V.V. Burger Showdown, Round 2!
Momofuku Nishi vs. Sugar Cafe
In the near absence of real and affordable opportunity, New York City’s development in the last decades has shifted towards big box store chains. The same character-less stores that appear in suburban shopping Lego sets are now in New York City as patrons relish in convenience above all–unfortunately. Though I rant often about how chains have castrated my dear New York City and hacked off its unicorn horn and made it relatable to masses, there is another kind of chain rearing in New York City. The new New York food chain.
Though these new chains can be rooted in foodie values, they still irk me a great deal. Most irksome is the ‘world domination’ mindframe. (Do you need 13 restaurants?) It’s also branding. It’s the fowl odor of marketing, public relations, and social media professionals in my food. It’s the guise of choice. It’s the popular kid. It’s missed opportunities and the perpetuance of a new kind of rigged game.
But there I was–on the line at Momofuku Nishi. “Haha, isn’t this a New York moment.” Yes. I was on line to pay to eat somewhere. And on top of that, it was a ‘soy science patty’ I was waiting to try. But not just any soy science patty: The Impossible Burger, the Queen B of soy science food manufacturing and engineering.
Created by Stanford biologist and backed by millions of dollars of interests, the Impossible Burger is only served in at four locations in the entire world. Three are in California. And as of several months ago, one is in New York City: Momofuku Nishi. And the burger was why so many had lined up. Because of it, the place’s buzz is reaching sky-high levels; its Instagram is on fire with cross section shots of this Impossible Burger. Despite how dismissive Momofuku creator Chef David Chang had previously been towards vegetarian options, I’m sure he is feeling the plant-based power now.
Once we were seated we had the best seats in the house. With the natural light of the window behind me, no one to our left, I looked back towards the kitchen where cramped rows of communal tables lined into the darkness with relief. As the waitress placed the water at our table we ordered immediately. No futzing around here. The restaurant was at full capacity now, just a few minutes after opening their doors for lunch. The line outside the window remained, but they had a system to text patrons as their tables opened up. I ordered the Impossible Burger-Nishi style on the vegan bun (add a $1). It also came with French fries. “Nishi-style” referred to the sauce on the burger, I imagine. Or the minimalist nod to Americana (say with pretentious intonation) as it was simply the patty, lettuce, tomato and sauce. Whichever, this is more a feat in capitalizing on limited availability than in any culinary measure. So really, I suppose this burger battle should be named Impossible Burger, not Momofuku Nishi.
It came relatively quickly. And it was quite striking, though I was glad the patty was on the thin side. It looked liked meat. So much that, upon spying its pink innards on social media, I had a nagging worry that eating it would make me feel… ill. But I was Ok. In fact, I enjoyed it. The texture made it–its moisture, how easily my teeth penetrated it while that moist texture touched my tongue. That is the meat-likeness: a juiciness… a fleshness. Impossible Foods credits “heme,” which is basically hemoglobin. It’s just one of the plant-based proteins inside the patty. It also has wheat protein, potato protein, and soy protein. I tried not to think of how weird it was that some scientist created this. But it is weird, like Twinkies are weird. Like a ton of other processed foods are weird. This one is just in a high-end eatery owned by a highly accoladed chef.
All of this weirdness aside, the fact is that I enjoyed the burger. A bit begrudgingly.
On the other side of the city, on the Lower East Side, is Impossible Burger’s opponent: Sugar Cafe. Under seemingly perpetual scaffolding, this 24-hour spot makes a homemade vegan patty with no help from a biologist. I went early because, well, you don’t have to sit amongst the drunken LES bar crowd if you don’t need to. In fact, I suspect this place is an entirely different entity after last call. But I’m only speculating. This is my first time here. And I was here for the vegan burger and had no other requirements. That homemade patty, it’s thick and potato-y–almost knish-like–with specks of green vegetables throughout. It’s got like a whole avocado on top of it. But it was pretty bland, like unsalted mashed potatoes that had been browned on the flap top… with the just the slightest texture variance where they made contact.
It wasn’t bad, but was definitely not good either. But it’s an option I’d tolerate, even appreciate, in a suburban strip mall. But this is New York City. The bustling activity outside on Houston raises expectations a bit. It would take more to beat the Impossible Burger. In this round, the soy science meat trumped housemade. I know! I’m shocked, too. But I got to keep it real (real-ly engineered?)
I look forward to seeing how far this 2 hundred-million dolla soy science burger can go. Will it be Baron‘s in Bed-Stuy and their Mixed Beans and Mushrooms Vegan Burger as Impossible‘s next contender? Or will it be 5 Napkin‘s housemade patty of beet origin? Both are vegan option in omnivorous eateries. And V-Op battles are always a bit exciting for me. In fact, a good amount of the contenders in this Round are vegan options. They’re like little, exciting discoveries in a city with thousands of eateries. Bring it on.
✰Winner: Momofuku Nishi ✰