When I first moved to Hamburg, I was fully aware that it wasn’t going to be quite the foodie Mecca that London has ballooned into in the last 10 years, but I was pleasantly surprised that the street food movement had gained a little toehold. One of the most successful of these was Vincent Vegan, who parlayed a cracking seitan burger and frankly the most excellent sweet potato fries I’ve ever tasted into a permanent and very popular concession in the Europa Centre Mall, overlooking Hamburg’s central Binnenalster.
It was shortly after finishing the Lewishambles Year in Review of 2018 that I got to wondering if any of the noted examples of the food trends had REALLY made it as far as getting to Germany’s second city in the last year, as frankly if they had, it would be a good sign that the “trend” was now in the mainstream. I wondered if I could find “functional mushrooms” (grrrrrr), “fancy tea” or any of 2018s supposed NEXT BIG THINGS in Hamburg shops and concessions. In particular, I wondered if I could find any examples of the “bleeding vegan food” – and the Beyond Burger in particular. To my surprise, on wandering over to VV on a busy post-Christmas shopping trip to ask the staff if they’d heard of it, I found it was ALREADY ON THE MENU! So at the earliest opportunity for a meal I hurried my bum over to the mall to try for myself and see what all the fuss was about.
First things first: what the heckins is a Beyond Burger?
Rather than parrot my research here, I’d first refer to the the very excellent Kenji Lopez-Alt article on both the Beyond Burger and its close rival, the Impossible Burger. The former is based on a pea-protein base, making it both soy and gluten free, as well as (naturally) being entirely vegan, and achieves that lovely pink colour through judicious application of beetroot juice for colour and “bleediness” (a word I have made up for this post, naturally).
But is it healthy? I’d say that’s a tough question. I’m not a health expert, but it seems to me that this puppy is emphatically NOT a health food, with a calorie content of 270 compared to 287 for an equivalent beef burger, and 20g fat to 23g fat in the beef option (albeit only 5g satured fat compared to 9g for the beef). On the BB website, they rather skate over the sodium content, which food and wine magazine notes can come in for both the Impossible and Beyond Burgers at over 5 times the amount for a regular beef patty (112mg vs 20mg). According to Food and Wine, they’ve been told this is because the veggie equivalents are “pre seasoned” while most beef burgers get seasoned by the chef on the grill, but I’m a skeptic on this explanation. All in all, seems to me this bad boy belongs in the “occasional treat” area of the food pyramid, alongside, to be totally fair, most meat-based burgers.
So, Lewishambles, where did you get your greedy mitts on this?
At the current time, Beyond Meats isn’t selling through retailers in Germany, so unless I fancy popping over to the UK to go to a Tesco, its only possible to get one of these through restaurant-based sales points such as Otto’s Burgers or Vincent Vegan.
First off – I should be clear I did’t have the opportunity to see the burger in its uncooked state, so i can’t comment on how it looks or smells before you get a chance to cook, or how easily it cooks up. I’m also really aware that with a burger, It’s hard to not end up reviewing the presentation and accompaniments rather that burger itself, so I tried to focus on the patty, although its hard to avoid concluding that I’m sort of reviewing the manner in which this has been cooked and decisions by the restaurant rather than the product itself.
In this regard, I reckon I’m in reaIly safe hands. Vincent Vegan is properly good, and I’m saying that as a bona fide card-carrying omnivore who doesn’t actually know a load about vegan food, but knows a lot about junk food. Their “cheesy one” burger is a seitan-tofu patty that, while not as juicy as the real thing (or indeed the Beyond thing), is really quite close and is lovely and firm to the bite rather than mushy (quite often the downfall of veggie burgers), and has a lovely savoury “grilly” taste which I fully enjoy next to more of those gorgeous sweet potato fries. The only quibble I have is that their fake mayo is quite oily, but anyone in their right mind should have the peanut sauce anyhow as it’s proper nice. In short, Vincent Vegan was already doing what I considered to be one of the best fake burgers I’d personally tried, so I was excited to see what they’d do with the much-lauded Beyond Burger when applied to their existing setup.
So, first impressions?
It… looks like a burger. Granted, I was eating this under the unforgiving striplight glare of an urban food court, but I think that’s where this kind of food is MEANT to be eaten, so no apologies for not being more romantic in the description.
I would also comment for the record that it was pretty pricey, coming in at EUR11,95 for a single (admittedly well-made and decently-sized) cheeseburger. Most other items on the menu (including burgers topped with mushrooms, onions, extra sauces, Fakon – fake bacon – and other treats) all come in under EUR9, so it is a little more than the others.
VV have opted for a classic American cheeseburger vibe, serving the patty on a brioche-style bun (I’m assuming it’s not got the traditional butter and eggs in the dough), a sweet mustard sauce, garlic sauce and a thick layer of plasticky cheese*, topped with the classic lettuce-tomato-gherkin combo beloved by many.
Unfortunately, with all the sauces the only smell I got was sharp garlicky pickle and mustard smell, which I liked, but no impression of the burger itself. It was hard to tell, but it looked brown, crispy and appetising. There was nothing for it, I just had to give it a go.
And the kicker: what is it like?
First things first – this is really, really impressive. It doesn‘t have a true burger texture or taste. But it‘s „uncanny valley“ damn-close kind of stuff – in that you think it should be meat but it isn’t and you’re pleased but also a bit confused. My first thought was a smoked brisket, pulled pork or some sort of closely-packed pulled meat rather than actual hamburger, with a slightly „shredded“ texture. The outside was crisp and had a decent “give” under the teeth, but inside was very moist, juicy and tender, unlike a lot of seitan or tofu-based burgers which tend on the drier or chewy side, or else are unspeakably mushy.
The taste was hard to pin down. There was definitely a liquid-smoke sort of flavour but I couldn‘t tell if that was something that VV had added, otherwise the taste sat somewhere between pastrami and turkey, with a slightly oily finish which definitely wasn’t meaty. Afterwards I discovered that this was most probably a result of the high level of coconut oil in the burger, but I can‘t honestly say it read as „coconut“ at the time.
Of course, most of what I was tasting was the very nice sauces and cheese, which were a great foil, and I can honestly say added up to the best substitute to a “real burger” I‘ve personally tasted. The mixture of sauces and cheese on the patty gave me a really close approximation of a Big Mac taste, albeit in a slightly smaller package. You know the taste – the sweetish pickly-vinegar-mustardy sauce with a cheese bite from the yellow slice of melty stuff, only with a lovely extra garlic hit. Up against the crunchy veg, it felt like a very “classic diner” taste which I really enjoyed, even if the meat was a bit “close but not quite” compared to a normal all-beef ground patty.
It was really, really good, is what I can say. Not quite EUR11,95 good on an everyday basis, but it would be an amazing experience for a long-term veggie who has found that they’ve missed the real burger moment at a barbecue.
Overall conclusion: would it fool your average carnivore, and is it the future of food?
This is a really tough one, because ordinarily I’d be like “BITCH PLEEZ” and rattle off all the reasons I would NEVER mistake this for the real thing. And of course, unless you do a blind taste test I don’t think I could honestly answer the question – see below for a mix of reactions from the folks at Buzzfeed to eating the Impossible Burger:
Speaking as honestly as I can though, on any given night out after a few pints the only thing I’d question is a) the price and b) the texture, which could be summed up as “probably meat but something’s a bit wrong”. I’d assume it was slightly shitty beef or “variety van meat” rather than not meat at all. But compare this to your average and it is STREETS ahead. In terms of my favourite veggie friendly substitute, this is up there with my precious Linda McCartney Red Onion Sausage (which honestly is the nicest thing in the world and I don’t care if it’s a vegetarian food or that it’s not very convincing as a meat substitute, it’s the bomb and if you haven’t tried it yet I cannot endorse it enough as a dinner option).
The second part of this question is more important. If it is the future, I’d want it to be priced at a level that all could afford to enjoy. After nearly EUR12 on a burger, after adding drinks and sides I’d be looking at around EUR17 for a meal, and that is steep for the average punter compared to the price of a Maccers. I’d also probably want to understand the full environmental impact of manufacturing before falling over myself to declare this definitely better than the real thing and something everyone should do – the full cost of manufacturing is well-advertised for the Impossible Burger folks, but Beyond Meats are currently quieter on this front, and I’m unsure if, pound for pound, your average C02 emissions and ingredients impact would definitely be better than an organically and ethically sourced hamburger from the local butcher (I’m prepared to be wrong on this, but cannot find evidence either way – please let me know if you do!). I’d also ask myself if this is the future given that, pound for pound, while this marginally beats out a normal burger on the fats, on a calorific level its not much better, and from a sodium perspective it is a TERRIBLE thing to eat on the regular.
But the point of a burger is that it’s NOT a regular eat, it’s special. It’s the all-American Fourth of July, it’s your boy’s night out drunk snack, it’s a little treat on a Saturday after the movies with your Dad. And the Vincent Vegan interpretation of the Beyond Burger certainly hits those nostalgic sweetspots on the taste front. So, if you’re a vegan looking for a bite of something almost like the real thing, or a meat eater looking for something different, it’s definitely worth a go. I’m keen to see whether we can expect the arrival of other Beyond, Impossible, Improbable, Unlikely or simply Unfeasible foods in the near future. Inconceivable omelette, anyone?
*I absolutely do not mean this as a criticism. I LOVE plastic cheese on burgers and frankly whether its vegan or not I can’t really ever tell the difference myself, as neither the vegan nor non-vegan versions have any real claim to the “cheese”** tag here in my view, and they’re both damn good on a junk food burger.
**Unless violent yellow plastic cheese has been handcrafted in the mountains of Umbria or whatever for generations and I simply am an ignorant buffoon (a very possible thing).