December 21 is, according to some corners of the internet, National Burger Day. Fitting then, that this was the day I got to taste the future of hamburgers. The 100 percent vegan, GMO-free future of burgerlike, patty-shaped plant matter, that is. The Beyond Burger is the latest offering from Beyond Meat, a company that is, unsurprisingly, based in Southern California. Just judging from the number of palm trees in your average vegan fitness model’s Instagram feed, there’s probably plenty of demand for this shit in SoCal.
While I’m not sure if Beyond Meat has figured out that they can pay a 22-year-old with 79,000 followers next to nothing to eat their products on Instagram (#vegansofinstagram, bro!), they have managed to create quite the buzz around this latest burger offering. Like, convincing the hosts of the Today show to eat the thing on air side by side with a real meat burger. They weren’t fooled, but they did gush about how amazing it is and display some footage from the company’s promo video.
Indeed, according to the many, many media outlets lavishing praise on this burger, it’s just like the real thing. Journalists, some of whom might even be described as food journalists, seem to agree, describing it as a “game changer” and claiming it “has a solid chance of converting dedicated carnivores.” This is, as Bill Gates breathlessly pointed out in a Beyond Meat-inspired blog post, a worthy cause. Our current level of meat consumption is contributing to such grave planetary threats as climate change, obesity, and Guy Fieri’s career.
Anyway, after a semi-exclusive launch, the Beyond Burger was recently introduced to the masses via Veggie Grill, which boasts three Seattle locations. Veggie Grill’s PR consultant, eager to capitalize on the hype, contacted this food journalist to see if I too would be interested in meeting the meatless messiah, and perhaps even being converted. Normally, I try to avoid accepting free food when I know I’m going to write about it, but this time it felt more like a science experiment than a restaurant review (we all know what Veggie Grill is like), so I said yes.
“Tell me how it is,” a coworker sarcastically beseeched me as I left for my research trip, “Super interested in the lab meat we’ll all be eating in 20 years.”
“Is it people?” another asked. Very funny, guys. It’s not people. Its principal ingredient is pea protein isolate, held together by such things as bamboo-derived cellulose and non-GMO food starch, so I guess the lab meat thing is accurate.
When I got to Veggie Grill, I checked in with Wilmy Freire, the downtown location’s store manager. After viewing many online videos of the Beyond Burger sizzling away in a pan, I was eager to see one on the flattop, but she informed me that there was a huge Amazon order and the cooks were too slammed to show me their technique. Insert your favorite “Amazon is ruining Seattle” joke here.
Freire provide me and my hastily recruited vegetarian friend with two of the famed burgers, one dressed and ready and the other deconstructed for dissection. I pulled the patty off the deconstructed one first, hoping to get a feel for whether the patty actually resembled its beefy cousin. Colorwise, it’s spot on. A cross-section of the patty revealed a convincing mid-rare red, achieved, according to the website, with the clever use of beet juice. Indeed, as marveled at by many tasters before me, the thing appears to bleed when punctured.
Ignoring the philosophical quandaries presented by a bleeding cylinder of pea protein, I proceeded to take a bite, hoping to verify their flavor-based claims. In this respect, it does not live up to the hype. Texturally speaking, it’s spot on. It’s pliant and juicy in a way that no veggie burger has ever been before, making it remarkably satisfying to bite into. But when it comes to aroma and actual flavor, it’s got a distinctly vegetal bent, lacking that subtle, “something extra” richness that is implicit to real meat.
As a fully constructed burger, however, it is legitimately hard to differentiate from your average backyard basic. Veggie Grill serves theirs with two slices of beefsteak tomato, generic lettuce, a simple sesame bun, and a rather ample schmear of vegan Thousand Island. The Thousand Island is actually tangy and delightful — I used the ramekin of it that came with my deconstructed burger as a rescue for the ho-hum McDonald’s style fries — but I was suspicious that it was applied liberally to make up for the patty’s shortcomings. Regardless, the overall effect was satisfactory.
My vegetarian friend, who has to live her whole life without ever knowing “something extra” richness, was really digging it. So far, Freire said, the city’s other meat avoiders have been too. They’d sold 92 Beyond Burgers on the day of my visit, which probably accounts for a little under half their total sandwich sales for the day, and she estimated that it has made up about 25% of their overall daily sales since its release.
If I weren’t an omnivore, I suppose I’d be thrilled too. However, I eat anything and everything, and given the option, I’d probably still rather have the real thing. And after thanking Freire and departing, that’s exactly what I did, convincing my vegetarian friend to break her vows and go next door for a burger at RN74. I’m not sure the Beyond Burger is trying to fight in the RN74 weight class, but it was hard to imagine a veggie patty ever emulating Michael Mena’s opulent, brioche-bounded beef patty. As I sat there, sipping syrah, eating a very expensive piece of ground beef, and dipping my fries in real, egg-based aioli, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this was the real solution to America’s problematic obsession with meat.
As Charles Mudede pointed out so well in his love letter to charcuterie, meat is supposed to be a rare treat. The solution to our overconsumption of meat is not to replace it with carefully engineered vegetable analogs, I think, but just to eat less of it and appreciate it more.