As much as we love a good, red-meat-stacked hamburger, we’re not immune to the understanding that beef isn’t the healthiest choice for everyday consumption, whether we’re talking arteries or the environment. But until recently, veggie burgers pretty much sucked, being all grainy and stale and cracker-like, unable to char appropriately, bad at holding heat, texturally just wrong.
And then came the new wave of meat-free, plant-based burgers, namely the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger, and the Hungry Planet Burger. So we sent ourselves out into the Santa Barbara restaurant scene to sample all three from various establishments, and this is what we found. —Matt Kettmann
Impossible Burger @ Finney’s
The Impossible Burger is “for meat eaters who want to eat an alternate protein,” said Eric BosRau, executive chef at Finney’s Crafthouse & Kitchen, of the plant-based patty that’s causing a stir among discerning diners. The recently opened lower State Street restaurant is one of only two in the area that currently offers the Impossible Burger — Borrello’s Pizza & Pastaria on Santa Claus Lane in Carpinteria is the other — although the “ground round” sandwich has been popping up on menus across the country since it became available in 2014.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I am a persnickety meat eater, consuming mostly fowl. And while I love the salty goodness of a hamburger, if I see pink or find gristle, my experience is ruined. So I’m the sort of omnivore to whom the Impossible Burger is geared.
The Impossible Foods team spent five years deconstructing what makes a hamburger a hamburger in order to genetically engineer a plant-based patty that offers the same eating experience as a traditional meat burger but without so much environmental impact. The newfangled burger’s trick is an ingredient called heme, which the Impossible people say is “the basic building block of life on Earth, including plants, but is uniquely abundant in animal muscles’ meat.” Plant heme mimics the texture, density, and other properties of muscle heme, but there’s also leghemoglobin, a legume-based protein that, like myoglobin in animals, carries oxygen throughout the living organism.
When Chef BosRau brought the freshly cooked, steaming-hot Impossible Burger to our table, it could have fooled me. It looked like a regular burger, even when cut in half. The clincher was that taste — honestly, I couldn’t tell it wasn’t a meat burger. The texture held up with each bite, the cheese and condiments proving lovely complements.
The only difference I could discern was that the Impossible Burger isn’t as heavy or greasy as a beef burger. In the end, the Impossible Burger experience, for me, was equally as satisfying palate-wise as eating a meat patty, and much more pleasing to my eco-conscience.
Right now, the Impossible Burger is Finney’s most popular offering, according to BosRau. Perhaps hard-core meat eaters will find nuanced dissimilarities that I did not, but I wouldn’t bet on it. —Michelle Drown
Hungry Planet Burger @ Lucky’s Steakhouse
Al punto translates to “to the point,” but it also describes the point between medium and medium-well, a popular meat temperature among Spaniards. With Spain versus Iran in the World Cup on the screen, those were the words that came to mind when seeing Lucky’s “range free” vegetarian burger. It was prepared “al punto,” the patty a darker brown on the outside with a hint of the familiar meaty pink in the center.
But more than that, the burger is to the point. Served on a soft D’Angelo roll with tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and lots of pickles, this burger doesn’t mess around. There are no special sauces or tricks trying to make the burger more than it is. “It’s served like all our other burgers,” said Executive Chef Leonard Schwartz.
The burger was introduced about a year ago after many requests for a vegetarian option, said Schwartz, who’d been searching for such a patty when a Montecito resident brought in a Hungry Planet Burger to taste. “I was impressed,” he said.
The burger is proving more popular than he expected, and while Schwartz can tell in a heartbeat that it’s not meat, some customers don’t have as easy a time telling it apart. “There was one customer who was almost kind of angry with me,” said Bruno, a server at Lucky’s. “She really thought it was meat.”
Spain won the match against Iran with a score of 1-0. Lucky’s also scores a goal with its to-the-point, range-free vegetarian burger. —Blanca Garcia
Beyond Burger @ Luna Grill
Thanks to this meat-free burger search, I’ve found a fast-food chain to admire: Luna Grill. (In-N-Out doesn’t count.) Founded in 2004, the Greek-Persian fast-casual concept was solely a stand-alone restaurant in San Diego for 10 years but has expanded across Southern California and into Texas since 2014, now sporting more than 40 locations. The northernmost outpost, Santa Barbara’s Luna Grill opened at Five Points last September and now serves a steady stream, especially at lunchtime, in a sleekly styled, indoor-outdoor space.
They started serving the Beyond Burger about three months ago, said manager Jessica Jimenez, who explained, “It’s based on chickpeas, and the coloring is beet juice.” Indeed, upon arrival, it looked bloody in a medium-rare style, and the texture was incredibly familiar, as was the moist density. It’s served with a quite tangy sauce and feta cheese, among the usual burger accoutrements, and made for a very tasty meal, alongside feta-topped potato chips and a lemon chicken soup. I can’t quite say that I’d be tricked into thinking it was beef, but for a healthy, protein-rich, un-fatty option, I’ll certainly return. —MK
Hungry Planet Burger @ Natural Café
This year is the 25-year anniversary of the Natural Café, founded on State Street in May 1993 and now a small chain of seven restaurants (once there were 13, and two more are coming soon). Founder Kelly Brown still runs the show and was talking kitchen politics when I arrived at the Hitchcock Way location to try out his latest menu offering: the Hungry Planet burger, whose parent company is partially based in Santa Barbara.
After Brown sampled all three options on the market, he began selling the Hungry Planet version as a Friday special in January. It became a menu regular in May and is now the top-selling sandwich, and customers can order it pretty much any way they like. “Seventy percent of our orders have modifications,” said Brown proudly. That kind of demanding service makes me cringe a little, though it’s a reason why my wife and other picky-ish eaters find so much solace in the Natural Café.
I ordered as the pros suggested, with vegan cheese, grilled onions, and avocado, and I was quickly impressed. Like many beef burgers, the plant-based burger is a vehicle for its toppings, yet unlike historic veggie burgers, it doesn’t get in the way. It’s got a “good chew,” said Brown, and it maintains temperature through the eating experience. The flavor is slightly salty, like meat, but otherwise rather innocuous, and it’s packed with 21 percent of your daily fiber needs in just four ounces. The first ingredient is water and the second is soy protein powder.
“This is great,” said my wife as she bit into hers, and that’s all the evidence I needed. —MK
For more Burger Week 2018 stories, go here.