Veggie burgers never have been my thing. They bring to mind college days, when mealy patties stuffed with black beans and grains were seemingly everywhere, and almost always a letdown. Give me a burger cooked medium rare, juicy and just the tiniest bit bloody with plenty of char and crust, thank you very much.
As it turns out, there's increasing evidence that the beef industry might not be the most sustainable of models in the long run — cows take up too much land and consume too much grain, along with many other factors — so a couple of years ago, a few Silicon Valley startups began working on a meat alternative.
When White Castle, the national burger chain (or, as I recall it, the place to get greasy sliders at 2 a.m. and wake up hating yourself), announced it would start carrying vegan burgers, I was intrigued. Then something even more surprising happened: A renowned food critic signed off on them. Earlier this year Eater critic Ryan Sutton lavished praise on Impossible Burger sliders sold at the national chain, calling them "one of the country's best fast-food burgers."
That got my attention. And while I always would opt for the real deal, I was curious what the new fake burger hype was all about. Meals from the Heart Cafe, a health-focused restaurant inside the historic French Market, was one of the few restaurants in town I found that carried both versions of the industry's leading imposters (it might be the only one).
Marilyn Doucette opened the petite restaurant in 2006, pioneering healthy food in a city that, at the time, wasn't much known for it. The spot sells The Beyond Burger, which is vegan and gluten-free and gets its heft from peas and potato starch, while beet juice lends the patty a red hue and coconut oil works as a binder. The Impossible Burger — comprising a similar plant base (coconut oil, potatoes) also includes wheat and heme, an iron-containing compound that makes up the molecule hemoglobin, which turns blood red and, it's claimed, gives the burger the look and taste of meat.
When I visited the cafe, I opted for the Beyond Burger, which came with a crispy light brown crust and a pinkish interior that looked a lot like ground beef. The dense patty carried a deep, umami-like funk and a little of the characteristic char one associates with ground beef: This wasn't your garden-variety freezer aisle veggie burger — this actually was pretty good.
The restaurant's offerings go well beyond these two items, and vegan and gluten-free options abound. A vegan gumbo thickened with okra, eggplant and mushrooms carries a peppery heat that lingers on the back of your throat. The vegetable-forward Caribbean rice imparts a deliciously soft burn, and the herb-packed kick of oregano and rosemary gets married with currants, lending the dish a sweet zing and extra dimension.
The restaurant's signature dish is its crab cake, which can be ordered any time of day (with poached eggs for breakfast and on a po-boy or salad for lunch). Save for a side of pico de gallo, the crab cake tacos felt more Californian than Mexican and featured a bounty of fresh mixed greens, avocado and a tangy remoulade sauce all wrapped into a whole wheat tortilla.
I was surprisingly taken by the gluten-free blueberry pancakes, which were bouncy and sweet, with a tart punch from the blueberries.
And as for that infamous burger: Did I know I wasn't eating real meat? Sure. Did I care? Absolutely not.