Amanda Cohen has been cooking some of the city’s most experimental vegan food long before it was trendy. At Dirt Candy, she’s revolutionized the fine dining format and now, she’s placing her efforts on more accessibility with a new, fast casual vegan burger and (alternative)-milkshake spot called Lekka Burger. The Tribeca spot opens on November 19th.
The visionary chef’s path to Lekka was seemingly written in the stars: Dirt Candy first opened as a tiny restaurant on Ninth Street in the East Village before moving to bigger digs on the Lower East Side. The former storefront became the home of Superiority Burger, which quickly rose the ranks with a cult-like following of fans enamored with its namesake veggie burgers and accidentally, creative vegan offerings.
And while there might be temptation to compare the two, there’s room for more great vegetarian fast-casual options in the city. In the face of Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat and other billion dollar-tech-backed meat alternatives, there’s been a nationwide assault on the made-from-scratch veggie burger. It’s an art form that’s slowly disappearing.
In addition to Superiority Burger, the fast casual vegan chain By CHLOE. also offers handmade patties. Advocates argue that the future of plant-based dining should focus on non-processed options where vegetables are the main component. While some people who don’t eat meat actually like that these tech companies are able to replicate a carnivorous taste without harming animals, others have turned to veganism precisely because they didn’t want the mouthfeel of flesh. Beyond that, tech-backed burgers offer a homogeneity of flavor and many don't want to consume more soy in their diets.
“There’s definitely room for the Impossible and Beyond burgers, but I wanted to make something that wasn’t a freezer case puck that got zapped in the microwave,” says Cohen of The Lekka burger, which is made fresh daily. “The Beyond and Impossible burgers are made by scientists in a lab. The Lekka burger is made by a chef, in her kitchen.”
Lekka Burger, which Cohen is opening with Andrea Kerzner, a South African-born humanitarian (who comes from a known hospitality family) focused on reducing the meat industry’s impact on climate change, hopes to rewrite the veggie burger narrative. First off, it acknowledges the history and non-European cultures that have been leading the vegan movement for eons. To do so, Cohen and her team pull from Indian, Mexican and South African approaches to meat-free cooking, as well as other inspirations globally.
“I’ve never been very impressed with most veggie burgers, so I ignored them, but I was working on a project with a food historian and stumbled across a cooking technique from 900 years ago that flipped a switch inside my brain,” says Cohen of yuguanfei, the ancient Chinese meat alternative, considered to be one of the world's first. Dirt Candy does not currently offer a veggie burger option.
The menu will include several burger options, milkshakes, soft serve and fries. For instance, the “Masala Burger” ($11.95) incorporates herb mayo, curry tamarind ketchup, pappadum, lettuce, tomato and onion. The “Peri Peri” ($10.95) comes with peri peri sauce, mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion. The regular Lekka burger is $9.95. Places offering the branded, tech meat alternatives we’ve seen sell for upwards for $15. And, for what it’s worth, much like at Cohen’s restaurant, Dirty Candy, tip is also built into the cost, to allow workers to be paid a fair wage.
“A veggie burger is never going to taste like a hamburger unless you drop in a lot of chemicals, and that’s a cool trick, but it’s not for me. The Buddhist mock meat tradition is about making vegetables that might be inspired by meat dishes, but aren’t trying to replicate their flavor,” says Cohen of her techniques.
To communicate these sentiments, the branding for Lekka is fun and welcoming. Anna Polonsky helped lead the initial direction back when she co-ran the studio, The MP Shift, alongside graphic designer, Miriam Ross. “Since the 1880s, women of West Africa have been transforming Dutch wax fabric into patterns that communicate more than just color, bringing life to an otherwise ordinary textile,” says Polonsky of the maximalist visual identity.
Cohen’s partner, Kerzner, assures us that this is the first of several Lekkas to come. “The intention is with every location we open, our impact in reducing the carbon footprint of the cattle and dairy industry increases,” says Kerzner. Proceeds from merchandise sold in the restaurant will go to non-profit Grow NYC.
The Lekka Burger won’t fix climate change, but it’s certainly a sustainable step forward and Cohen is just the person to be leading the way.
Lekka Burger is located at 81 Warren St, New York, NY 10007. Open daily from 11am to 10pm.