A warm toasty bun, slathered with savory sauce, held in place by fresh slices of tomato and lettuce. Melted cheese dripping down the sides onto the plate. The moment you bite into that perfect harmony of layers encapsulating a thick, juicy … bean burger?
Oh ye of little faith, don’t judge Tokyo’s veggie burgers before you’ve tried them. In the past five years the capital’s vegan scene has exploded in popularity thanks to the increased influx of visitors and a growing desire to follow a more healthy lifestyle, resulting in new restaurants spring- ing up to provide gourmet plant-only meals.
Although a common sight on supermarket shelves across the Western world, veggie burgers and faux meats are still rare and expensive in Japan. Even when they are available, mass-produced meat-free options tend to be bland and boring. While there is always the option to make them yourself, creating a truly perfect plant-based patty takes considerable skill and effort … and sometimes you just want all the gluttonous joy without any of the work.
My quest for the perfect cruelty-free burger has taken several months of serious eating and wandering across the urban jungle and concrete savannahs of Tokyo. From the skyscrapers of Shinjuku to quietly prosperous Mejiro, the following five spots are each well worth the trek.
A newcomer on the Tokyo vegan scene, Vegetarian Beast has a name that boldly announces the restaurant’s intentions to provide soul-satisfying, filling meals that can win over even inveterate carnivores. You can customize your order to suit your tastes and appetite—choose from single, double or even triple patties for your Beast Burger and finish it off with the sauce of your choice. I am partial to the tangy BBQ and the Original Spicy Sauce, but the demiglace sauce is also a winner. The combination is so bodacious and sinfully juicy you will end up in a very happy food coma. Almost all the ingredients and seasonings are organic, but there is not a single whiff of hippiness in this stylish modern joint. Make sure to leave some room for dessert. You won’t want to miss the creamy cheesecake or chocolate mousse.
Since opening its doors in 2015, Ripple‘s pocket-sized 100% vegan burger joint has rapidly gained fans across the world. The menu is not vast, but it allows the friendly staff to focus on what they do best. The Ripple Burger — also available as a cheeseburger — is topped with avocado and a creamy aurora sauce. Their signature patty uses a mixture of mushrooms, soy meat and konnyaku potato starch to create a tongue-pleasing meaty chewiness. The Crispy Soy Chicken Burger is another excellent option, decked out with decadent tartar sauce and crispy red cabbage.
You can be virtuous and order a salad to accompany your meal or, if you are like me, just give in to temptation and get a side order of the hearty macaroni & cheese.
A more casual branch of the fancy macrobiotic Chaya group, Chaya Macrobiotics is hidden away in the basement of the Chanter department store. The teriyaki burger features a thick slice of tempeh perfectly glazed in a sweet and savory sauce, resting on a bed of dark green, curly kale. The fact that they include a portion of fries and an extra deli dish with the sandwich — as well as the chance to try their famous vegan cakes — make this is a reliable stand-by when wandering around the Ginza area. This chain also has branches in Shinjuku, Shiodome and Tomigaya. The Shinjuku Isetan branch offers an impressive plant-based Macro Burger loaded with garlicky aioli sauce, which definitely deserves an honorable mention on this list.
Based on looks alone, Mr Farmer‘s burdock root vegan burger may well win the prize for “frilliest sandwich in Tokyo.” But once you look beyond the curly twists of fried burdock, you’ll still have a pretty impressive burger at this West Coast-inspired restaurant. Each bite has a proper balance of hefty soy meat and cheese, but the total effect is still light enough to avoid feeling bloated. If you are looking for a truly gourmet experience, opt for the decadent Vegan Cheese Burger with Truffles. Most of the veggies served in the restaurant are grown locally, so beefing up your vitamin intake for the day with the juice flight of four. Cold-pressed juices will also help support Japanese farmers. You can find branches of Mr. Farmer in Shinjuku, Roppongi and Komazawa as well, all of which offer take-out menus and fresh juices to go.
Even if you aren’t a fan of Roppongi, it is worth facing the crowds to sink your teeth into one of Veganic to Go’s signature burgers. The Black Bean Burger is topped with a saucy tomato salsa and grilled vegetables, while the teriyaki version combines Japanese and American tastes to perfection, featuring a crunchy fried tofu base and nori flakes. The buns are all baked with hemp protein and charcoal for an extra healthy boost, and since the patties and toppings are almost too big for the bread, these sandwiches really hit the spot. After demolishing your burger, get a cup of seasonal vegan soft serve to enjoy on one of the benches in nearby Midtown Garden.
Be forewarned: the most popular dishes tend to sell out quickly, so going early in the day will allow you the largest selection from the menu. Also, despite the somewhat confusing name, this cafe does actually have seating for about a dozen people.