Aaaaaaaaand in the next chapter in the on-going story of mainstreaming meat free diets, Burger King have turned one of their flagship stores, in Leicester Square, plant-based for a month this summer. This isn’t the first drastic measure this shop has taken, having already taken part in a £100 million refurbishment. Admittedly, this muscling in on the veggie market has been tried before, although they didn’t get it completely right. But hey, in the spirit of new beginnings, in what (hopefully) historians will refer to as ‘the restoration era’ of post-covid and the rise of King Charles, let’s give them a second chance.
Well this time, no half measures have been taken. They’ve redoubled their efforts and put the work in, it seems. One of their biggest stores. Taken over. Entirely for a month. Smack in the central of central London. You can’t really make a bigger statement than that, really.
Okay. Soooooo, how pedantic do you guys want me to be? Because first up we have the chilli katsu burger. Say that out loud. Chilli. That’s from Mexico, right? (With a lil Spanish thrown in, not least it’s name.) Katsu is Japanese. And the burger has German origins but has become a distinctly North American food, with specifically the chilli burger originating commercially in Los Angeles. I don’t want details to get in the way of a good time, but really? All that? Chilli, plus katsu in a burger? MexicanSpanishJapaneseGermanAmerican? It’s nice to know I’m not the only one bemused, either. I don’t see it working. I’ve never heard of such a fusion. And it’s barely registered on google outside of BK. This wasn’t a thing, really.
From there, the troubles began.
“. . . It’s completely bereft of fat, and without that all important element, the flavours don’t work. . .”
I actually enjoy how packed it feels and ‘meaty’ it smells picking it up. But oh look, it’s got slaw in it. Hot slaw. As in the temp. It’s well into the bun and it sticks out in the flavour. Badly. It tastes like they’re trying to use up some overstocked mayo and throw some spice in to mask the taste. And that’s when it hits me. That’s exactly what they’ve done. Chilli. Katsu. Literally. Added chillies to a slaw and then called it a day. And in the spirit of lazily throwing shit together, here’s the Wikipedia article on chilli burger so you can read the origins of it and see how off the mark they are. What’s worse is, they’ve gotten the name wrong. Traditionally, ‘katsu’ means in breadcrumbs. It does not mean the actual curry sauce. So. . . no breadcrumbs. What a vile mess.
Hot slaw. Drrriiiiiiiiiiiippin’ out like a burst egg yolk. It really was unfinishable. Haven’t a clue who this is aimed out. Every once in a mouthful you get this weird, caramelised onion-y Branston pickle taste. Every other bite your teeth squeak across something, feels almost like halloumi. Presumably that’s the carrots? We hope? The only thing it’s really got going for it, is there is a pleasant, tingly warm heat to the flavour, but that’s not enough. It just doesn’t work for me at all. Alas. What could have been. Ten pounds for that? Fucking hell. If it could be improved, I’d crisp up something in here, just so something texture wise stops it churning completely to mushy mush. And completely rethink that warm ‘slaw.
The bakon cheese burger promises a cool 800 calories. And that’s where the problem is. Taste wise, there’s simply no flavour. It’s completely bereft of fat, and without that all important element, the flavours don’t work. Lord knows what this cheese is but again, it clearly was desiccated of lipids. Nor was it grilled or melted. So that makes it drier. Like, with a sponge-like consistency. It needed a something-something to carry it all. A sauce could have really saved it and kicked it up a few notches. You have any idea how easy you could have jazzed up a burger with something like an easily thrown together BBQ sauce? If you were a vegan and just needed something to eat, it would suffice. Problem is, we’re at an event, this is supposed to be Burger King’s plant-based showcase, right? This is Burger King going “actually, here we are, this is the ticket, right here” and here we all are ready for it. . . And nah. It looks alright, I’ll give it that. It looks pretty much like the real thing.
Here’s the thing: The Katsu Royale – this time with actual bread crumbs – is. . . okay? Couldn’t work out fully what is going on inside, but I guess whatever they use as the meat substitute works far better than the beef patty substitute – holding more of the chicken like flavourings – and the crispiness of the breadcrumbs works way, way better with a light royale too rather than a dense heavy beef thing. The lettuce tasted fresh too! The cheese? Thrown in on top, half falling out the bread, not melted, and consequently sweated inside the bun. And I wish I took a closer picture as one of the slices. Still had an line imprint from the packaging! The vegan royale followed closely behind, being a fantastically basic, and an easy to make sort of combo. It is more or less the Katsu Royale with the cheese and that god awful ‘slaw and whatever else is in that. No, this is stripped down to basics: an innocent, inoffensive trio of mayo spread, with lettuce, and a “vegan” flavoured patty. It’s simple and it ends up being the most satisfactory. This is the one that I’d recommend out of all of them. It’s basic, and it works. And that basic-ness could also work as a spring board into other variations. What would happen with some zesty lemon juice on this? (Vegan) Blue cheese sauce? Garlic and herb sprinklings?
“. . . THIS stays in it’s lane, it’s simple, it’s classic. And oh look, it works! . .”
The plant based whopper is described on their website thus: A flame-grilled plant-based burger, topped with tomatoes, fresh cut lettuce, vegan mayo, pickles, a swirl of ketchup, and sliced onions on a soft sesame seed bun. I have referred to it previously as ‘a miserable dish mop‘ but it is actually great this time. Orrrr maybe my standards have just been lowered so much by the other stuff. But see, the thing is, the substitute works, and with that, carries the whole thing. And there’s generous slatherings of plant-based mayonnaise. That ties together the flavour! We found the taste guys! And then suddenly, with that, it all clicks into place. The lettuce and tomatoes. The respectfully salty non-meat burger puck. Even the bread tastes a bit more. . . alive I guess is the word? See this, THIS stays in it’s lane, it’s simple, it’s classic. And oh look, it works!
Sides? Well, the chips are variable. Sometimes hot or cold or limp or crispy. Some orders are undercooked, sometimes they’re under salted, or some combination of the above list. The onion rings were enjoyable, coming in very hot off the fryer. The vegan nuggets taste convincingly of the real thing, for me at least. Again, it keeps it simple and is much, much more passable. The not-meat inside has a potato like consistency in texture and at the very least they’re at a good temp. I wasn’t expecting the likes of the mighty Mooshies. I despise food snobbery and did know it was Burger King. But yikes. So much for the new beginning. It’s damp and limp and a bit half assed to be honest. Bit like them chips.
What I will say is in person the interior is nice and clean, there’s a pleasant atmosphere, staff are attentive and visibly there. Naturally, the orders – a noticeable dozen or so on the screen on this Friday lunch visit – are dealt with efficiently. We know that fast food outlets are the real pros at queue busting and they are on form here. Organised and communicating well in the visible kitchen.
Now, you could indeed argue: ‘why the high standard? It’s Burger King for goodness sake! Not the Ivy!‘ And I do hear you on that. However, my counter would be these guys – literally – call themselves Burger King. King of Burgers. They’ve been operating since 1954. These guys do Burgers with a capital B. If these guys can’t pull off burgers then what’s this all for? Considering the price of a meal here is juuuuuuust underneath more refined places offering the same staples I do feel that the standard for this post is justified. For example, for an extra fiver you could buy an Honest bacon-plant with fries. And that’s head and shoulders above Burger King in terms of quality. And I know that BK are not the only ones guilty of this but please do look at their promotional material and their website and look at how well made and together the products look. Now compare them to these pictures. I tried my best here, I really did.
So, in total; not great. Methinks there is a touch of reinventing the wheel about the whole thing without really understanding the market they’re trying to get into. I’d be interested to know what research was done before boots were put to the ground. Burger King, if, on the very slim chance you’re reading this; fire your taster staff. Or maybe have them tested for taste depletion post-COVID. Ask yourselves how Mooshies pull it out the bag every plant-based night when the likes of Five Guys and Honest Burger are trying to muscle into their territory and snapping at their heels. If you’re trying to bring something new to the game, think about fats, think about sauces, think about how flavour is carried. There is an irony that Ray Kroc, the man singularly
blamed credited with the proliferation of BK’s main competitor, McDonalds, was also the man to pioneer the idea of K.I.S.S. No, not the band, but the motto: Keep it simple, stupid! And while I do appreciate the efforts and the imagination, Burger King certainly don’t get credit for execution. They should take a leaf out of Mr Kroc’s book.