Can Beyond Meat bring me the vintage fast food experience?
It’s been several years since I’ve had just a normal fast food burger. I have, for the most part, not eaten beef since the end of 2015. I will admit that there’s something lacking from my life since then – the thin slab of beef on a wet bun with wilted vegetables handed to me through my car window, the thrill of a burger falling apart in my hands and on to the floor of my car, the heartburn that feels like I’ve eaten broken glass and leaves me writhing on the floor… I kinda miss it.
A few months ago, I had myself questioning what food I missed since dropping meat in the fall of ’15. Prime Rib? Those perfectly cooked Lamb Chops that just melt in your mouth? The famous burnt ends that made up the bulk of my home city’s cuisine and effectively the entirety of its culture? Well, no. The conclusion I came to was uh… Wendy’s Chili. I don’t remember it being good. But man isn’t it so fuckin weird that there’s a fast food restaurant that’s still serving bowls full of chili? It seems like a holdover from a different era, like everybody else figured out that “food which people eat in the car” and “bowl of hot, red, meaty soup” are incongruent, but Wendy’s is still truckin’ along ladling chili and baking potatoes to a mostly mediocre end.
That mediocrity is, ultimately, what I miss. If I want meatless food on the high quality end of the spectrum, I can get that at a lot of places. Most restaurants worth their salt can make a decent dish without putting in the ingredient that makes me feel sick. But on the low end? Through a drive-thru window at 2 in the morning? There’s very little. There’s Taco Bell, of course, and the Jack in the Box menu is varied enough that I can normally find something, but the bulk of the major fast food chains don’t really outwardly cater to vegetarians.
I’m not broken up about that, by the way. It’s very rare that a fast food restaurant is the best possible culinary decision I can make, and fish sits pretty well with me anyway, and if I have to eat chicken it’s normally not the worst thing in the world. But it is fascinating to see when fast food places deliberately throw us a bone. A few days ago, I was told by a friend that Carl’s Jr. (which, deep in my heart, I still know as Hardee’s) was offering the Beyond Burger.
The Beyond Burger is a vegan beef substitute that seeks to emulate both the flavor and texture of ground beef. With most burger substitutes, you get an attempt at flavor emulation but a rough acceptance that ground beef’s innate crumbliness is just not feasible. Beyond, to their credit, took a stab at both aspects. Carl’s Jr, to their credit, decided to offer the Beyond Burger in their restaurants, and I, to my absolute detriment, took a stab at trying it.
The first thing to understand is that the Carl’s Jr. in Mission Valley closed down last week. All iconography was stripped from the restaurant, leaving it absolutely desolate. I had to go to Grantville to get this bad boy.
I ordered the Beyond Famous Star, which comes from the very rare “two unrelated adjectives followed by a noun” school of naming. This is apparently the flagship burger of Carl’s Jr. – it’s their Whopper, or Big Mac, or Animal-Style 4×4, whichever one you’d prefer. It seems like the Platonic Center of Big Mac and Whopper, actually – Bun and one patty, with mayonnaise, cheese, lettuce, onion, pickle, and some relishy special sauce.
I skipped the fries and drinking because the beast is like 710 calories, and I just cannot afford to have a stroke before my new job begins at the end of the month. I paired it with a nice, solid glass of still water.
This definitely emulated what I remembered of the fast food burger experience in the worst way. I cannot tell if this is a Beyond problem, a Carl’s Jr. problem, a Carl’s Jr. of Grantville problem, or a me problem, but that sandwich held its consistency for maybe two bites.
One issue that seems to pervade hamburger substitutes is their lack of regard for the naturally occurring fat that bonds ground beef together. There’s a certain crumbly ground beef threshold that meat substitutes cannot match. The average veggie crumbles are too separated, and the average veggie burger patty is a rigid puck that absolutely maintains its consistency regardless of any forces from the outside world.
So perhaps, in its immediate disintegration, the Beyond Patty is effective in emulating the fast food hamburger experience. For the first bite, it’s effective. It borders on fascinating – that flavor is at least mostly similar to what I remember, the mouthfeel is similar, it has a similar consistency to a fast-food hamburger. Then, like, three seconds later, the thing just breaks apart in your hands. It’s like trying to eat an ice cream sandwich in Tucson. If it weren’t for the little sleeve it came in, it would’ve fallen through the gap between my hands and right onto the crotch of my pants, where it may have been pleasantly warm for a few moments before I had to strip them off and immediately drop them in my washing machine.
The Carl’s Jr. Beyond Famous Star was a quality product for the short amount of time that it remained a full product. Were it to be scaled, it dropped from a solid seven out of ten to a two or three out of ten at the exact moment that it destabilized and shapeshifted from burger to wad.
So, no, I do not recommend the Carl’s Jr. Beyond Famous Star with Cheese. However, I got to experience the guilt of eating some garbage again, and for that, I must thank Carl Junior, wherever he is tonight.