I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and (mostly) vegan for the past two. Since moving to Sydney three years ago, I’ve heard a lot about the burgers at Mary’s, which serves American-style “shit fast food … that’s hard to do well” (as co-owner Jake Smyth once described it to Broadsheet) at three joints around Sydney. The Mary’s game is burgers, yes, but also fried chicken and, in some instances Detroit-style square pizzas, in dark faux-dive-bar rooms with metal blasting over the sound system. Sure, it’s easy-to-smash junk food – but the lack of pretension belies how much thought has gone into Mary's burgers, and for that they are Sydney famous. So when I found out about what I like to call the “Alternate Universe Menu” at the newest Mary’s, in Circular Quay, where everything – the burgers, the mash’n’gravy, the fried chicken – can be done vegan, I was dead-set on giving it a try.
The patty inside the vegan Mary’s burger isn’t the the fake-meat kind. I’m right into the Beyond Meat patty available at Soul Burger and the Chicago Dog with Beyond Meat sausage at Lord of the Fries, but this is not like either of those. Instead it’s just a damn good deep-fried veggie patty made with mushrooms, carrots, beetroot, white beans and soy protein. It’s crisp, but not oily or dense. It feels and tastes like an excellent junk food experience. A virtuous, too-thick, pasty veggie patty made with mung beans this is not. The patty is key, but the package it comes in defines the experience. The “milk” bun is soft against the crunch of the lettuce and the patty. The “cheese” is perfectly melt-y. And the special Mary’s sauce delivers a creamy dose of flavour and texture. I added pickles to mine the second time I ordered this burger because pickles improve everything as a rule (don’t @ me), but in this case it’s particularly true because of the cut-through effect the vinegar has on the cheese and sauce.
This burger is not on the menu to appease the one vegan in the group who might otherwise have to just make do with fries and sauce, or a soggy portobello mushroom in their ‘burg. It’s got guts. It’s proud to be meat-free and it knows who it is and what it’s here to do. It’s a nascent teenage metalhead in suburban Perth who discovered Metallica in the early ’90s and is blasting Damage Inc in her bedroom and who doesn’t give a shit that her mum thinks “it’s not music it’s just noise” or that most people think a burger is only good if it’s got one million-score Wagyu beef in it. Teenage me … I mean, the vegan burger … is awesome just the way she/it is. This burger makes me feel good in an uncomplicated and comforting way that music your parents hate and awesome fast food have in common. This burger’s soul is metal.
Which makes sense in the context of Mary’s itself, beyond the menu. I know that part of the reason I can’t stop thinking about this burger is that I just love being at Mary’s. I eat my second Mary’s burger with my mate John, who’s visiting from Melbourne (he has the classic version with a beef patty). Our conversation revolves around the soundtrack: the Misfits, Iron Maiden, Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath – who John tells me he saw in Birmingham in December 1999. It’s nostalgic and fun. Every track is a singalong mini-mosh. The burgers are tasty, and the fries (they come free with the burgers) and beers go down easily. I feel at home. I’m reminded of a time the music I liked defined me. And I’m finally eating a Mary’s burger.
“I Can't Stop Thinking About” is a series about Sydney dishes Broadsheet Sydney editors are obsessed with.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on May 30, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.