"How do you want that cooked?"
This is a normal question to hear when you're ordering a cheeseburger. But I haven't eaten a real cheeseburger in four years. What I'd ordered was a veggie burger, and those are usually just a matter of heating until warm. It's not like you have to worry about E. coli if your black bean patty comes out too pink.
"Huh?" I asked.
"How do you want that cooked?" the lady at the counter reiterated. I was at the allday cafe on the ground floor of the Unscripted Hotel in Durham, ordering the newest vegan addition to the menu: the Impossible Burger, supposedly the closest thing to animal flesh you can find without having to kill a cow.
"Uh, medium-rare, I guess."
The standard order at the allday comes with vegan cheese and mayo, which I subbed out for Gruyere and real mayo, as well as avocado, spinach, and tomato ($10). Down the street at Bull City Burger and Brewing (which had sold out on my visit on a recent Sunday) or in Raleigh at Fiction Kitchen and Remedy Diner, you can find the Impossible Burger prepared similarly, though with some accompaniments swapped out. At Remedy, you get veganaise and mustard, no avocado; at Fiction, it's Gizmo stout braised onions, malt-vinegar slaw, pickles, Green Man IPA mustard, and housemade vegan cheddar.
But wherever you get it, the main draw is a vegan patty that tastes and looks and feels decidedly non-vegan. The burger bleeds juices when you bite; the "meat" looks indistinguishable from the real thing.
"It's not geared toward actual vegan customers," says Hans Luther, the general manager at Unscripted. It's too close to meat for many vegans' comfort. Its real value lies in giving carnivores a plant-based alternative and getting them to "think about the impact of the meat we eat," he says.
Bringing the Impossible Burger to Unscripted was his idea. Luther primarily eats a plant-based diet, and before taking over Unscripted he lived in New York City, where he watched the Impossible Burger go from a handful of restaurants to hundreds of restaurants within a year—"an explosion," as he describes it. He wanted to be the first in the Triangle to get it, but he had to settle for being one of the first.
The Impossible Burger, according to Impossible Foods, its manufacturer, is the result of five years of research into what makes meat taste like meat and figuring out a way to replicate it with plants. The patty uses standard veggie-burger ingredients such as wheat, potatoes, and coconut oil, Impossible Foods' website says, but the secret is heme, an iron-containing compound that is "uniquely abundant in meat" and makes meat "smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty." Heme is also found in plants, which means makes it possible to create a food that has all the characteristics of meat but has no animal products and generates considerably less wear and tear on the environment—according to its maker, at least.
Does it, though? For the most part, yeah. The burger is delicious—quite a bit like I remember actual hamburgers tasting, and quite a bit closer to that goal than even the best veggie burgers around.