Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld
For Valley residents heading south, Tucson’s vegan restaurant Beaut Burger has become something of a pilgrimage site since opening in 2018. Instead of serving meat substitutes made from a bevy of unpronounceable ingredients, owners Ari Shapiro and Kerry Lane make all their plant-based proteins — and nearly everything else — from scratch using vegetables, whole grains, legumes and spices. With the opening of its second location overall and first in Phoenix, now fans can satisfy their craving for these macrobiotic delights without driving 100 miles.
Shapiro and Lane first had the idea for Beaut Burger while on a hike in the temperate rainforests of British Columbia in 2014. Despite the former being a vegetarian and the latter a vegan, they both craved a classic burger experience à la Shake Shack or In-N-Out Burger. However, they wanted to satisfy this desire without recourse to meat.
“At that time, this was pre-Beyond, Impossible and pre-everything that's happened in the last two to three years,” Shapiro said. “It just seemed like there was the Boca Burger and the Garden Burger. All the veggie burgers were fine, but they just weren't what we were looking for, which was this kind of satiating, juicy, get-all-over-your-face burger.”
Lane is a macrobiotic chef, which is a food movement popularized by George Ohsawa, a Japanese author. Guided by a dualist philosophy influenced by Buddhist beliefs, the diet focuses on plant-based foods made without industrial processing. Shapiro is a serial entrepreneur who ran several food concepts in Tucson over the years. The romantic couple pooled skills and began planning. Though their relationship transitioned into a platonic friendship, they continued to collaborate and remain business partners.
With the success of Beaut Burger in T-Town, the owners began to think of expansion. While several places were considered, the steady stream of visitors from the Valley suggested Tucson’s larger urban neighbor to the north as the ideal choice. They found a location in Phoenix near the intersection of Indian School Road and 33rd Street. COVID-19 reared its spiky head soon after they signed the lease, forcing them to make a tough decision.
“We definitely had to do some soul searching as to whether we should go forward with this with the restaurant business being so uncertain,” a solemn Shapiro explained. “We were just getting going on this and it was really difficult to be perfectly frank, but the developers were really supportive and showed a willingness to work with us a little bit and we just kept pushing.”
As I pulled into the parking lot for the vegan burger joint’s new location around one pm on Wednesday, the recently renovated commercial complex gleamed in the early afternoon sun. Two carloads of people dined happily in their vehicles as I approached the twin glass doors of the entrance. Beaut is currently the building’s only tenant, aside from Bristlecone, which is a dairy-free soft serve business also run by Shapiro and Lane. Bristlecone occupies one side and Beaut the other, while a wooden planter serves as a divider.
The space isn’t huge, but its efficient layout and ample outside seating made social distancing easy. The sleek industrial décor of the mostly concrete and metal interior was softened here and there by rustic notes like a neon light and wood paneling.
As I waited behind a group of three customers placing their order, I debated what to get. There are 11 varieties of burgers available. The most basic is the B1, which comes with ketchup, mustard, lettuce, onion and a pickle. Others include vegan versions of a bacon cheeseburger, a mushroom and Swiss burger and more unique takes. For instance, the B7 comes with peanut butter, tamarind chutney and romaine lettuce while the B9 features roasted eggplant, pepita pesto and a house-made dairy-free mozzarella.
Six types of sandwiches are available as well. They include a vegan pulled pork sandwich made with shredded jackfruit, a tofu sandwich mimicking egg salad, a tempeh Reuben and one called the Bay Cakes, which comes piled high with artichoke patties. The remaining two — a grilled cheese sandwich and a peanut butter and jelly one — seem to be more geared towards kids. A small but delectable number of sides include potato and sweet potato fries, fried cauliflower, coleslaw and pickles.
I went with the B3, which includes a meatless patty, dairy-free Swiss cheese, fake bacon, smokey ketchup, Dijon mustard and lettuce on a brioche bun. The patty is dark orange and interspersed by a few little flecks of veggies. It’s not trying to imitate meat and the spices subtly reminded me of certain Indian food dishes. An ample portion of fake bacon looked surprisingly real. It had all the savory crunch of that popular meat candy, though without quite so much artery-clogging cholesterol. Overall, the burger had a nice mix of textures, moisture levels and flavors. Even the most blood-thirsty meat lovers could enjoy this protein-packed burger.
For a side, I tried the sampler, which includes fries, coleslaw and a big pickle. The hand-cut tater sticks came out mostly golden yellow, with a few crispier brown parts. The individual fries were halfway between the thick steak-cut style and the thinner kind served at most fast food joints. Fries may seem like the simplest thing, but Beaut spares no expense when it comes to preparing theirs and it shows.
The dark green pickle came out whole. It was about five inches long with a satisfying girth. Made in-house, its blend of sour and sweet flavors and a crunchy yet soft texture hit the spot.
The coleslaw was something special too. Its collage of dark and light greens topped with a shock of bright pink pickled onions had me excited before I took my first bite. The vinegar-based slaw wasn’t drowned in mayo, giving the dish a pleasant pungent crunch. Even if you don’t normally like coleslaw, this take is definitely worth a try.
My second visit came early on a warm Friday evening. I brought a friend and despite it being quite a bit busier, we didn’t have to wait long for our food. We sat on the patio as the inside was filled with a group of young women and a few families with small kids.
Given that it was the end of a long week, we tried out the menu’s only mixed drink. They also serve a variety of beer and wine. The Santarita Sunrise is made of limeade, prickly pear juice and tequila. It was an almost translucent light pink and filled the air with the smell of fruit and alcohol. It goes down dangerously easy, and the citrusy kick lingers pleasantly. I imagined this would be the perfect drink for lounging by a pool, though somewhat sadly I didn’t get to test this theory.
For our meal, we order a B5 burger, two sandwiches, fries and an order of the cauli bites. That burger comes drizzled in a jalapeño pesto called zhoug, house-made ranch cucumber slices and lettuce. It was light yet filling. The smokey, mildly spicy pesto was well balanced by the coolness of the ranch and cucumber.
We also had the fooled pork sandwich, which comes barely contained by a bun. In addition to the mound of shredded jackfruit, this behemoth also boasts fried pickle slices, coleslaw and a bright red prickly pear BBQ sauce. These toppings spilled out the side of the sandwich just like a real pulled pork one. The slaw and pickle slices imparted a pleasant crunchiness, while the sauce-drenched jackfruit melted in my mouth. The riot of flavors included sour notes, sweet heat and a savory aftertaste that lingered long on my tongue.
The last of our sandwiches was the Wry Reuben, which comes with tempeh, sauerkraut, mushrooms, onions, nondairy Swiss cheese and house-made Russian dressing stuffed between two dark brown pieces of marble rye. The bread was my favorite part of this dish. It was soft yet crunchy and held together very well. I’m not sure it really evoked the taste of a real Rueben and this was probably my least favorite of all the sandwiches and burgers I tried.
Last but far from least were the beer-battered cauli bites. These fifteen pieces of breaded and fried cauliflower were my favorite item. They looked like high-end chicken nuggets and came with a pair of dipping sauces, one buffalo and one ranch. The tender, moist vegetable morsels were coated in a crunchy coating of batter. This delectable finger food completely lacked the sulfurous quality that the cauliflower sometimes has, and you really could see how it evokes the taste and texture of chicken wings.
In the small but rapidly growing number of vegan restaurants in the Valley, I’d rank Beaut Burger at or near the top. The attention to detail, quality control and unique approach make this one burger joint you don’t want to miss — whether you’re a herbivore, carnivore or somewhere in between.
Drop into the Tucson Beaut Burger at 267 South Avenida del Convento, Tucson, AZ 85745 and 3301 East Indian School Road, Phoenix, AZ 85018