Biz Beat

Who needs beef? Taste testing the Modesto area’s vegan Impossible and Beyond burgers

Beef, it’s what’s not for dinner — at least not in these burgers.

Meatless burgers are breaking out in a big way these days, with two new companies bringing their vegan “beef” patties to major restaurant chains across the country. Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods and Southern California’s Beyond Meat both make plant-based burgers that are meant to look, taste, smell, feel and even bleed like real red meat.

The idea is to convert meat eaters over to non-meat options, and give vegetarians and vegans a more realistic burger experience. As concerns about climate change and its environmental impact continue to grow, these companies are presenting themselves as planet-saving alternatives to raising cattle for beef. And then there are the health benefits and the part about not having to kill any animals.

But the question lingers — how do they taste? And the answer is, pretty good. Really. No kidding. Our unscientific, yet highly enjoyable blind taste test gave both brands a general thumbs up — but a clear winner did emerge. Much more on that later.

If you put some melty cheese and a nice bun on either of these puppies, even the biggest red-meat fanatic wouldn’t immediately spit them out. When compared to other popular and available veggie patties on the market like Gardenburger, Boca and Morningstar Farms, they’re juicier and have a meatier taste and appearance.

They’re so much better that even fast food chains like Carl’s Jr. and Burger King have taken notice and begun adding the Beyond and Impossible burgers to their menus, respectively. Later this month, Del Taco will roll out an entire menu substituting Beyond Meat for traditional ground beef. A&W recently launched a Beyond Burger in Canadian locations.

In the Central Valley, these new meat-alternative burgers are available at a handful of locations. In Modesto, only Deva Cafe has the Impossible Burger. Red Robin, with sites in Turlock and Riverbank, also now is carrying the Impossible Burger nationally. Black Bear Diners, including those in Modesto and Turlock, sells the Beyond Burger. And at the start of this year, Carl’s Jr. began offering the Beyond Famous Star, using the Beyond Meat patties.

Burger King made national headlines recently with its test of the Impossible Whopper in the St. Louis area, and if that program is successful, will roll it out to the rest of the country later this year. But in Modesto, Deva owner Lorena Loftis has been selling her own Impossible burger for almost a year. And now it outsells her regular beef burger.

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Owner Lorena Loftis prepares an Impossible Burger, meatless burger, at Deva Cafe in Modesto, Calif., Saturday, April 20, 2019. Andy Alfaro

Salida couple Ian and Alison Scott come to Deva specifically for their Impossible Burger, which satisfies both her as a vegetarian and him as a meat eater.

“It’s phenomenal,” Alison Scott said of the Impossible Burger at Deva. “And that’s the point. If people like it, they’ll eat it more often. I think it really will encourage people to eat more plant-based because it’s so similar to a meat product.”

Both the Impossible and Beyond burgers are made of plant-based proteins. Beyond uses pea protein, canola and coconut oil, potato starch and beet extract among its ingredients. Impossible extracts heme, an iron-containing molecule found most abundantly in animal muscle tissue, from plants to create the “beefy” taste, which it mixes with potato and soy proteins, coconut and sunflower oil, and other ingredients.

Nutritional Information Comparison

Beyond Burger Impossible Burger Quarter Pounder/Whopper
Calories 290240240
Fat (g) 221418
Saturated Fat (g) 588
Cholesterol (mg) 0075-80
Carbohydrates (g) 690-1
Protein (g) 201920

Both companies tout their health and environmental benefits, particularly using less water and land while emitting fewer greenhouse gases than needed to raise, slaughter and process cattle.

But while all of that is fine and good, it doesn’t mean much if the burgers taste bad. A small panel of intrepid volunteers from The Modesto Bee taste tested the four available Impossible and Beyond burgers locally, from Deva, Red Robin, Black Bear Diner and Carl’s Jr.

They were, in general, pleasantly surprised. While no one was necessarily fooled by these plant-based imposters, their flavor was similar to a regular burger. Still, we had our favorites. The Impossible Burger scored higher on taste and look. Words like “yummy” came up. It had less of the grainy texture that plagues other veggie patties, and a more beef-like mouth feel. Looking down at a half-eaten burger, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish the patty from beef.

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Meatless burgers photographed in The Modesto Bee studio in Modesto, Calif., Friday, April 19, 2019. Clockwise from the front, Red Robin’s Impossible burger, Black Bear Diner’s Beyond Meat burger, Diva Cafe Impossible burger, and Carl’s Jr. Beyond Meat burger. Andy Alfaro

The Beyond Burger had a more obviously non-meat consistency and when served in a thick burger patty could feel soft and a little mushy — almost like thick cooked oatmeal. Its taste was also less beefy, with more of a non-meat aftertaste. Instead, Beyond has gone all-in on the “looks like beef” comparisons, using beets to create a realistic looking “raw” patty. Cut into one cooked to medium rare and it will even stay pink in the middle.

Most of the testers said they’d order one or both of the Impossible Burgers available locally again. But, as with any burger, the other components make a huge difference. Quality buns, condiments and cheese will make almost any patty palatable.

As you might imagine, all this meatless meatiness comes at a premium price. Both the Beyond and Impossible versions sell for between $3 to $4 more than regular beef burgers at area restaurants. A Carl’s Jr. Famous Star cheeseburger costs $4.69, while the Beyond Famous Star cheeseburger will set you back $8.49. Locally, an Impossible Burger with fries or a side runs $13.95 at Deva and $14.69 at Red Robin. The Black Bear Diner Beyond cheeseburger and fries sells for $13.79, while a regular cheeseburger is $9.49.

Beyond Meat is also available for purchase uncooked at Target and Walmart and at local grocery stores including Save Mart, Raley’s, Safeway and Sprouts. So if you’re considering it, but worried about ordering in a restaurant, you can make them at home to try. But the Impossible Burger has yet to hit local store shelves.

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Deva Cafe serves the meatless Impossible Burger in Modesto, Calif., Saturday, April 20, 2019. Andy Alfaro

In the end — meat or meatless — what we eat is all about what is available and tasty and makes us feel good. Both Impossible and Beyond taste pretty good, and make you feel even better about eating a burger. With more national and local restaurants addressing the demand for plant-based foods, they could have fewer and fewer people asking, “Where’s the beef?”

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Marijke Rowland writes about new business, restaurant and retail developments. She has been with The Modesto Bee since 1997 covering a variety of topics including arts and entertainment. Her Business Beat column runs multiple times a week. And it’s pronounced Mar-eye-ke.
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