One of the workers at Del Taco on Harbison Boulevard is wearing a green T-shirt with the words BEYOND BEEF stretched across the back. And that’s what I’m here for: tacos made with the sexiest meat substitute around.
I braved the Harbison traffic to get to the only South Carolina location of the fast food chain, which last week rolled out Beyond Beef at all its locations nationwide. “Coming Soon: Beyond Meat” reads the marquee, and posters advise me that The Future of Tacos Is Here. There’s a whole menu panel devoted to the Beyond Tacos, and the Del Taco website says one can sub in Beyond Meat for proteins in other menu items as well.
Vegetarians have had plenty of options in commercial meat substitutes for years, from MorningStar Farms Crumbles to veggie corn dogs. I know: From age 10 to age 24, I was a vegetarian myself. I’ve had it all, from TVP chunks (no kidding, that’s what they’re called) to tempeh bacon (worse than real bacon, better than turkey bacon, but really not at all like bacon) to the excellent mock meats that form the basis of the dishes like “kung pao chicken” and “BBQ spare ribs” at Columbia’s A Peace of Soul Vegan Kitchen.
And, of course, vegetarians in search of a burger can often order a vegetarian patty that tastes good on its own merits — black beans, chipotle, corn, sodium — but isn’t trying to taste like meat.
Beyond Meat promises something different. The hype is serious. The product’s website claims that it “build[s] meat directly from plants.”
The Beyond Meat logo features a bull wearing a cape, a nice bit of symbolic turnaround — the bull is triumphing over the bullfighter, and is also a superhero. And the product's nutritional facts make it a good substitute for beef: It has slightly less calories and fat, and comparable protein, though significantly more sodium.
Since debuting in stores back in 2016, Beyond Meat has made its way onto the menus at T.G.I. Friday’s and Carl’s Jr., and most recently Del Taco. And this week, the company is going public. Its IPO will allow the company to raise $183 million for "additional manufacturing facilities, research and development, and sales," according to Vox.
I had yet to try any Beyond Meat, and the Del Taco debut seemed like a good chance to do so.
Vegans can order the Beyond Taco with avocado; other folks can opt for shredded yellow cheese. In either case, the Beyond Taco costs $2.69, which is $1.20 more than the basic meat taco.
Given all the hype, and some reviews I’d read, I was expecting a bleeding, bouncy, convincingly meat-like experience. You know how your upper lip smells faintly of animal fats after eating a burger? I didn’t exactly expect that, but I figured Beyond Meat would at least walk right up to the precipice of the uncanny valley.
It didn't. Not at Del Taco, at least.
In taco form, Beyond Meat could fool some people. Especially because, as my husband pointed out, most people aren’t lingering discerningly over a fast food taco. The components are all there — lettuce, tomato, crunchy corn shell, the requisite taco seasoning — so it hardly matters that the meatlike stuff in the bottom of the shell lacks that certain muskiness that says it came from an animal.
But to me, the Beyond Meat in my taco tasted distinctly legumey. The crumbly texture was meatlike, but not meaty. I liked it, but I was a little let down.
The next day, I headed to The Fall Line in Five Points. The Saluda Avenue bar, which replaced Delaney's, will let you sub in a Beyond Burger for any regular burger for a $1 upcharge.
I ordered the Left Coast Burger — avocado, red onion, tomato, monterey jack cheese, bacon and barbecue sauce, $9 — and subbed in the Beyond Burger.
Now this was more like it.
Tasted alone, the patty had an excellent crusty sear, smoky undertones and a juicy texture. And once it was embedded in the burger fixins — especially the bacon and barbecue sauce — it was about 70 percent of the way to tasting like a real beef burger.
In other words, the local restaurant achieved what the chain had not, despite the latter probably doing loads more product testing — and, arguably, a taco being an easier vehicle in which to hide fake meat.
As Beyond Meat's marketing push continues, we're certain to see it used in more and more ways. And with that ubiquity will come more and more clever uses.
I'm here for it. Replacing just a few meat meals a week is good for one's health and the planet. Bring me your weird plant proteins and lab-grown meats of the future.