A couple of years ago, my friend Joanna introduced me to the vegan stylings of Kristina Addington, a local chef who was at the time on the cusp of winning a segment on the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” which she has since parlayed into V-Grits, the city’s first vegan food truck.
At the time of my first experience, I decided to pit her vegan chili against a bowl of “real” chili from Dark Star Tavern in an effort to decide whether chili truly needed meat as an ingredient. Verdict: Addington’s chili was indeed chili, meat be damned.
So, to celebrate my first time ever patronising V-Grits, I decided to recreate the challenge by pitting an American tradition — the ground beef hamburger — with Addington’s V-Burger, which is made with seitan, or wheat gluten.
That’s right: Meat sandwich versus wheat sandwich. Let the chewing begin.
Now, since I’ve eaten roughly a million hamburgers in my lifetime, I knew I needed only to try out the V-Burger to conduct my experiment. I dropped in on a Memorial Day event at Apocalypse Brew Works in which Addington was serving up vegan burgers and dogs. The place was hopping, so I had to wait a while. But when Addington placed the V-Burger in my hands, my eyes immediately recognized it as a burger.
What that means is that it absolutely looked the part. Black bean burgers, by comparison, just look like someone smashed a bunch of beans together and shaped them into a crude patty. Most veggie burgers I’ve had look like someone threw up concentrated vegetables into a petri dish, let it harden and then put it on a bun.
But the V-Burger was the gray-brown color of ground beef. It had char. It was a big, thick patty like your dad would have made at the family Memorial Day cookout. It was topped with onion straws, lettuce and a big slice of tomato, and gently placed into a poppy seed bun. Instead of mustard, it was dripping with “special sauce,” which Addington described as a BBQ sauce and mayo blend.
I took the first bite, not quite sure what to expect, and the fact is the darn thing did sort of resemble the flavor of a burger. I’m not sure quite what is blended in with the wheat base, but clearly having char marks helps. I can also say the BBQ mayo helped conjure the illusion of actual meat.
When one of my friends sitting nearby asked what I thought, the first words that popped out of my mouth were, “Well, I’m not offended.”
They laughed out loud at this, and in hindsight I guess that was a tad snarky. But I try not to judge anything from the first bite, so I continued on.
Texture-wise, it was slightly rubbery, even though it still fairly closely resembled ground beef. After a few bites, it dawned on me that the texture actually resembles a rare burger — like when the center of the burger is so pink that it still looks bloody. Except, of course, with this burger, there was no pink. It looked like a medium-well to well-done hamburger.
All of this is to say that, well, yes, I could definitely tell the difference, but it was still damn close. The flavor was friendly enough and resembled a meat sandwich enough that it wasn’t smacking me in the face that what I was actually eating was some sort of wheat paste (a substance which sounds wholly unappetizing on its own).
One of my friends asked me if the burger was edible, and my next response was that it was in fact north of edible — even to the point of being enjoyable.
Don’t get me wrong, I will never again eat a vegan “wing,” I’m not going to give up meat and I still remain skeptical of coconut “bacon” (another item on the V-Grits menu), but I was surprised by the V-Burger. I also had a taste of the V-Grits pulled “pork” barbecue (made with jackfruit) and was fairly impressed with that too.
But perhaps the most telling fact of my whole experience is that halfway through my tasting notes, I started writing the word “burger” without quotes around it, and did so without even realizing it until I started writing this column. Coming from a devout carnivore such as myself, that pretty much says it all.
Dammit. Kristina Addington wins again.