This article was originally published in our July/August 2021 issue.

Burgers are, by definition, made with beef. That hasn’t stopped restaurants across Missouri from taking a classic American dish and making it their own. Rather than trying to imitate a classic cheeseburger, the best non-beef burgers combine protein—from pork and chicken to turkey and bison and even black beans—with a bevy of toppings that pull out unique flavors. The best part? There’s something for everyone.

The Big Pig at Pigwich
20 E. 5th Street, Kansas City

Photo by Nicole Bissey

Leave it to Alex Pope to create a truly decadent pork dish. The chef behind Local Pig butcher shop expanded his shop in City Market in 2019; he also grew Pigwich’s slate of burgers, sandwiches, and fried sides. But don’t let The Big Pig fool you. This burger is really a double act. Alex starts with pork shoulder, which is rubbed with Local Pig BBQ seasoning, slow smoked for hours, and finally pulled apart, ground, and formed into patties that are seared on the flat top. Provolone, cheddar, and pepper jack are then melted onto the Pigwich patty.
Next up, locally sourced, free-range chicken is ground and formed into patties, egg washed, and coated in a mixture of bread crumbs, panko, and corn flakes before it’s fried. Assembly starts with an onion bun, stacked with the fried chicken patty, then the Pigwich patty, pickled jalapeño slices, and ranch dressing. ‘Nudja—“think spicy, spreadable pepperoni,” Alex says—is smeared on the top bun “to complete the tower of deliciousness.”

It’s no surprise this concoction was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2019, where Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid joined host Guy Fieri and professed his love for The Big Pig.

“It’s bigger and bolder than most sandwiches, so it stands out as something to conquer,” Alex explains. “The sandwich has several distinct flavors from all the different components that meld together to become a sandwich masterpiece.”

However, The Big Pig was actually born out of a desire to be more sustainable.

“Everybody tries to put their stamp on a cheeseburger by offering different blends of beef cuts to make a signature patty. Why even try to compete with trying to outdo the classic cheeseburger?” Alex says. “Instead, we focus on a different protein source for our signature ‘burger.’ When we were accessing our farmers and the supply chain, we also decided that pigs and chicken are easier to butcher, able to grow faster than beef, and ultimately may be more of a sustainable source of protein for our food chain moving forward.”

The Big Kahuna at Mary Jane’s Burgers & Brews
102 N. Jackson Street, Perryville

Photo courtesy Mary Jane’s Burgers & Brews

The Big Kahuna is exactly that. Mary Jane’s is known for its craft burgers, with toppings including fried bologna, goat cheese, and even peanut butter. Even amongst these creations from chef Matt Ruesler, The Big Kahuna earns its moniker.

This Hawaiian-inspired burger features a pork patty piled high with pepper jack cheese, crispy pork belly, Korean barbecue sauce, and pickled jalapeños on a sweet Hawaiian bun. It’s served with Mary Jane’s unlimited fries and housemade smoked ketchup.

Bison Burger at Five Star Burgers
8125 Maryland Avenue, Clayton

Photo by Evan Wood

In Clayton, Five Star Burgers has always reserved a section of its menu for nontraditional burgers, from turkey and veggie to duck and lamb. One of the most popular options, says owner Stephen Gontram, is the bison burger. The bison, sourced from the North American Bison Co-Op, is about 95 percent lean, with a fairly beefy flavor.

“We season it with a rub of finely ground espresso, salt, and freshly cracked black pepper. What you end up with is this really kind of smoky, almost rich, chocolatey hit of flavor, and with the meat it’s quite amazing,” Stephen says. “It’s not that you bite into it and it’s reminiscent of a cup of espresso—it just adds a nuance of flavor to the meat that I think is really phenomenal.”

This uniquely seasoned burger is topped with sweet caramelized onions and served on a butter-toasted brioche bun. Add a basket of fries or crispy fried cheese curds.
“Bison is popular because it’s leaner, and it’s perceived as being healthier,” Stephen adds. “If people don’t want that fat in their diet, or you want to try something a little different but still have that meaty flavor like you get with our traditional beef burgers, it’s a perfect burger.”

Turkey Burger at Lindberg’s Tavern
318 W. Commercial Street, Springfield

The turkey burger at Lindberg’s Tavern isn’t exactly a healthy alternative. Springfield’s oldest bar, which has been around since the 1870s in various forms, offers a turkey burger worthy of tempting even the most loyal bovine believer.

Ground turkey is mixed with eggs, Thai seasoning, and “the tiniest amount” of breadcrumbs, says co-owner Ryan Dock. Two turkey patties are cooked smashburger-style and topped with melted Provel, housemade avocado mayo, cucumber, onion, and mixed greens tossed in Lindberg’s house vinaigrette, with the option to add a fried green tomato, all on a brioche bun.

The recipe comes from a turkey burger Ryan made at home before he and Erick Weiler owned Lindberg’s, though he has tweaked it slightly for the restaurant. The Thai seasoning isn’t spicy, Ryan says, but rather a fairly mild mixture that compliments poultry.

“I think a lot of the bigger burger places probably don’t put much thought into their turkey burgers; maybe it’s an afterthought,” Ryan says. “People shy away from something like a turkey burger, because it’s not going to have the same flavor as a beef burger, but it’s really good. If you’re trying to be even just a little more healthy, I think you can get the same satisfaction as a burger—it hits those same taste buds.”

Pair the turkey burger with fries and housemade ketchup (made with Table Rock Red Ale from White River Brewing Company), or make it a true Queen City special and order cashew chicken poutine: fries slathered with cashew sauce, cheese curds, fried chicken, cashews, and green onions.

Turkey Florentine Burger at The Brick
1727 McGee Street, Kansas City

Photo by Nicole Bissey

Sometimes, a hungry burger lover really is craving a lighter option. Most of the protein for the burgers at The Brick in Kansas City is sourced from Rain Crow Ranch near Doniphan, and the burgers clock in at a third of a pound. If you’re looking for lighter fare, you can swap any one of them for a turkey patty—even the classic Pubby, served at The Brick since 1967. Instead, opt for the Turkey Florentine Burger: a grilled turkey patty is dressed with cranberry aioli, fresh spinach, and melted Swiss and paired with your choice of house-cut fries, sweet potato fries, or tots.

Lamb Burger at 44 Stone Public House
3910 Peachtree Drive, Columbia

Photo by Holly Kite

A lamb burger might not be your first choice to pair with one of the British-style ales at 44 Stone Public House. Reconsider. In the early stages of the covid-19 lockdown last spring, the two burgers on 44 Stone’s menu were such carryout bestsellers, they added a third. A patty of seasoned lamb shoulder is topped with pickled red onion, baby arugula, and housemade cucumber-yogurt dressing atop a pretzel bun. Pair the hearty lamb burger with fries, chips, pickled apple cider-ginger slaw, or for an authentic taste of Great Britain, mushy peas.

The Dirty At Mac’s Local Eats
1821 Cherokee Street (inside Bluewood Brewing Co.), St. Louis

Photo courtesy Mac’s Local Eats

Mac’s Local Eats in St. Louis is known for its smashed patties and locally sourced, farm-to-table ingredients. That ethos applies to The Dirty, as well, named for a friend of owner Chris “Mac” McKenzie—“Dirty Derek,” he says with a laugh. The Dirty begins with hand-formed ground pork patties weighed to precisely 56 grams, cooked smashburger-style on the flat-top grill until they’re thin and crispy around the edges. The patties are topped with pepper jack cheese, housemade bourbon molasses pickled jalapeño, wafer-thin raw white onions, and salsa negra aioli. “The aioli we make in-house is literally brown sugar-chipotle-garlic mayo. It’s fantastic,” Chris says.

Because Mac’s buys whole animals from local farms, various parts of cows and pigs are used throughout the menu. “We’re very much farm-to-table, and we buy really expensive proteins from a couple of awesome local farms. You get a much better price if you buy the whole pig. If you look at our menu, it’s really a reflection of us buying the whole pig or the whole cow,” Chris says. The skin becomes cracklins, the loin goes on a sandwich, bones become stock, and the shoulder and loin go into the ground pork used on The Dirty.

“It’s very well received; it’s been on the menu basically since we opened four years ago. I think it also plays to people who like a little heat or a little spice. The jalapeños aren’t really hot. Pickling tempers the heat a little bit, but it’s sort of a spicy burger,” Chris says. “The toppings are nontraditional in the world of cheeseburgers, but the combo works really well.”

Gyro Burger at KC Smoke Burger
1610 W. 39th Street, Kansas City

Photo by Nicole Bissey

KC Smoke Burger in Midtown Kansas City is known for its spicy and smoked burgers. Some are so spicy that the restaurant was featured on Food Network’s Heat Seekers in 2012. If spice isn’t your thing, the Gyro Burger is a safer bet. This Mediterranean-inspired burger is made with a 50/50 blend of lamb and beef and Greek spices, dressed with cooling tzatziki. The key to the patties at KC Smoke Burger is what happens after they’re grilled. The burgers are put in a sort of smoke pot, with wood chips adding an irresistible smoky flavor as the meat finishes. You’ll also get the signature “KCSB” stamped in the top of the bun; the burger can even be made halal upon request.

Black Bean Burger at Café Cusco
234 E. Commercial Street, Springfield

Café Cusco is beloved in Springfield for its Peruvian fare. Its famous goat burger isn’t currently on the menu—the price of goat meat has soared during the pandemic—but their black bean burger hits the spot. The vegan patty is made in-house with a blend of black beans, onions, pepper, a proprietary spice blend, and white and blue corn flour. It’s served on a vegan focaccia, topped with marinated red onion, avocado, and Peruvian aji verde, a green roasted cilantro sauce.

“I wanted to have the black bean burger on the menu to have a healthy, vegan burger option,” owner Claire Gidman says. “But meat eaters love our black bean burger as much as vegans!”

Pair it with a classic Peruvian pisco sour and yucca fritas, fried season yucca root with marinated red onion and lime.