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Hold the Meat

Superburger goes vegan

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FAUX FLESH  Superburger says it waited a decade before finding a vegan burger to add to its roster.
  • FAUX FLESH Superburger says it waited a decade before finding a vegan burger to add to its roster.

I suppose you could say restaurants that offer veggie burgers as a meatless alternative to customers with beef cravings should be applauded for their efforts.

But most meatless burgers are awful. The frozen discs reheated on griddle tops generally taste of compressed wood pulp and aren't worth the grease they were fried in.

But the times are changing, and so are the veggie burgers. We are living in the early days of a vegetarian revolution with animal-free products like Hampton Creek's Just Mayo (eggless mayonnaise made with vegetable proteins); Modern Meadow's lab-grown meat (which poses an existential question for vegetarians: if no animals were killed to make it, is it OK to eat?); and now the Impossible Burger, a hugely popular product that looks and tastes a lot like ground beef because of the addition of an ingredient called heme.

Heme is an iron-rich molecule in blood that carries oxygen. Turns out it's also found in plants and yeast, which is where Impossible Foods gets its heme through a proprietary fermentation process. It's the heme that makes Impossible Burgers "bleed" to the delight of former carnivores.

Superburger makes a fine burger from regular ground beef. Their burgers bleed the old fashioned way. Last week, they took yet another Best Of award for best burger in Sonoma County. Don't look now, but the burger baron has gotten into the fake-meat business, too, with the addition of the Imposter to its menu.

The vegan, non-GMO, gluten-free patty is produced by Missouri's Hungry Planet, which calls it a Range-Free burger. It's made with soy protein of the concentrated and isolated variety, some autolyzed yeast extract for a hit of umami savoriness, various vegetable gums for texture and a sprinkling of beet powder for color and a little red juice.

Would you mistake the Imposter for the real thing at Superburger? In appearance, yes. The patty looks thoroughly meat-like, well browned and nubbly. It's especially attractive, if no longer vegan, with a slice of cheddar cheese draped over it.

When eating an Imposter ($9, which cheese) side by side with one of Superburger's burgers, however, as I did, the differences become apparent. The vegan patty is springy and moist, like a beef patty, but lacks the pleasantly fatty, uniquely beefy quality of, well, beef.

But it's a far cry better than the first generation of Boca Burger–like fake meat-food pucks. Loaded up with pickles, red onion, lettuce and tomatoes and slathered with mustard, mayo and catsup, the Imposter will certainly satisfy most vegans, and even some carnivores observing Meatless Monday.

Are vegan burgers like the Imposter and Impossible Burger better for the planet? Not necessarily. Both contain soy. Soybean agriculture can be destructive with its use of fertilizers and pesticides, and when forest is clear-cut for the crop as in places like Brazil. On the other hand, properly managed, grass-fed cattle operations can improve soil and water quality while also pulling climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere back into the earth, (see this week's cover story "Climate Solution," p19).

But if you don't like the idea of eating animals and prefer red beet powder to blood, the Imposter is the real thing.

Superburger, 1501 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.546.4016.

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