There was a strange thrill in finding a veggie burger advertised on the menu of a beer bar in my hometown on Long Island. For years, I had to drive to far corners for explicitly vegetarian restaurants or pick up something frozen from the supermarket to enjoy what would usually be a blend of grains, beans and cheap vegetables. Here was a sign that times were truly changing, yet when it arrived and I took a bite, I immediately began to tear up, looking at my sister with terror: I was so sure I’d just eaten beef, for the first time in years. When the waitress returned, I asked, “Is this a veggie burger?” She replied, “Yes, it’s a Beyond burger.” I couldn’t finish it, so uncanny was its resemblance to actual ground beef. My appetite was lost, and I pined for the days of driving 20 miles for something recognizable as food — as vegetables.
That was my first experience with the new wave of tech burgers, which were brought into the world by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. The former has a base of pea protein, while the latter is soy based. Both have been engineered to resemble beef as closely as possible to entice carnivores to cut more beef from their diets because of its destructive impact on the environment. These were never food for vegetarians and vegans. The Impossible Burger launched itself through chefs such as David Chang, a previously vocal anti-vegetarian, and has now landed on menus at Burger Kings, White Castles and Little Caesars across the nation. These aren’t spaces known for a vegetarian-friendly ethos.
But the increasing ubiquity of these meat facsimiles on menus has created a strange moment for those of us who long ago chose to eschew the consumption of animal flesh: Where are the burgers for people who don’t want to eat anything that tastes like meat? What was once the most reliable menu item for non-meat-eaters has become almost overtaken by these tech options, appearing with trademark symbols on menus, and a fear pervades: Will true veggie burgers go extinct? For now, although many restaurants are choosing to put only tech burgers on their menus, others are sticking to their housemade versions or running them side by side.
For Ruth Tal, owner of the vegan chain Fresh — which has locations in Toronto and, soon, Los Angeles — their Beyond burger has been a smashing success, but it still hasn’t made sense to take their veggie burger off the menu. The latter is composed of almonds, tofu, millet, beets, carrots, parsley, spices and herbs. In June, they sold 6,500 Beyond burgers and 6,000 of their veggie.
“If sales of our original burger patty were cannibalized, we would have listened and stopped serving it,” Tal says. “But the good news is that they are just as strong as ever. I believe the Beyond stands apart because of the pea protein, the meaty texture, and our housemade ‘special’ sauce.” To her, the customers who opt for each are very different, and the options complement each other.
Honeybee’s, a new vegan barbecue restaurant in New York’s East Village, serves just the Impossible Burger, for reasons of consistency, ease and flavor. But chef Amira Gharib tries to make it her own. “I mix [the Impossible meat] with a couple things just to give it our own touch and to throw in a couple of classic flavors: shallots, vegan Worcestershire sauce,” Gharib says. “I think Impossible Burger did a great job with the base, now it’s up to chefs to create their own blends and burgers. Ours is made with beer-battered and caramelized onion, delicious Chao cheddar and our homemade barbecue sauce.”
Nitehawk Cinema, which has two locations in Brooklyn, also serves both a Beyond Meat patty and a traditional veggie burger. Michael Franey, executive chef at the Williamsburg location, says he likes having the option on the menu. “I know there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans who don’t like the texture of ground meat,” he says. “They’re both called a veggie burger, but they’re very different experiences,” adds Blessing Schuman-Strange, executive chef at the Prospect Park location.
Still more chefs are choosing to continue making veggie burgers in-house. In Nashville, at Hugh-Baby’s, run by pitmaster Pat Martin, they blend black beans, onions, cashews and smoked mushrooms to create a hearty patty with an umami essence.
“As much as I love meat, I personally love veggie burgers,” Martin says. “It’s hard to find a really good one, so I wanted to make one that I loved. As a society, we’re moving more towards plant-based eating, so it was important for me to have a veggie option on the menu.”
As for why he continues to make it in-house rather than outsource to Beyond or Impossible, it’s about having his fingerprint on everything he serves, and the financials bear that out. Tal says the only con about serving the premade patties is that the much slimmer margins drive up the cost for customers. At Bird and Cleaver in Fort Wayne, Ind., an omnivorous restaurant that heavily features vegan options, Lindsay Cheesebrew serves only a housemade veggie burger made from quinoa, walnuts, mushrooms and white beans. “I think it’s just not as special if you can get it everywhere,” she says of the tech burger patties. “At the end of the day, it’s still a processed burger.”
Amanda Cohen, chef at New York’s Dirt Candy, will be launching her own veggie burger restaurant — “the market demands it,” she says — come fall and will reach far back into history for her take: a 900-year-old recipe from the Ming Dynasty of China that uses 10 all-natural ingredients. She has resisted veggie burgers in the past, despite serving broccoli dogs and carrot sliders at her restaurant. While she recognizes that tech burgers fill a need for those who would like to eat less meat or were never able to eat a burger for religious reasons, they don’t appeal to her vegetable-forward sensibilities.
“If the idea is to make people healthier and change the way we look at food and how we eat, we should celebrate the things we have instead of making things in a lab,” she says, which calls to mind how forcefully Impossible and Beyond are targeting fast food over small, local restaurants. Cohen says that perhaps this isn’t the most sustainable way to get the population to consume less meat. “Let’s eat vegetables and put farmers to work,” she says, “and eat the things we already know are healthy.”
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