Ever since the Impossible Burger debuted in July 2016, there's been a low-frequency buzz about the vegetarian "meat." Unlike other plant-based burgers, this one looks just like a juicy beef patty, and the taste is far from those tired black-bean pucks that have long haunted the meat-free scene. But I wondered: Would it stand up to a real hamburger? I decided to find out at Narrative, the new Cherry Creek restaurant inside the equally new Jacquard Hotel at 222 Milwaukee Street, which offers both kinds of burger with exactly the same accoutrements. And I wasn't alone: My lunch companion was Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers.
"We definitely wanted to have a veggie burger option, and the Impossible Burger was something that not only tasted great, but also had a little bit of a following," says Paul Nagan, Narrative's executive chef. "It also piques curiosity for our guests who have to ask what it is."
On that note, a little bit about the Impossible Burger: Developed in California, the fake meat is made of wheat protein and potato protein. The idea behind this creation was to give a vegetarian meat substitute the same oomph and chew of ground beef. Not only that, but Impossible Foods Inc. founder Pat Brown wanted the substance to satisfy like meat, as well.
That's where heme comes in. Heme is a molecule that carries iron and is found in both plants and animals. It's what gives meat some of its meaty taste. Food scientists were able to extract DNA from soy bean plants, insert it into yeast DNA, and then let the yeast do its thing, creating a sort of liquid heme that's added to the solid plant proteins, giving the Impossible Burger its meaty essence, the bloody color it's known for and the classic burger smell.
Nagan isn't the only chef giving Impossible a go. "I like that when I cook it...it has the aroma of searing meat, and I was embarrassed to admit that cooking a veggie burger made me hungry at the time because it smells so good," says Cameron Mengel, chef/owner of True West Kitchen inside American Bonded. Mengel added Impossible's product to his menu after debating over it and one other veggie burger. "Texturally it has a bite that surprised me, as it chews like meat — not an easy feat for a veggie burger."
Back at Narrative, Nagan serves the Impossible Burger the same way he does the Jacq cheeseburger: with pepper Jack cheese, crispy fried onions and tomato jam. We ordered the dry-aged beef burger medium-rare, because that's the best way to cook high-quality beef and because word has it the Impossible Burger can be served medium-rare, too — fake blood and all.
When the burgers arrived at our table, the pair look almost identical, though the Impossible patty was a little thinner. When we cut them open, one burger was definitely cooked medium-rare and the other well-done. Our server let us know the real beef was the pinker of the two.
"I'd been led to believe by the Impossible folks that this new faux-meat concoction mimicked real animal flesh, right down to the fact that it oozed a blood-like substance," says Gold. "Sadly, this was not to be the case. I've seen photos of bloody Impossibles before, but this one wasn't among them."
Putting the lack of fake blood aside, we decided to compare the two based on flavor.
"Obviously it doesn’t taste just like our dry-aged beef patty, but the texture is as close to beef as we’ve found in a vegetarian burger," says Nagan. "For a meatless burger, we think it’s a pretty close contest."
Gold agreed — a real surprise, given his meat-loving nature.
"I've eaten a lot of fake meat in my day, from textured vegetable protein to seitan, tofu-based analogs, tempeh, you name it, mostly to see how much they differed from the real McCoy," says Gold, adding that he will always pick a real meat burger any day. "Of all these, Impossible 'meat' has them beat, and handily. The mouthfeel and elasticity of the protein was similar to, I'd say, a minor-league-baseball stadium hamburger, or the kind you'd get at summer camp."
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Another aspect of the Impossible Burger we liked was its ability to soak in flavor. Where the fattiness of the beef cut the spice and bite of the onion, the veggie burger let those aspects take over and gave the burger a bolder note from its supporting cast. Overall, we decided, if you're looking for a vegetable burger that tastes good or a burger that will showcase condiments and/or cheeses, this is it. If you prefer to stick with real beef, Narrative's Jacq burger is an excellent choice.
"When you want a non-insulting veggie burger, you want the best possible option," says Mengel. "The Impossible met that for me in spades."
Do your own taste test with the Impossible burger at the two aforementioned shops, as well as at The Woods in The Source Hotel and Market Hall, all locations of Highland Tap & Burger, Rhein Haus, both locations of Steuben's and Hopdoddy Burger Bar, to name a handful of Denver joints.