between two cups.
Speaking of fries, you can also choose whether your fries are baked or fried in organic oil, although being vegan doesn’t mean all the food is what most would consider “healthy”–fried food is still fried food, and calories are still calories. But Matt says that compared to the alternative animal-based products, NLB may serve healthier options.
“You’re not going to feel like you have to take a nap and you’re not going to scold yourself on the way home. You’re not going to be kicking yourself over the amount of cholesterol or saturated fat that you ate, because the good news is that it’s cholesterol-free, and the great news is the amount of saturated fat in one of our burgers is going to be a tiny portion of any other burger that you’re going to find anywhere else.”
Matt’s personal and family health inspired his passion for plant-based food. His wife and business partner, Cierra, switched to a plant-based diet in 2008, and after 2010, when Matt lost his mother and uncle to heart-related conditions, he began moving to a plant-based diet also. It was Cierra (who Matt describes as his “better looking, more intelligent half”) who brought up the idea of NLB and created many of the recipes (such as the Signature burger).
If you happen to see Matt in the restaurant, go say hi. He’s interesting to talk with and extremely passionate about what (and why) he does what he does.
“What I would love for people to take away,” he says, “is that we are all-in on what we do here. This is not a market opportunity that we saw; this is my wife and I taking something that is not just a passion, but a life choice, and wanting to share this with the world.”
“Our ancestors didn’t eat to just take naps. It was fuel for the fire of living and surviving, and the irony in 21st-century America, in particular, is that we eat to just overwhelm our bodies into a coma on the couch so we can watch Netflix for four hours while we come back to life.”
It’s also not just about the food, but the planet. Matt tells us that eating a plant-based meal “is one of the best things that anybody can do to stick it to what we have thus far been doing to this planet over the last couple hundred years. The sustainability of a plant-based diet is unquestionable. You can either skip a shower this week or you can come in and eat a plant-based meal.”
NLB’s commitment to sustainability also includes compostable packaging and reclaimed wood signs for the order numbers.
“It’s an awesome thing to be part of and it’s really going after some of the most important things that we can go after: personal health for the people on this planet, and the planet that we all share,” Matt says. “That’s what we want people to take away from this: this is about all of us, not just about a few of us. Our goal is inclusivity and the menu that we’ve built, I think, reflects that.”
“Our premise is clean fuel for life–whether it’s going to climb a mountain, a yoga class, or chasing the kids around,” he says. “It’s awesome healthy food that happens to be made out of plants.”
So, ultimately, would I recommend this to a friend? I think it’s worth a visit (or two) to try it out and see whether you can find something you like. This place is a great find for vegans and vegetarians because of the variety, and good for anyone who wants to eat more plant-based foods or wants to feel like they really did something for the environment. If you do go, regardless of your eating preferences, I recommend trying the Signature burger without cheese, a shake of your choice, and some fries.
Next Level Burger is located in the Roosevelt Square Whole Foods (1026 NE 64th St) and is open Monday to Sunday, 11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. and is busiest during lunch hours.