After decades of soy-based patties being the least-bad option for carnivores trying to consume less red meat, plant-based products like the Beyond Burger are disrupting the meat industry.
The Beyond Burger is engineered to look, smell, and taste like real meat, upending the traditional perception of veggie burgers. It's the mission of companies like Beyond Meat, which makes the Beyond Burger and several other plant-based products, to create new items so similar in appearance and taste to meat that carnivores will eat them without giving it a second thought.
Last week, Beyond Meat had an explosive initial public offering that valued the company at over $3 billion.
I hadn't yet had an opportunity to try a Beyond Burger, so I compared its offering at TGI Fridays to a burger from my hands-down favorite burger joint on the planet, Shake Shack. Here's what happened:
They say it's always Friday at TGI Fridays. In fact, it's inscribed right over the door. I didn't need to put that to the test because I literally went there for lunch on a Friday.
Nestled among a variety of all-beef burgers was a single Beyond Meat cheeseburger. I was a little disappointed that it wasn't especially low in calories, and it was expensive, priced at almost $16. I could eat three Shackburgers from Shake Shack for that price.
When it arrived, I was initially impressed by the look of the burger. From the outside, it looked much more like meat than, say, a Boca burger. But the perfectly round patty did seem a tad artificial. I felt like I could pick Beyond out of a lineup of hamburgers based on the shape alone.
This isn't Beyond's fault, but who ever heard of putting the lettuce, tomato, and pickles on the bottom? Come on, TGI Fridays, would you wear shoes on your head? Perhaps more to the point, I was disappointed that the cheese didn't melt into contours in the patty. There's something vaguely artificial about how it just lay flat and level on top.
The first real test: I sliced it through the middle to see what a Beyond Burger looks like on the inside. And there's reason for cautious optimism. It looked meaty. The patty was slightly red and appeared moist — two very good signs. The burger clearly had a texture reminiscent of ground beef.
The first bite filled my mouth with a strong taste of char. This is worth emphasizing: the burger was nicely charred with strong grill lines, and it's a good thing that Beyond responds to flame in much the same way that a meat burger patty does. That said, char was the predominant taste.
I've had enough veggie burgers in my day to know what's usually wrong with them. They don't taste anything like beef, for starters, but more importantly, they tend to be dry as a bone. Beyond didn't drip with juices — not even a little — but the patty was pleasantly moist. It was not entirely unlike eating a burger cooked medium.
Can I take a moment and ask TGI Fridays if they honestly believe this is the right number of fries to put on a plate with a $16 burger?
It looked like beef, cut like beef, and had the mouthfeel you'd expect from beef, with a dense beefy texture. But taking a bite on its own was interesting — it demonstrated that surrounding Beyond with a bun, lettuce, tomato, and sauce helps maintain the charade that it's beef. On its own, it didn't taste bad at all — but it didn't taste quite like a burger.
After eating about half the burger, I started to notice what I was missing. There's no crust on the top of the patty — the kinda-burnt texture that counters the soft and juicy middle of the patty. It was uniform. That's not a terrible thing, and probably not something you'd notice if you weren't paying close attention. But burger fans will notice.
But as long as it's part of an ensemble with the bun and toppings, the Beyond Burger tasted like an average burger. I am confident if you served this to me and didn't tell me what it was, I wouldn't realize I wasn't eating beef. In other words, it's like eating a run-of-the-mill burger. That's not an insult; it's quite an achievement.
Off to dinner to complete the comparison. There was a time — before Shake Shack invaded Los Angeles — that I would plan family visits to New York around eating as many meals at the Madison Square Park Shake Shack as possible. I love Shake Shack.
There's only one burger on the menu for me: the original Shackburger. Priced under $6, it's a veritable steal. The fries still cost a few extra bucks, though.
There's absolutely no question that this was made from actual, real-life cow. Look at the mouthwatering crust and irregularly shaped patty. See the way the cheese melted into the uneven surface of the top of the patty. Yes, the Beyond Burger had a patty-like appearance, but you can't fake this. At least, not yet.
For Shake Shack's burgers, simplicity is key. The taste of the meat is really the main attraction here, so Shake Shack keeps the toppings pretty simple. And they appear to understand that the toppings do, in fact, go on top.
The exact composition of a Shake Shack burger is a company secret, but a number of online sources claim it's simply Angus ground beef. Whatever the exact blend might be, every bite of this burger was heaven. You can see — and taste — the crust on the patty, and that's something that a Beyond patty just doesn't get at all.
Perhaps the Shackburger was more viscerally real because it's messier. The patty was irregular and had the kind of char, crust, and pitting that tells your mouth you're eating something that was cooked with fire. Every bite was moist, juicy, meaty, and richly rewarding.
Note to TGI Fridays: This is a side of fries.
I really hoped Beyond would upend my world and become my favorite burger. While it's a totally satisfactory meal, there's no question that Shake Shack's Shackburger looks and tastes significantly more delicious. If you want to step away from beef at least some of the time, however, make a date with Beyond Burger.