The American cheese clings to each patty like hot caramel on a Granny Smith apple. The lettuce and tomato, their colors surprisingly vibrant for this time of year, peek out of the toasted bun, looking as if they were picked from some hothouse hidden inside the supermarket. You almost expect a passerby to stop breathlessly at your table and wonder whether there were a secret In-N-Out location here on the East Coast.
The resemblance between burgers is not completely coincidental. PLNT Burger co-founder Spike Mendelsohn — culinary school grad, “Top Chef” survivor, restaurateur, burger man, D.C. Food Policy Council chairman — has an affection for In-N-Out’s business model. Its limited offerings, its focus on fresh ingredients, its not-so-secret menu (more on the latter in a second). You can feel the SoCal influence at PLNT, conscious or not.
The comparisons between the two burgers, however, end with the first bite. I don’t mean to imply one is vastly superior to the other, though some (many?) might be tempted to make such an argument. What I do mean is that one, the Double-Double from In-N-Out, requires beef from an industry that increasingly finds itself in a defensive crouch, accused of abusing both animals and Mother Earth. The other burger is, as its vowel-less name suggests, a plant-based sandwich.
The double cheeseburger from PLNT relies on a pair of mock-beef patties from Beyond Meat, the Southern California company whose board chairman, Seth Goldman, is also a co-founder of PLNT. The cheese slices come from Follow Your Heart, the same business that introduced Vegenaise, the vegan mayo that serves as the base for PLNT’s signature sauce, a creamy spread that also folds in ketchup, relish and molasses. The PLNT burger is, then, not just meatless, but vegan. It’s as if the all-American hamburger grew a conscience, enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, sported a jazz dot and won’t vote for anyone but Bernie.
The problem, if that’s the right word, with plant-based burgers like PLNT’s is that they have to compete against the memory of meat-based ones. It’s not exactly a fair fight, but the more I think about it, the more I think it shouldn’t be a fight at all. The best way, I find, to enjoy a PLNT burger is to forget that you’ve ever had a real hamburger in your life. Seriously. Empty your meat-memory cache. If you walk up to the counter at PLNT expecting something that tastes like an In-N-Out Double-Double, you will walk away disappointed. But if you walk up to the counter thinking you’re going to give the animals a day off with a well-composed vegan sandwich, you’ll leave quite satisfied.
This is the fundamental push-pull of the new plant-based economy. To get folks to eat their vegetables, companies have had to reshape them — sometimes genetically engineer them — into foods much beloved across the land. People with a lot more letters after their name than me (the only letters associated with my name are TL;DR) have been developing plant-based burgers that inch ever closer to the real thing. But they haven’t arrived at their destination yet, although Impossible Foods is within sniffing distance.
Take the griddled patty at the base of PLNT’s burgers. It looks the part: It’s nicely browned and glistens with what could easily pass for animal fat. But if you lift the hood of your PLNT burger, pinch off a hunk of the patty and sample it (which I’m not suggesting you actually do), the fake meat tastes like . . . well, I’m not sure exactly what it tastes like. I know what it doesn’t taste like: beef. The Beyond patty holds its form and has the chewiness of medium/well-done beef, but its flavors are vaguely earthy and savory. It’s as if peas and potatoes got liquored up one night, hooked up and, several months later, delivered a baby with abnormal levels of MSG.
Toppings, bun and sauce have never been more important on a burger than they are at PLNT. Mendelsohn and his longtime collaborator, director of operations Mike Colletti, start with Schmidt’s potato buns — soft, airy and sweet (and kosher, like everything at PLNT) — and pack them with ingredients that you’d find at almost any burger joint: tomatoes, green leaf lettuce and pickles. The secret to the relative success of their burgers lies in the diced onions, browned and slightly translucent, which supply the deep, savory caramelization missing from the patties. The most ambitious burger to date is a patty topped with “mushroom bacon,” fried boiler onions (dubbed “bloomies,” quite slammable on their own) and a barbecue sauce that can’t quite hit the high, acidic notes that it wants to.
My issue with PLNT’s chili-and-cheese dog — aside from the pasty shredded “cheddar” that doesn’t melt — is that the Beyond Sausage has a flavor profile closer to a breakfast link than a brat. The best item on the menu is a relative newcomer: a fried “chicken” sandwich made from the oyster mushroom stems that growers typically discard. Meaty, crunchy, umami-rich, the Crispy Chik-N Funguy sandwich (insert eye-roll here) is the best use of scraps since candied lemon peels. Pair the sandwich with V-cut fries — I’m convinced no other fry keeps its edge like these — and the startlingly creamy strawberry oat-milk soft serve (made by Dolcezza for PLNT), and I’m ready to join the vegan revolution.
Which brings me to the secret menu item that Mendelsohn casually mentioned via text one day: It’s a pile of those V-cut fries covered in vegan chili, Tofutti sour cream and more of those pasty cheddar strands that don’t melt. The dish is something of an homage to In-N-Out’s Animal-Style Fries, and I’m afraid it suffers by comparison, though not enough to stop me from eating half of it.
Just as In-N-Out keeps expanding, PLNT Burger won’t be limited to a single Whole Foods for long. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Goldman, the Honest Tea co-founder whose wife (Julie Farkas) and son (Jonah Goldman) are also involved with PLNT, says he expects four to five more locations by the end of the year. And from there? Well, let Mendelsohn handle this one:
“If McDonald’s started with one restaurant and ended up where they were,” the chef says, allowing me to feel the weight of that sentence, “we feel like we have that opportunity, more than anyone else right now in the plant-based movement just based on our experience and our team.” Their team now includes Margarita Herdocia, the Nicaragua-born business executive and activist.
Get ready, America: These guys are ready to PLNT their flag.
If you go
833 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring, Md., inside the Whole Foods Market, 240-685-6286; plntburger.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Silver Spring, with a half-mile walk to the Whole Foods.
Prices: $2.50 to $12.75 for food and drinks on the menu.