965 Palomar Airport Road, Carlsbad
In my experience, there’s a fair amount of self-deception involved in applying the term “veggie burger” to anything. I mean, can just any mushy puck of vegetable fiber, grains, and/or nuts be slapped on a sesame seed bun, put next to a side of fries, and deem itself worthy of burger status?
Admittedly, I’ve referred to a few veggie burgers in the past as “very good.” But what I’ve always really meant was, “This dry, pasty sandwich will do, as long as I try really hard not to compare it to the juicy char-grilled beef that makes a real burger.”
At least, this used to be the case. We may live in a dystopian future, but it’s one where Silicon Valley venture capitalists are happy to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a sector they affectionately call “agtech,” literally conscripting food scientists to design a veggie burger that bleeds.
For example, a 100-percent plant-based burger recently announced by Impossible Foods took five years to develop. Company researchers identified an iron compound called heme that’s prevalent in — but not exclusive to — blood. Their new veggie burger patty reportedly looks bloody and even sizzles on the grill. But this burger tech is too advanced to be available in San Diego.
But I was able to find a Beyond Burger. This Beyond Meats “bloody” take on the veggie burger took seven years for scientists to develop. They attribute its raw red meaty looks to beet juice, while the bulk of the patty gets its texture from pea protein and bamboo cellulose, plus a mixture of oils and thickening agents.
It’s sold retail at Whole Foods, but I found it as a seasonal special at the Veggie Grill, a Santa Monica vegetarian fast-casual chain with locations in La Jolla and Carlsbad.
I hit the Carlsbad shop, which presents itself as a family-friendly fast-food burger joint. The grill’s standard burger features a grilled-quinoa-and-vegetable patty that looks decidedly bloodless, while other sandwiches feature faux chicken, bacon, and crab cakes, usually for 10 or 11 bucks including fries.
The hi-tech Beyond Burger goes for about $13, decidedly at the steep end for anything called a burger at a counter-service restaurant, let alone a veggie burger. Along with a few fries, it comes standard with American “cheese” (quotes are theirs), grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, and a house Thousand Island style dressing.
It sure had a fast food burger look, meaning it didn’t live up to the robust and fresh-looking photos on the Veggie Grill’s website. But I noticed some char around the edge of the patty and had to smile, imagining bespectacled scientists in white lab coats dedicating years of their lives to devising a veggie patty that caramelized akin to ground beef.
I must hand it to those unsung heroes. Without a doubt, this is the best veggie burger I’ve eaten. It’s texture doesn’t quite compare to ground beef, but it manages a sufficient impression of some style of minced meat. More importantly, it’s juicy and savory, and the effect of that char really sells the seasoned flavor as burger-like. By time I finished devouring it, my hands even smelled like hamburger.
All thanks to a vegan, soy-free, scientifically formulated veggie patty. And — no lie this time — it’s very good!