Not long ago, I sat down to eat my first ever Impossible Burger.
It’s been around since 2016, but I hadn’t paid much attention. What’s so impossible about it anyway? My attitude was, “Oh great, another veggie burger, blah blah blah blah blah.”
But now that I’ve tasted one, I’m convinced that the California-based company Impossible Foods is onto something. Indeed, they have lived up to the product’s name: a veggie burger that tastes pretty darn close to real meat. Impossible Foods wants to strike a blow to America’s red meat addiction, aiming to bolster the long-term health of the planet.
Texas is currently a crucial part of their master plan. On Friday, June 23, all Texas locations of Hopdoddy will start serving Impossible Burgers. The cultishly popular Austin-based chain has eleven outlets in four Texas urban markets, which together sell more than two million burgers a year.
But the site of my revelation was Underbelly, one of the three Houston restaurants co-owned by James Beard–award winning chef Chris Shepherd. (The other two are the Hay Merchant beer hall, next door, and One Fifth Steak, a few miles away.) We met there around noon on Saturday, June 11. He was hopping around on crutches following a knee surgery but, aside from that, looking fit. Shepherd had dropped a bunch of weight and informed me that it was just the beginning of his new health regimen—into which the Impossible Burger happened to fit quite nicely.
We took a table in the empty restaurant, which was not open at lunch on Saturday. “We’re ready!” Shepherd shouted in the general direction of the kitchen. In a few minutes here came the Cease and Desist, a tall double burger covered in melted American cheese, listing to one side like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I lifted the bun and scrutinized the medium-done patties. Fresh from the flat-top grill, they looked and smelled like meat. The sides had a nice brown sear.
I took a bite. I chewed. I stared back at Shepherd as he watched me. “That’s pretty good,” I said, taking another bite. And it was. The flavor was full, with something vaguely like soy sauce in the background. Pink juice pooled on the plate and in fact, the taste had a hint of the mineral-like finish of rare beef. My main criticism was that the texture was slightly thready, not quite as rounded and smooth as the real deal. It was not an exact replica of real meat, but it was the best fake burger I had ever eaten.
“I’d order this,” I said.
“Yeah,” Shepherd said. “I’ve tasted a lot of veggie burgers and I got excited about this one the first time I tried it.” He was putting it on the menu at Hay Merchant that day for $18 including fries, comparable to the actual beef version of the Cease and Desist.
“Impossible Foods came to me,” Shepherd said. He had already tried an Impossible Burger at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in New York. Shepherd has long been a vocal proponent of sustainably raised meat and of using every part of an animal, so his interest in the Impossible Burger sprang from environmental concerns. But he has also been worried that going forward, world population will outstrip the supply of meat, sustainably raised or not. “What happens when we don’t have sufficient farmland to feed the world?” he asked rhetorically. “We have to look to the future. We have to make decisions to change our meat-eating habits.”
Beyond his global concerns, Shepherd also had a personal motivation. “I love meat, but I can’t eat a burger every week anymore,” he explained. “And I know my doctor is eventually going to tell me to stop eating red meat period. What are my alternatives? A quinoa burger? That’s not going to satisfy my want.” The Impossible Burger seemed a solution to both, and he was happy to be part of the advance guard of the much larger Texas roll-out happening at Hopdoddy on Friday. (A little over a week after he and I met, Shepherd announced that he was changing Underbelly’s focus from sustainably raised meat to fish and vegetables.)
The Impossible Burger was born six years ago, if “born” is the right word for something that came out of a laboratory. It originated with then-56-year-old Stanford University biochemistry professor and medical doctor Patrick O. Brown. For a long time, Brown had been distressed about the staggering environmental impact of raising cattle to produce the billions of burgers that are eaten in America every year.
The obvious solution was to cut down on beef consumption, but he knew that wasn’t going to happen unless there was an alternative that would appeal to diehard carnivores. He founded Impossible Foods and set about creating the taste of red meat in a plant-based product. But he also needed the capital to operate on a large scale. He approached people who had backed projects with a moral compass, like Bill Gates, and eventually lined up $100 million. (Besides Gates, investors include Khosla Ventures, Google Ventures, and more.) With the money, they started building a huge facility—67,000 square feet— in Oakland, California.
He’s been introducing the Impossible slowly, focusing on chefs to build buzz while keeping it classy. But he’s ready to enter a mass market, evidence being the Hopdoddy introduction and an earlier one at Umami Burger locations in California. At full capacity, later this year, the plant will be able to produce up to a million pounds of Impossible product a month.
But what, exactly, is an Impossible burger? In many ways, it’s not revolutionary. Around 85 percent consists of well-known substances to vegetarians: textured wheat and potato proteins, which form the nutritional base. About 15 percent is coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature but melts when it hits a hot pan. A small amount consists of amino acids and sugars, for flavor, plus some vitamins and vegan binders. And then, there is the secret sauce: heme.
Pronounced “heem,” this is an iron-rich molecule that occurs in nature. It’s also red. As you might have already guessed, it’s part of hemoglobin. But heme is not restricted to animals, it also found in plants like soybeans (in nodules on their roots). Add heme to the potato and wheat proteins and, bam! They taste like meat.
Back at Underbelly, Shepherd and I were wrapping up, but not before we got to talking about other Impossible applications. “Could I try it uncooked?” I asked. He brought some out and we both ate a bite. Cold, straight out of the package, it looked like raw meat. “That’s actually better than the cooked stuff,” I told him. We had the same thought simultaneously: tartare. In a minute, we were wondering how it would be in a raw beef salad with Thai seasoning. Shepherd had his chefs make one up, seasoned with fish sauce, chopped peanuts, and tomatoes and garnished with a rice puff. It was delicious, the best Impossible dish I’d had that day.
When Underbelly’s PR agent got in touch with me the next week, the Impossible Burger was on the menu at Underbelly during lunch and at Hay Merchant all the time. Impossible tartare had been offered as a special at One Fifth Steak, and the Thai-style salad was going on the menu at Underbelly soon.
Burgers may be Impossible Foods’ big play, but I think the sky’s the limit.