In May 2019, Marketplace from American Public Media declared a historic “week in meatless meat.” With Burger King announcing it would follow White Castle’s lead in rolling out the meatless Impossible Burger, maker Impossible Foods was reporting trouble keeping up with demand. Competitor Beyond Meat had just gone public, with hungry investors bidding up its stock price 163 percent the first day.
Welcoming its new sweetheart,
@NASDAQ tweeted, “@BeyondMeat is creating a savory solution that solves four growing issues attributed to livestock production: human health, climate change, constraints on natural resource conservation and animal welfare.” The New York Times rode the wave with dozens of recipes and photos of vegan dishes hashtagged #foodandclimate.
That got me wondering: as planetary concerns and product breakthroughs have even carnivores contemplating meatless meals, can vegetarian–and maybe even vegan–meals satisfy the full spectrum of diners? I decided to check out a few local options.
At the Lunch Room in Kerrytown, I asked what they would recommend to satisfy a meat eater. There was a pause as two slim staff members looked at each other. One responded: “I can tell you our most popular entree is pad Thai.” I ordered and shared it with an unabashed carnivore. The marinated tofu, varied veggies, generous portion of peanuts, and spicy sauce atop rice noodles made us both feel full.
The Earthen Jar on Fifth Ave. is vegetarian and 90 percent vegan, according to manager Sim Sethi. He pointed me to three buffet items he suggests to the occasional meat eater who wanders in. The robust mattar paneer and korma sabzi both bulk up with dairy (cheese and cream, respectively). The vegan spicy “meatballs” rely on textured vegetable protein, and their slippery mouthfeel brought to mind words of wisdom from a longtime vegetarian friend: “Meat substitutes are not ideal to offer meat eaters, who probably will focus on the differences.”
That thought lingered into the big moment of this investigation: comparison-testing the Impossible Burger against a meat counterpart. My spouse suggested Red Hawk on State as the venue.
We sat down to beers and ordered the two test platforms with identical trappings: lettuce, tomato, onion, sauteed mushrooms, and Swiss cheese. I was having second thoughts as soon as the server pivoted away: Would all those trappings smother efficacy in our trial? Nah, I decided–we’d taste them the way we liked them.
The IB was $16 with toppings and sides, about 15 percent more than the beef burger. They were very similar visually, even after we cut them down the middle and saw both were slightly pink inside (kudos to the Impossible chemists). We traded halves and took our first bites.
Texture was similarly firm and moist, but I tasted a big difference: only the beef had chargrilled flavor. I flagged our server and asked if both had been cooked the same way. She said no, the chef doesn’t like putting the non-beef burger on the grill and risking it falling apart.
I knew my research was not done.
A map on the company’s website (impossiblefoods.com/locations/)shows a dozen Ann Arbor businesses serving its products, from HopCat to the Gandy Dancer. But only one has Impossible Sliders.
I headed out to the White Castle at Packard and Carpenter. Looking at the overhead sign, I realized that they also serve a traditional veggie burger. When I asked the woman at the counter if I should try it, though, she shook her head. But she predicted I’d like the Impossible Slider, because it really tastes like meat. “It’s moist–and we cook it with butter and onions.”
The patty was much thicker than the traditional slider–it could hardly be thinner–and cost more than twice as much ($1.99 vs. seventy-five cents). But she was right.
I polished it off at the counter, feeling no need to order a meat slider for comparison–and perhaps that’s the whole point.