When I had the chance to try the Beyond Burger, often touted as the world's most realistic faux-beef patty, I had my reservations. I've always been of the opinion that there are two kinds of vegetarians: those who still pine for meat and are always looking for ways to replicate it, and those who are kind of grossed out by it and don't really care about finding a substitute. I fall into the latter camp. Still, I wasn't going to pass up the chance at such an exclusive taste test. Beyond Burgers are currently only available for purchase at Whole Foods locations in 11 states, and when fast-casual vegan chain Veggie Grill rolls them out on its menu on Nov. 2, they will only be offered at the Hollywood location where I got to try it. (It goes wide to all 28 Veggie Grill locations in December.)
The First Impression
On Tuesday night, my boyfriend and coworker — all three of us pescatarians — took seats at Veggie Grill's counter as a stream of servers started carrying wooden cutting boards topped with the undeniably good-looking burger and a side of fries out of the kitchen. I got my platter first, and while I waited to dig in, I absentmindedly grabbed at a little piece of charred "burger" that had fallen by the wayside. As the smoky, slightly burnt morsel hit my tongue, I froze. How was this not meat?
The Science of Beyond Meat
This is where the research and science behind the Beyond Burger and Beyond Meat, the company behind it, comes in. The hyperrealistic burger, which is built from a proprietary blend of pea protein, sunflower oil, and other ingredients, is intended to replicate the structure of actual meat: that fibrous, fatty, muscle tissue that gives beef its springy, dense, juicy texture. And it does a pretty damn good job of that. Beyond Meat has loftier goals, too. The company cites human health, climate change, animal welfare, and natural resources as issues it hopes to address through its faux-meat creations.
The Nutritional Benefits
Another obvious bonus? The Beyond Burger is healthier than your typical beef burger. It's got more protein and iron, less saturated fat, zero cholesterol, and no pesky antibiotics and hormones. It does clock in at about 3 calories more than a typical hamburger — 290 to beef's 287 — but in the grand scheme of things, that's a minuscule price to pay on the nutritional front. Beyond Meat isn't the only company in the imitation meat game, of course. Its most often-cited rival in the space is Impossible Meat, in which Bill Gates is an investor. The Impossible Burger just so happens to be served at a vegan restaurant just down the block from me, where it apparently often sells out, but I haven't yet tried it. (If I was a little squeamish about trying the Beyond Burger, then I am even more squeamish about the Impossible Burger, which made a synthetic cow blood from a molecule found in plants to replicate the juice of a beef patty. No thanks.)
As I took the first real bite of my burger, which was slathered in Veggie Grill's "secret" aioli and topped with caramelized onions, melt-y vegan American cheese, ripe tomato, and a crunchy leaf of iceberg lettuce, I felt like I remembered what beef tasted like . . . even though it's been 20 plus years since I ate it. It was like a nostalgia bomb went off in my mouth. The "meat" was chewy, dense, and pleasantly drippy with grease and "juice" (made from beets) like a real burger should be. And when I inspected the spot where I'd taken a bite, the slightly pink inside of the burger looked disturbingly, but impressively, just like meat.
My boyfriend wasn't as wholeheartedly impressed as I was with Beyond Burger's imitation; he thought the patty felt a little too thin, a little too factory-made to satisfy like a real hamburger. But my coworker and I both agreed that if we'd ordered a veggie burger at a regular restaurant and this had shown up on our plate, we'd certainly send it back, convinced the kitchen made a mistake and gave us the real thing instead. So, while the Beyond Burger might not completely satisfy a real hamburger-obsessed meat lover, it more than does the trick for vegetarians craving an animal- and earth-friendly way to enjoy an American classic. Coulda fooled me.