A burger at Village Whiskey, long considered one of Philly's top choices

A “veggie burger” is something of an anomaly. Hardcore burger fans might even call it an abomination. Chopped up beans and vegetables can be shaped into a disc and pan-fried, but the results can’t possibly deliver anything close to a real burger’s juicy, fatty, salty, flavor-rich joy. A similar story plays out with turkey burgers — probably healthier, but at the expense of taste and texture. For true burger bliss, nothing beats straight up beef.

But what if you mix that beef with mushrooms?

That’s exactly what a handful of Philadelphia chefs have done this summer, joining hundreds of restaurants taking part in a nationwide contest organized by the James Beard Foundation.

The Better Burger Project aims to show that burger made from a blend of ground beef and finely chopped mushrooms can actually be (gasp) better than a burger made from beef alone. It’ll be juicier — the mushrooms add moisture and retain fat that melts as the beef cooks. It’ll be softer — mushrooms don’t have any gristle or sinew to get stuck in your teeth. It’s also likely to be richer in flavor — mushrooms are extremely high in umami.

Billy Penn tasted several real-life examples of these mushroom-beef hybrids, and can confirm this surprising phenomenon is true. Done right, they are delicious. Even better, they don’t make you over-stuffed or left nursing a helping of regret for dessert.

Case in point: the Village Whiskey burger, a much-lauded favorite that lives up to its reputation, but can feel like a leviathan even if you choose to skip the optional foie gras.

For the Better Burger Project, which started back on Memorial Day weekend and runs through the end of July, Village Whiskey chef de cuisine Dave Conn developed a patty that uses mushrooms from Chester County’s Woodland Jewel. His mix of 26% mushrooms (a blend of several kinds) and 74% beef is a total success, especially as served — topped with petals of roasted vidalia onion, Shelburne aged cheddar and shiitakes in mushroom jus (pictured at top). At $21, it’s certainly not light on your wallet, but it does have less impact on your waistline.

Drexel Food Lab’s burger uses plain old button mushrooms, to great effect

That mushroom-beef burgers are healthier and more sustainable than beef-only versions could be seen as an added bonus, but it’s one of the reasons the Beard Foundation started this contest to begin with.

Convincing Americans to cut down on meat consumption — we hold the distinction of being either the top or second-biggest meat-eaters in the world, depending what study you follow — could benefit our overburdened healthcare system and reduce our reliance on factory animal farms.

Sneaking plant-based food into burgers is a perfect way to do it.

Mushroom-beef burgers don’t have to be fancy in order to work. A taste test of the Better Burger Project offering at Drexel Food Lab’s Academic Bistro revealed another win — a super-flavorful patty with a supple texture (inside a perfect exterior char) that was so easy to eat you could chow down one and a half without realizing. The mushrooms in this case are just the plain old white button kind. And no special meat either, just the regular ground beef blend served at the school.

The full list of Philly restaurants participating in the Better Burger Project challenge is:

Along with the participants from across the U.S., chefs at these spots are competing in a social media contest to win a chance to cook burgers at the James Beard House in New York City. The current leaderboard has no one from Philly on it — but you have a chance to change that.

Hit up one of the restaurants above and order the Better Burger Project offering. Instagram a pic and tag it #BetterBurgerProject — each one counts as a vote. But hurry: the contest ends July 31.

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...