MEMBERS ONLY: Is The Impossible Burger the Future of Sustainable Hamburgers?

by Justin Rosario

Last week, I met with my boss, Ben Cohen (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) to talk about work, politics, and the horror of the alt-right. As we were eating at Open City in D.C. (nice place, check it out next time you’re in town), he mentioned that he had recently gone dairy free, giving up milk and cheese after already having given up beef and pork. I contemplated this as I was happily munching on my BLT (because I’m the World’s Worst Jew™) and I said I would be hard pressed to give up food items like pizza and hamburgers. This lead us to discussing the Impossible Burger, a completely vegetarian burger scientifically designed over 5 years to look, cook, smell and taste like real beef at a cost of some $80 million.

Ben, possibly jonesing for a proper burger (and an article to go with it), was intrigued and suggested I see if I could get one in New York City (they’re not currently available in our neck of the woods), which I was driving up to that weekend. Lo and behold, it was in several places in the traffic-infested nightmare that is Manhattan and a few in my old stomping grounds of Queens where I would be staying. Even better, it was being sold at one place right there in Forest Hills, a whole whopping 10 minutes from my friends Maria and Jenny’s apartment in Elmhurst.

Perfect.

We headed over to Bareburger, an eco-friendly, sustainable burger place, and I ushered in Maria, Jenny and their/our 4-year-old son Kyle (I’m the donor daddy). I noticed there were fliers on the outside of the building discussing the Impossible Burger and I put myself between them and Family 1.5 because I needed an unfiltered reaction from my test subjects.

I was a bit worried that they were already aware of what an Impossible Burger was since they’d been to Bareburger a few times already. Somehow, over the last couple of years of being mommies, they had turned into total hipster weirdos, making kale banana blueberry protein smoothies for Kyle and being all trendy. This meant there was a distinct possibility they’d tried an Impossible Burger because it was environmentally responsible, thus ruining my blind taste test. But once we arrived, I casually asked them if they’d heard of it and they said no, so crisis avoided.

Obviously, I couldn’t tell them what, exactly, they were going to be eating was because I wanted an authentic reaction. This was a problem for Maria, generally the far more adventurous of the two, who balked. She absolutely refused to order an Impossible Burger without knowing what it was. She had trusted me enough to give her a child (artificially) but not enough to eat food I picked. Talk about a mixed message! Jenny and I wheedled her a bit but she flatly refused.

“Fine”, Jenny said, “I’ll order one and you’ll take a bite.” This seemed to placate the reticent Maria and we ordered. As the waiter, coincidentally named “Ben”, took our order, I asked him to replace the patty in my “Great Plains” burger with an Impossible Burger while Jenny went ahead and ordered the Impossible Burger itself (it had its own spot on the menu). 

Did I add the bacon? I'm the World's Worst Jew™ so you're darn right I did!
Did I add the bacon? I’m the World’s Worst Jew™ so you’re darn right I did!
A $15 hamburger? With no fries? Ouch.
A $15 hamburger? With no fries? Ouch.

Ben started to open his mouth and I hurried to interrupt him just in case he was about to..ahem…spill the beans (one of the IB’s ingredients). I explained I was writing an article and it was important that my companions not know what they were eating. He was quite amused at the idea of a blind taste test and hurried off to set it in motion.

We spent the next few minutes teasing Maria while she tried to guess what kind of “meat” we had ordered, settling on either horse (eww) or elk (meh). Jenny was resisting the urge to google it and ruin the surprise. Kyle was happily chewing on his french fires and chicken fingers. 

Finally, the burgers arrived. The were a bit smaller than I was expecting for the price but Forest Hills, like a good chunk of Queens apparently, is in the middle of a general hipster makeover, hence, the kale smoothies. The moment was upon us and I recorded their first bites. Jenny went first as it was her burger. Chomp. Chew chew chew. A look of mild confusion started to come over her face when a woman walked up and asked her how it was. The waiter had told her about the Impossible Burger and she wanted to order it next time she came. I had to shush her (politely) lest she blow the whole experiment. Jenny, who was still chewing her first bite told her that even though she had no idea what she was eating, it tasted good. She finished her first bite, put her hands up and shook her head in a “What’s the big deal?” motion. As far as she could tell, it was just a burger. A tasty burger, but just a burger. I was more intrigued than ever to try it myself but I had to wait for Maria the wet blanket to take a bite.

Chomp. Chew chew chew. “It tastes like Pâté.” Not quite what I was expecting but she liked it. Maria insisted it didn’t taste like a regular hamburger and Jenny said she didn’t know what it tasted like but it was still very tasty. I explained to them that it was, technically, a veggie burger which got me a look of exasperation at all the fuss. But then I ran down the story of the Impossible Burger and they reiterated that it tasted really good if not exactly like a real beef burger. They had thought I was having them eat some weird, exotic animal flesh so that almost certainly distorted their expectations. Fair enough. 

And then it was my turn. Chomp. Chew chew chew.

I knew it wasn’t a meat patty but it was close enough that I couldn’t really tell with my first two or three bites. I had ordered a burger like any other so there were all of the other flavors and textures to contend with. I could have ordered just a plain patty on bread but that’s not how I eat burgers so I wanted to give it a fair test. I would like to go back at some point and order just a patty by itself and one on a bun with just ketchup and cheese for the bare minimum test but that will have to wait since the IB is not available in Virginia. Yet.

While we were eating, Ben the waiter wandered over and told us that the kitchen had made a mistake, that we had been served regular beef patties. We all tossed him a bit of shade but chuckled at the spot of humor. I made a mental note to bump up his tip a tiny bit for the effort.

By the time I was halfway through the burger, I could easily notice the difference. It was a “well done” burger but the inside still had a slightly uncooked meat texture to it while the outside was a bit crunchier than you would get in a real burger. Personally, I enjoyed the crunch immensely so that was a bonus. The undercooked inside less so. Some people like their burger still mooing. Those people are weird and disturbing. This ain’t a steak, buddy. It’s possible that the burger had been seared to intentionally give a crispy outside and a “raw” inside but I neglected to ask. At the same time, the uncooked texture was a little off but not nearly enough that I would have noticed or cared if I hadn’t been so tuned into to what I was eating. In the course of a normal meal with my family, I wouldn’t have paid a whit of attention to the subtle difference and that’s a big deal. Even Maria, no longer a’feared of the IB, said she wanted to try one the next time she came to Bareburger.

Interesting side note, Jenny mentioned that after wolfing her burger down at full speed, she didn’t feel full and bloated as she normally does after eating a regular beef burger. I asked her if it was because it was smaller than the usual restaurant burger and she said no, it just didn’t leave her with the heavy feeling that ground beef gives her. After she mentioned it, I noticed the same lack of “Homer Simpson fat belly” feeling myself but I am significantly larger than Jenny and while the burger filled me up, it wasn’t nearly large enough for me to properly compare and contrast with the bloated feeling a burger from Friday’s normally leaves me with. I’ll have to leave that up to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.

I would very much like to buy several uncooked patties and see how they cook on the stove top and on the grill but at this time, Impossible Burgers are, ahem, impossible to get except at restaurants. Price is a concern since swapping out a regular beef patty for an Impossible Burger patty costs an extra $3.55. I was more than willing to take that hit on my wallet for the sake of an article but I would be far less inclined to spend the extra money for purely altruistic reasons. It’s good but it’s not that good. 

That being said, one can hope that as the Impossible Burger spreads throughout the country, the economies of scale will kick in and significantly reduce the price. Perhaps we could shift a tiny fraction of the billions we spend subsidizing the beef that’s devastating the environment to reduce the cost of a delicious alternative that uses a fraction of the resources? It sounds impossible but so did a veggie burger that looks, tastes, smells and bleeds almost as good as the real thing.

Bottom line: For vegetarians, this is a no-brainer. If you miss the taste and texture of real beef, your granola crunching prayers have been answered. For unrepentant carnivores interested in something less artery-clogging and bleeding heart liberals looking to save the planet, enjoy and be guilt-free, if not 100% satisfied. For the truly picky and/or beef purist that will not countenance imperfect substitutes, I’d like to point out that the Impossible Burger is in its infancy and it’s already a more than reasonable facsimile. Give it a few more years and the only way you’ll know the difference will be if someone tells you. Impossible you say?

Exactly.