Where’s the Beef? Not Here, Though it Looks Like the Real Thing

The Impossible Burger at Rowdy Hall. Adam Flax photo

By Annette Hinkle

Each year when the New Year rolls around, so does the urge to redefine habits — including eating healthier. While parents often try to set the example, sometimes the children do the leading, which is true in my case.

That’s because I have a vegetarian for a daughter. She started out a little more than a year ago as a vegan, but after a month, her hankering for dairy products and the frustration of trying to dine out with friends as the lone vegan in the group got the better of her and she relinquished.

The vegetarian commitment, however, has stuck, despite the fact that before eschewing all meat she was a huge fan of hamburgers. So when I heard Rowdy Hall had a new veggie burger on the menu that isn’t comprised of the typical black bean/lentil/mushroom combo found in most meat-free burgers and instead, does an admirable job of mimicking the real thing, we decided to put it to a taste test.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, we headed down to Rowdy Hall where we met Mark Smith, a managing partner at the Honest Man Group, which owns the restaurant, and put in an order for the new Impossible Burger with fried onions, tomato and cheddar cheese.

As the chefs worked their magic in the kitchen (and my daughter waited in wary anticipation) Smith and I discussed veggie burgers in general and this one in particular, and how it found its way to Rowdy Hall. Interestingly enough, it had nothing to do with Smith’s quest for the ideal vegetarian burger.

“Not at all,” admitted Smith, who instead explained that the genesis began a year ago during a meal at Saxon + Parole, an eatery in lower Manhattan.

“A friend of mine has been a vegetarian for 30 or 40 years. They had the Impossible Burger on the menu. It had a blurb and I was interested,” said Smith. “I was never a fan of food that was meant to taste or be like other food. So I was a little skeptical. He orders the Impossible Burger, I’m thinking wow, that looks like a real hamburger. It had the same texture, but was not made of tofu or beans. He proceeds to take a bite and goes, ‘Wow.’

“I said do you mind if I have a bite?”

… and the verdict?

“Being a meat eater, it doesn’t really take like a hamburger,” said Smith, “but it’s the closest thing to it I’ve ever tasted.”

Not a bad pronouncement from an avowed carnivore, and it’s true — when the Impossible Burger arrived at our table, it was hard to discern at a glance that it was meat-free. Even cutting it in half didn’t give it away, as the pink hue inside looked just like the real thing.

We watched in anticipation as my daughter took her first bite, and the thumb went up.

Smith explained that the Impossible Burger is the brainchild of Impossible Foods, Inc. Based near San Francisco, the company specializes in developing meat-free alternatives. The Impossible Burger is the company’s first product and while it may look like an old fashioned burger, it’s a fairly high-tech food that is the result of scientific engineering.

The secret ingredient in the burger is heme, the iron carrying molecular protein in hemoglobin which is what makes burgers red. But it turns out, heme is also found in plants, which are the source of the Impossible Burger’s meat-like flavor and texture.

Smith explains that the heme in the Impossible Burger comes from soy beans, and the amount of heme needed for production of the product is created through a yeast fermentation process in the laboratory — eliminating the necessity to grow hundreds of acres of actual soy beans. For that reason, and in the interest of full transparency, the Impossible Burger is not considered GMO free.

“In essence, this is a genetically modified situation because the heme is grown in a laboratory,” explained Smith. “There is also coconut, potatoes and wheat protein in there, so the burger is also not gluten free.“

But it is pretty damn delicious. That became evident as my daughter proceeded to devour the entire Impossible Burger in mere minutes while Smith and I talked. He explained that the meat-like experience of the burger is enhanced by the coconut oil which imitates melting fat when it hits the hot pan, while the potatoes provide the firmness.

“There’s no cholesterol and the burger is 210 calories,” he said. “We haven’t done anything yet with it other than the burger, but I’m thinking it could work in chili or stuffed cabbage.”

While it’s nice to see vegetarians enjoy a meat-like experience free of guilt, Smith notes that Impossible Foods’ mission goes far beyond simply pleasing the palates of vegetarians. The company’s primary focus is to develop food products that are environmentally sustainable — and given the resources required to create a real hamburger, beef is the most logical place to start.

“Cows produce 80 percent of the world’s methane, the amount of water and crops required to feed them, in terms of land, is not a sustainable formula,” said Smith. “That was the reason they developed it.”

According to the company’s website, compared to cows, the Impossible Burger uses 95 percent less land, 74 percent less water, and creates 87 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.

Smith adds that while vegetarians and environmentalists have both been enjoying the Impossible Burger at Rowdy Hall, there’s another type of East End customer attracted to a meat alterative — those suffering from alpha gal, the meat allergy that can result from the bite of a lone star tick.

“Friends of mine who have the alpha gal have tried it. It’s interesting I’d say overall, across all these different reasons for not eating meat, 90 percent said they would have it again.”

Looking at my daughter’s empty plate, I think it’s fair to say that she is definitely going to be one of them.