It looks just like a burger. It tastes just like a burger. And it bleeds just like a burger. But it's from a plant, not a cow.
Meet the Impossible Burger, manufactured by Redwood City, Calif.-based Impossible Foods and now available exclusively in New England as a meatball sandwich at Clover Food Lab.
In development since 2011, the Impossible Burger bills itself as the "world's only burger that handles, smells, cooks, and tastes like ground beef from cows — but is made entirely from plants."
In fact, the company says that it uses 75 percent less water, emits 87 percent fewer greenhouse gases, and requires 95 percent less land than conventional ground beef burgers. The plant-based meat was developed not by a chef but by Stanford University biochemistry professor emeritus Patrick O. Brown, now the CEO of Impossible Foods. It is produced without hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol, or artificial flavors.
All very healthy and ethical. But what's in it? Well, there's wheat and potato protein, coconut oil — and a special ingredient, the iron-containing molecule heme. Heme is abundant in animal muscle tissue and gives burgers the bloody, meaty qualities that so many of us know and love. Impossible scientists discovered how to extract heme from plants and produce it through fermentation instead.
Other restaurants throughout the country have caught on. You'll find Impossible products at name spots like Momofuku Nishi in New York and Umami Burger in Los Angeles. It's shipped frozen to Clover, which has been turning it into meatball sandwiches since last month.
All seems promising. What about the taste, though? Is it authentic, or just a meaty mirage?
That's what I set out to discover. Know this: You must hunt for it (in a manner of speaking). For now, it's available exclusively at Clover's two Harvard Square locations, though Clover CEO Ayr Muir plans to offer it at other locations by the end of October. As devotees know, Clover is committed to sustainable food.
At $12.83 pre-tax, Muir's meatball sandwich is costlier than your typical saucy sub, and it's pretty simple: Impossible Burger fashioned into meatballs rolled with egg and parsley, tucked into a pita and splashed with a simple tomato sauce made with onions, olive oil, garlic, and kosher salt. By all appearances, it should appeal to carnivores.
The Clover sandwich is 673 calories, with 40 milligrams of cholesterol (14 percent daily value), 13 grams of saturated fat (68 percent daily value), and 35 grams of protein (70 percent daily value).
"When you look at it, it looks and smells like ground beef. It smells like meat is cooking, and it tastes like you're eating meat. It's not like a better veggie burger. There are other products that are veggie burgers. This is a totally different experience," Muir says.
Admittedly, the idea of biting into meat concocted by a biochemistry professor didn't particularly thrill me. I imagined it floating from a test tube onto my pita, with vague hints of plastic gloves and metal.
Thankfully, this stuff really does taste like meat as promised, more or less. It is less gristled and greasy than I'm accustomed to (maybe a plus for some diners). Texturally speaking, it's a bit mushy and creamy, reminiscent of Spaghettios meatballs (I consider this a compliment). My main complaint, really, is the lack of toppings. Onions? Tomatoes? Pickles? Hot peppers? Maybe a sprinkle of oregano? When I bite into a sub, I want it to leak and ooze. This concoction is a prim walkabout, fine for sneaking into class or strolling down the street. But if you're loafing atop your couch watching Netflix at 10 p.m., it's probably not the sandwich you crave. Then again, if you crave a greasy sub, you're probably not going to head to Clover anyway.
A woman next to me agreed with my assessment, taking a cautious bite.
"I wish it had more than just a pita and sauce," she said, somewhat apologetically. "But it's tasty."
I concur. The meat mimicry works, more or less. It's just not particularly indulgent. But Muir is optimistic about what the new creation represents.
"This is an experiment for us; it's new territory. It's creating a conversation and a really interesting one. What if people's meat isn't made from animals? Clover's mission is that we're working hard every day to help meat lovers become vegetable lovers. If we can help people eat more vegetables, it's great for the environment, health, and other issues," he says.
And it's sold out daily since being added to the menu last week.
"We were thinking it'd be funny to go to the North End and hand it to people," he says with a laugh.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.