San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Impossible’s vegan chicken debuts
Impossible Foods’ first foray into vegan chicken hit the Bay Area on Tuesday — in a crispy, golden-brown nugget format. The Redwood City company’s plant-based chicken nuggets are now for sale at burger joint Gott’s Roadside as well as El Alto Jr., a one-month pop-up preview for chef Traci Des Jardins’ upcoming restaurant, El Alto, at the brand-new State Street Market in downtown Los Altos. There are Gott’s locations in San Francisco, Greenbrae, Napa, St. Helena, Palo Alto and Walnut Creek.
As with when Impossible Burger debuted in 2016, the nuggets are initially on menus at a few select restaurants nationwide helmed by celebrity chefs like David Chang and Marcus Samuelsson. But unlike that gradual rollout, where it took years for other restaurants and grocery stores to access the remarkably beef-like product, the nuggets are going to be widely available soon.
Restaurants can already order the nuggets through major distributors, and some grocery stores like Safeway and Walmart will stock the nuggets in their frozen aisles later this month. More than 10,000 stores are expected to carry Impossible’s chicken by the end of the year. They’ll be priced at $7.99 for 20 pieces.
As with Impossible’s beefy burger and pork-like sausage, the nuggets are primarily made from soy. Sunflower oil provides the fat, while added nutrients, amino acids and sugars help make the product taste like chicken. And just like traditional chicken nuggets, these are also rolled in breadcrumbs for a crunchy coating.
The nuggets are likely to appeal to parents and young children, especially in the context of climate change, said Des Jardins. She recalled fielding questions from her son when he was little about where meat comes from.
“You have this moment as a parent where you’re convincing your kid to eat animals when they’re sort of resistant to the idea. It’s so weird,” she said. “I think giving them the opportunity to eat a plant-based diet and also things that they’re familiar with — as a parent, there’s nothing better than that.”
At El Alto Jr., the $12 nuggets are served with a tomatillo barbecue sauce and strips of mango, cucumber, celery and carrot, inspired by the fruit and veggie stands found in Mexico.
Des Jardins and Jennifer Rebman, culinary director at Gott’s, both said they don’t think they’d be able to tell in a blind taste test the difference between an Impossible nugget and a real chicken nugget. Two Chronicle reporters tried a sample and agree — the nuggets were crunchy on the outside, soft and slightly chewy on the inside and mildly seasoned
Gott’s Roadside is serving Impossible’s vegan chicken. The nuggets are crunchy on the outside, and soft and slightly chewy on the inside.
with no aftertaste.
At Gott’s, eight nuggets come with fries and three dipping sauces — ranch, honey mustard and barbecue — for $12.99.
Gott’s was an early adopter of the Impossible Burger, and Rebman remembers customers traveling from all over the region to try it. She expects a similar frenzy over the nuggets and eventually hopes to make the nuggets a permanent offering on the menu, though the restaurant is waiting for feedback after an eight-week preview period.
She noted that Impossible’s burger does “incredibly well” at Gott’s and interest is “evergrowing,” with customers routinely eating it with bacon and cheese.
“We have so many people looking to reduce meat consumption but not be vegetarian or vegan,” Rebman said.
Some activists — particularly those against genetically modified ingredients — have pursued legal action questioning the safety of a key ingredient in Impossible Burger: genetically engineered soy leghemoglobin, also known by heme, which makes the patty “bleed.” While the Food and Drug Administration has approved it — and a federal court upheld that decision earlier this year — it’s worth noting that the nuggets don’t contain heme, making it the first Impossible product not to contain the ingredient. That said, the soybeans are still genetically modified, as are 94% of the soybeans grown in the U.S., according to the FDA.
Laura Kliman, director of new product development at Impossible, said heme was superfluous here.
“Heme is really that key to making meat taste like meat and it’s found in all different types of animal meat but in different concentrations,” she said. “Red meat has a lot of heme. Pork less so, and chicken even less so.”
Impossible’s goal is to replace the use of animals for agriculture by 2035. The company started with beef because of the particularly intense environmental impact of raising cattle. Now it’s tackling chicken because it’s the most consumed meat in the U.S., Kliman said. Chief competitor Beyond Meat rolled out plant-based chicken tenders earlier this summer.
While she couldn’t speak to what animal might be Impossible’s next target, Kliman said creating the chicken nugget unlocks other opportunities for ground chicken products in the future.