Second only to the Popeye’s chicken sandwich last year in terms of news coverage for a single food item was the Impossible Burger, with a big profile in The New Yorker on Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown, who wants to make meat obsolete. The plant-based patty is both vegan and, in its 2.0 version, gluten-free to boot. You can even get it at Burger King, which makes a Whopper with it. In connection with Flagpole’s Green Issue, I thought I’d not only taste some Impossible Burgers around town, but try to find and eat some other new-to-me vegan burgers, too.
The first place I tried the Impossible Burger was a few months ago, at Grindhouse Killer Burgers, which offers it at a $3 upcharge, but I wasn’t super impressed. It had a sort of funk to it that made it not only distinguishable from a beef-based burger but also not totally pleasant. And I say this as someone who loves kimchi and cumin and cheese that smells like feet. Maybe it was an off day.
Chops and Hops, in Watkinsville, makes one, too, but if you ask the folks there to make it vegan, you’ll end up with just lettuce, tomato and onion, which is fine but not exactly exciting, given the variety of non-vegan burger toppings and the chef’s general appreciation of vegetables. You could assemble one yourself, with crispy onions, mushrooms, roasted red pepper and spinach, but it definitely requires a bit of work on your part. Add ketchup, and it’s fine, but that’s kind of the purpose of ketchup, isn’t it? It either masks the taste of something or adds flavor to something without a lot of it. That’s why children eat it on everything.
You’ll do better at The National, which makes an excellent vegan Impossible Burger. (I specify because, although the patty is vegan, it’s easy to slip up with toppings or a bun, should you be actually vegan.) Ask for it vegan, and you’ll get it without the bun, Swiss cheese and comeback sauce that come on it otherwise, but it doesn’t seem to suffer much. Cooked beautifully, it comes with tasty sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions, served on top of a bed of nice lettuce alongside a pretty salad with watermelon radishes and a mound of fries. It does not need the pomegranate ketchup that isn’t vegan, anyway. Is it easily distinguishable from a meat version of the same? Of course it is. I imagine the difference is less perceptible with a Whopper, which is highly dependent on ketchup, et al. See, for example, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode “Doublemeat Palace,” in which the burgers’ secret ingredient isn’t people but cellulose. The joke is that no one can tell.
Heirloom Cafe recently replaced its lentil-pecan vegan burger with a black bean-based version, intended to be less mushy and hold toppings better. Sans the Tillamook cheddar that normally comes on it, it’s still spread with tomato shiitake jam and a house mustard, then topped with shredded iceberg—the right choice here, because it adds a nice crunch—and pickles, served on a Luna sesame bun. It has little crunchy bits around the edges of the burger and is well seasoned. It does fall apart a bit, but it’s tasty, and Heirloom has vegan and gluten-free desserts.
Donderos’ Kitchen also makes a vegan black bean burger, served on a chewy, substantial ciabatta, with spinach, tomato, red onion and mango chutney. As you’d expect, it’s a little mushy—which the Impossible Burger is not, having a very similar mouthfeel to meat—and it could use a bit more salt, but the chutney is great, and the whole thing ends up tasting a little pickley. It’s not trying to be fake meat, just a good sandwich.
I also ate The Grill’s sunshine burger, long on the menu in the vegetarian section, but it’s the kind of thing that makes people not want to try a vegan burger, constituted of brown rice that is theoretically seasoned and combined with herbs and spices, then topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and a big handful of sprouts. None of those things is necessarily bad, but the result feels dated and unimpressive. The restaurant’s switch from its longtime crinkle-cut fries to more standard skinny ones is also a bit sad. And if you either are or are pretending to be a vegan, you can’t get the feta dressing, meaning you must, once again, rely on ketchup.
The veggie burger at South Kitchen + Bar turned out not to be vegan, although it is made with housemade tempeh and kidney beans. There’s an egg in there, apparently, but it doesn’t lend as much structure as you’d think. You should still eat it if you’re a vegetarian or an omnivore, given that it is topped with a delicious buttermilk-fried green tomato and some really good housemade pickles. Add some grilled asparagus as a side, and you can still feel pretty virtuous, at least health-wise.
Did I miss the Happy Top cheeseburger at White Tiger, which is my go-to in this department? I did, but I’d happily order many of these again.
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