Ordering a classic burger is widely considered a safe bet at almost any restaurant. After all, it’s difficult to flub putting together a beef patty with some toppings and condiments and sandwiching it all between a bun. Add a serving of hot and salty fries on the side, and you’ve got yourself a satisfying meal. But part of the enjoyment of going to restaurants is expanding one’s palate and trying something that deviates from the typical. That’s where “nonburgers” come into play. These inventive sandwich entrees aren’t conventional burgers, but they’re just as enticing. And some of them are favorites among customers at our local restaurants.
Over at Nose Dive on South Main Street, the Chicken Fil-Ay sandwich — crispy fried chicken topped with pickles and Alabama white sauce on a brioche bun — is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, nearly outselling every other menu item. “We joke that people just come here for the chicken sandwich,” says chef Shaun Garcia.
What makes the Chicken Fil-Ay such a hit with customers is the nontraditional pairing of Alabama white sauce with chicken. “Most people think of it [white sauce] as a barbecue sauce, but this is just a mayonnaise-based sauce. It’s more similar to coleslaw dressing, which works well with chicken,” says Garcia. “Being from the South, I love fried chicken, and I knew it would be something our guests would really enjoy. And I love the Alabama white sauce, so I decided to pair some of my favorite items in this sandwich.”
Just a short distance down from Nose Dive on South Main Street is Grill Marks. The restaurant is one of downtown’s most recognizable burger joints, but a portion of its menu has a selection of beef-free options — even one that is entirely meatless.
The unburgers “all appeal to different groups,” says Bob Munnich, COO of Grill Marks. “Actually, out of all of the unburgers, the veggie burger is still our best-seller.”
The Heavenly Veggie has been a hit with diners because it avoids the two pitfalls that often make veggie burgers unappetizing: Either they try too hard to mimic the taste of beef, which can’t effectively be replicated, or alternatively turn out too bland. The Heavenly Veggie patty is a palatable blend of roasted vegetables, black beans, herbs and spices. It’s topped with spicy pepper jack cheese, lettuce and tomato. A spread of jalapeño pesto gives it an additional fresh kick and adds another dimension of flavor.
The Portobello — a grilled mushroom topped with Brie cheese, pesto, roasted peppers, lettuce and tomato — is also a popular unburger, says Munnich. Portobello mushrooms are a common vegetarian substitute for red meat due to the similar texture, thickness and juiciness. The cheese, pesto and roasted peppers add bolder and savory flavors to balance the earthy taste of the mushroom.
For those who’d like to get in the holiday spirit, Grill Marks also offers a turkey burger, The Gobbler, which Munnich says “appeals to a group that does eat meat but eats a little bit healthier.” Local organic turkey is topped with sage derby cheese, lettuce and cranberry relish. “It is a very traditional Thanksgiving-inspired [entree],” he says.
At ONE City Plaza, Tupelo Honey Café’s current seasonal offerings include a Carolina Chicken Sandwich on the lunch and dinner menus and the Big Honkin’ Veggie Burger on the lunch menu.
The Carolina Chicken Sandwich substitutes a traditional pesto spread for a pecan kale variation to give the entree a more distinct flavor profile. “We found that the marriage of those two ingredients took an otherwise ordinary chicken sandwich to the next level,” says Todd Levick, culinary support manager of Tupelo Honey Café.
Pesto is typically made with basil and pine nuts or walnuts, but the restaurant wanted to put a regional twist on the sandwich. “As our roots are in the South, we chose to use a traditionally Southern nut, pecans,” Levick explains. The restaurant opted to go with kale instead of basil in the pesto as “a healthy alternative.” The Carolina Chicken Sandwich is also topped with Havarti cheese, tomato, lettuce and avocado to deliver “a healthy mouthful of flavors,” says Levick.
On the vegetarian side, the Big Honkin’ Veggie Burger is a black bean patty with smoked jalapeño sauce. House-made pickles, tomato and onion — upon request — are also included.
“This burger didn’t happen just by accident. The flavor profile has been crafted after many years of practice,” Levick says. “It is built with layers of flavor like you would build a soup, each adding its own distinct accent … I believe that if there is one ingredient that elevates this burger, it may be the poblano peppers.”
The burger’s unique smoked jalapeño sauce further enhances the burger’s robust flavors. “Adding a smoky flavor with the roasted jalapeño aioli adds another pepper component to the already complex burger,” Levick says.