As competition continues to heat up among “better burger” players, a growing number of restaurant chains are turning to proteins other than the traditional beef, turkey, chicken and vegetarian options to spice up their menus.
The eight-unit Burger Lounge chain, based in San Diego, this week announced it will be adding various wild game burgers to its menu, with options rotating every two months for almost a year, including elk, wild boar and venison.
In addition, the Counter Burger chain, based in Los Angeles, is planning to add bison as a standard protein option to its 35 locations soon.
Jeff Weinstein, founder and co-chief executive of The Counter, said his restaurants first began experimenting with local additions to the highly customizable menu as a way of “unchaining the chain.” The move gave each restaurant an opportunity to offer options that would appeal to the specific market, from mahi mahi in Hawaii to crab cakes on the East Coast. The “Market Select” options vary by restaurant and are rotated throughout the year.
“We’re trying to stick with our ethos of having freedom of choice, and that means not sticking with only beef, turkey, chicken and veggie all the time,” said Weinstein.
Bison, however, was one Market Select option that guests seemed to love. “It was particularly popular, so we said why not serve it everywhere,” he said. “I think it’s because it’s a little leaner. People see it as healthier.”
At Burger Lounge, which is known for serving burgers made with grass-fed beef, free-range turkey and wild salmon, the wild game line will serve as seasonal specials, all priced at $12.95 — a few dollars more than the more traditional burgers priced around $7.95.
First up is an elk burger with fontina cheese, duck cracklings and jicama slaw, which will be available in November and December. In January and February 2013, the special will be a Colorado bison burger with Point Reyes Original bleu cheese and apple-cider pickled red onion.
In March/April, Burger Lounge will feature a spring lamb burger with asadero cheese, jalapeno relish and tomatillo-green chile mayo. In May and June, the special will be a Texas wild boar burger with applewood-smoked cheddar, oven-roasted tomato relish and Sriracha aioli.
Finally, in July and August next year, the special will be a barbecue venison burger with housemade barbecue sauce, crispy onion rings and smoked mozzarella.
"Wild” game, in this case, refers to meat that comes from what was originally a wild species. The meat served in restaurants, however, is farm-raised.
Nontraditional meats are appearing on other chain menus across the country as well. Austin, Texas-based Fuddruckers has for several years has offered its “Fudd’s Exotics” line with burgers made from buffalo, elk and wild boar.
The 10-unit Bareburger chain in New York City has a line of exotic meat offerings that includes wild boar, elk, organic bison and ostrich — all free-range, pasture-raised and antibiotic and hormone free — in addition to the more traditional organic beef, turkey and vegetable-based options.