Poor veggie burger

Nonmeat options in Sacramento slowly emerge from the kingdom of neglect

It's a culinary afterthought at most restaurants—a box of Gardenburgers or Boca patties near the back of the walk-in freezer, eventually revived from cryogenic limbo through a quick reheat and copious amounts of ketchup.

Vegans resent packaged veggie burgers—so predictable, so freezer-burned—but we also owe them a debt of gratitude. These pucks of protein allow us to share dinner with beloved elderly relatives at Denny's. They sustain us on road trips through states where veganism is only an urban legend. And sometimes they are the only things keeping us upright after too many beers at pubs that specialize in bangers. So thank you, veggie burger. We don't know where we'd be without you, but we know we'd be hungry.

Fortunately for local vegans, Sacramento chefs are recognizing that a vegan burger can be as creative and thoughtfully prepared as its meaty counterparts.

The Winter Nut Burger at Capitol Garage (1500 K Street) is a savory lentil-based patty on a focaccia bun served alongside a deliciously salted stack of shoestring fries. The zingy Carrot Nut Burger at Mother (1023 K Street) can and should be ordered “pro style” with avocado and “chicken-fried” oyster mushrooms that transform the burger into a hearty meal, even without sides.

Still, the best vegan burgers in town predate Sacramento's rebranding as a foodie city. The East African Veggie Burger at Tower Cafe (1518 Broadway) is a delicately spiced patty of peas, sweet potatoes, garbanzos and corn on a tremendous whole-wheat bun. Abundant toppings include roasted red peppers and a side of cashew sauce. (We recommend slathering half on the burger and using the rest as a dip for the fries. Ketchup has nothing on cashews.)

Of course, the region's original vegan burger is still king. The Sunflower Drive-In (10344 Fair Oaks Boulevard in Fair Oaks) has been serving nutburgers out of a little walk-up shack since 1978. The basic comes dressed in vegan Thousand Island dressing, onions, lettuce, pickles, shredded carrots and a handful of fresh sprouts for that authentic hippie health-food experience. No fries, because fried food isn't cool for your health.

You know what is? Eating outside in the sunshine and fresh air, while the Fair Oaks roosters nibble the sprouts you accidentally dropped under your table. Because that's the point of vegan burgers: respecting animals enough to refrain from eating them. And sometimes respect means sharing your burger.