I’m a vegetarian and I hate two things. First, all vegetables regardless of their respective abilities to sustain me (I didn’t get into this game to eat broccoli); and second, any “inventive new spin on comfort food” (great, now I have to pay $12 for “deconstructed frites”). That’s why, when my husband informed me that we’d be venturing to Cockscomb Restaurant in San Francisco to enjoy a $19 veggie burger, when he knew full well that we had perfectly good Morningstar sausage patties back home, I was less than excited.
“But this is special,” he insisted. “This is the Impossible Burger.”
I tuned him out for a second — because I’m not big on things with hyperbolic names, either — but eventually had to respect his enthusiasm. My husband is not a vegetarian, the man loves eating animal flesh. He would eat ribs and carnitas and all manner of organ meats every night for dinner if he could. So when he started talking about how “this burger bleeds,” and “limited quantities” and “eye-opening experiences that will bring us together as a couple,” I eventually relented. What can I say? I’m a giver.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Impossible Burger, it’s basically the most exciting thing to ever happen to meat-loving vegetarians. Instead of pre-packaged patties that turn into gray hockey pucks, or some chef’s proprietary blend of mashed chickpeas, quinoa, and shredded carrots, the Impossible burger is renowned specifically for its ability to mimic meat. It’s made with super simple ingredients — Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, and Potato Protein are the first things on the list — and contains a compound called “heme” which brings the burger closer to tasting like beef than anything before it.
From Impossible Foods’ FAQ:
Heme contributes to the characteristic color and taste of meat, and it catalyzes all the other flavors when meat is cooked. Heme is exceptionally abundant in animal muscle — and it’s a basic building block of life in all organisms, including plants. We discovered how to take heme from plants and produce it using fermentation — similar to the method that’s been used to make Belgian beer for nearly a thousand years. Adding heme to the Impossible Burger makes it a carnivore’s delight.
If that sounds too good to be true, there’s one more thing to consider: The burger, which has been in production for four years and has only become available recently, is also good for the environment. So even if it doesn’t taste exactly like a freshly slaughtered cow (although, the texture! The texture!), the compromise in taste could be mitigated by the fact that creating these burgers generates fewer greenhouse emissions and saves tons of water.
Sadly, the thing is damn near impossible to get. The burgers are only available at four locations in The United States — where they quickly and regularly sell out — and aren’t yet available at your local supermarket. According to our server at Cockscomb, that may be partly due to the fact that most of us wouldn’t know what to do with the raw materials even if they were available. Unlike traditional veggie patties, the Impossible Burger arrives packaged the same as ground beef, allowing it to both be cooked to specification (Cockscomb serves theirs pink on the inside) and ensuring that the burger will be a different experience at each restaurant that sells it.
“We all had a training about how it’s made and watched the chefs create it” our server said, adding that the burger was one of the best she had ever eaten and hoping — as a mom — that Impossible’s offerings would soon replace whatever was being served for lunch at her kid’s school. She also told us that we couldn’t have one until the next day.
It turns out that the restaurant is only allowed to sell the burgers at lunch due to contractual obligations. Even then, our server recommended a reservation.
“We usually have about 75-100 burgers,” she said, “but we’ve been selling out since we started serving them three weeks ago.”
Since ordering take-out wasn’t an option (Cockscomb strongly enforces a “you have to be here to eat it” policy), and since the one thing I hate more than vegetables, fanciness, and hyperbole-in-food-names is feeling like my time was wasted, my husband and I immediately made a dash for Jardiniere, the restaurant of James Beard award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins, the only other place in the city to serve the Impossible Burger, and the only establishment to serve it during dinner.
“Good luck!” our server called as we rushed out the door to get to the restaurant by 7:30, which is when the burgers would be served on a first-come, first-serve basis. “They have fewer burgers, but I’ll hold out hope!”
The fact that we had to be wished luck unnerved me. When we reached Jardiniere, where I breathlessly announced to anyone who would listen that I was there an hour early to get in line for a hamburger, my fears were compounded. The restaurant is beautiful — all high ceilings, exposed bricks and iron staircases — and the people around us were dressed smartly. It was a Monday night at 6:30 and everyone was already wearing cocktail dresses and slacks. I, on the other hand, had ripped the crotch of my $12.99 Costco jeans as I rushed inside to get in line.
When a man in a suit approached me as I exited the bathroom — where I’d immediately gone to patch up my pants and then spend an uncomfortable amount of time playing with the faucet (which let you choose the temperature by playing it like a theremin) — his cool “good evening” hinted that I was about to be asked to leave without making a scene.
I was wrong. While Jardiniere sometimes has more than a month-long wait, especially when the opera, the ballet, or the symphony are in full swing, we were very lucky on this warm November night. Along with the option of eating the burger in their lounge, the restaurant was serving an entire tasting menu made up of the impossible burger upstairs, where diners would be treated to an amuse bouche of Impossible Burger lettuce wraps, a salad made with burger meat and broccolini, the burger itself (served with chips made right in the restaurant) and baked Alaska (which I’ve never had but always wanted to try since I was 10 and saw Annie).
I will not bore you with the details of the meal. No one needs to know that I spilled my lettuce wrap all over my chest and then proceeded to eat the contents off my shirt without using my hands (because I did not want to draw attention to myself), but I will tell you this: Everything you have read, heard, or even imagine about the Impossible Burger is true. It is one of the best things I have ever eaten and though it doesn’t exactly match the mouthfeel and taste of actual beef, if you hadn’t been told that you were eating something that was 100% vegan, you probably would never notice.
Why? Because the burger is brown on the outside, pink on the inside. Because it tears apart in your mouth like ground beef would. And because while the standard veggie burger constantly reminds you that what you’re eating is vegetarian (whether it’s because the texture is off or because the patty is studded with corn kernels), the Impossible Burger is focused solely on imitating meat.
That’s perhaps the most impressive thing about the burger: Although it does come with an information card and every server you encounter will be happy to regale you with the plant-based meat alternative’s impressive pedigree — including the fact that David Chang serves it at Momofuku and that Des Jardins is a development partner in the silicon-valley based company — no one tries to hold it to any standard besides that of a typical beef burger. There’s no awkward “it’s a very good substitute” discussion at the table, and when I heard a woman say “well, I’d order it, but I don’t always trust vegetarian options,” I almost spit out a mouthful of burger to tell her how wrong she would be to consider this “just another” option in a sea of vegetarian products.
If you’re one of those people who won’t try anything vegan because you don’t want to ruin even one meal by foregoing meat, I can safely tell you that you’d only be doing yourself a favor by stuffing chunk after chunk (it breaks apart in chunks!) of this delicacy into your greedy maw. Don’t expect beef, but don’t be surprised if you can’t tell the difference after two or three bites. Even if the burger wasn’t “bleeding,” I’d have been impressed. The fact that it does blew me away.
My husband, the avowed meat eater, agreed. In his estimation (and this is a man who will eat an entire rotisserie chicken by himself in one sitting) it was the best vegetarian meat he had ever had (true) and he would happily rank it among the top five burgers he’d ever eaten. But though that fact depressed me a little (I’m hyper critical and wanted it to be the best), there’s lots of consolation here, too: Impossible Foods is only at the beginning of their journey. The burgers are only in four restaurants and they haven’t yet saturated the market. For now, the burgers can be cost-prohibitive — $16-$19 — and may cause some frustration if they run out, but by setting up a limited supply, Impossible is also setting high expectations and then meeting them. They’ve created scarcity and built a buzz. In the future, we can all hope for Impossible Burgers at our favorite restaurants and at more reasonable prices.
I won’t say that all carnivores, especially those for whom eating meat is intertwined with identity, will buy into the burger as readily as Impossible might hope, but I can safely say this: I paid $55 for a tasting menu that included three courses and, though doing so would require some planning on my part (neither my husband or I are rich men), I would gladly do it again. Once this product comes to stores you can bet we’ll be fighting over them in the aisles. They’re really that good.