Given the atrocities climate change has already begun to visit upon us, the time is right to go meat-free. Along with choosing not to fly in planes or reproduce, it’s probably the best thing individuals can do. (Major, societal action is still urgently required to avoid catastrophe.) But like a moratorium on babies, compulsory veganism is going to be a tough sell, so most people should probably start with something simpler: an effort to eat less meat.
Over the past couple years, the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have become the Coke and Pepsi of the meatless-meat world — either through deadening corporate-speak like “plant-based” or vivid taglines like “the vegan burger that bleeds” — and they’re beginning to move out of the realm of high-end restaurants and into places where regular people encounter meat all the time. Impossible Foods’ plan has always been to replace traditional burgers at stadiums and school cafeterias, so they’re not about to franchise from coast to coast. Beyond Meat — which, unlike its competitor, refrains from using GMOs, making it a sort of Trotskyite to Impossible’s Democratic Socialist — has found a partner in Bend, Ore., mini-chain Next Level, which just opened its second Northern California location (and seventh overall) inside the Potrero Hill Whole Foods.
Like almost any fast-casual spot, it’s an agreeably bustling interior with lots of “Since 2018” and praise for its “awesome human” customers splashed on the walls. Customer flattery goes arm-in-arm with nobility of intent, but plant-based doesn’t mean we’re all hunkered down crying into our carob, remembering what once was. You can get a Brownie Explosion or Dark Chocolate PB Cup shake (made from soy or coconut) and Chili Chz tots with three-bean chili. That’s legitimately next-level veganism.
Burgers run in three rough categories: the black-bean-and-quinoa patties of classic frozen veggie burgers, a more updated version with “umami mushroom” embedded in the quinoa instead, and the Beyond Meat-style that mimics a beef burger. I got an All-American, which uses one of the latter patties, along with a lemonade and some plain tots, because I wanted to see how they were cooked.
It’s an uneven lunch, with varied strong points and drawbacks. Leading off with the meatless patty, it was plenty flavorful, enough to carry the whole package — but the opposite of a juicy burger. From the fibrous texture, you’re aware with every bite that it’s not from cows, although it’s filling and feels like the equivalent of beef cooked medium. Its tomato slice was thick and farmers-market red in hue, without that pink-softball quality that afflicts so many fast food tomatoes.
The iceberg looked as if its colors had come out in the wash, as lettuce does, and the faux-bacon tempeh strips — which sat on the bottom, like joists — were brittle and unpleasant to chew. The pepperjack-style cheese could have been more peppery, but at least the way vegan cheeses tend to sweat out their oils works well on a burger. The biggest issue was the dry, crumbly bun, the likeliest explanation for which is cost savings. But the lemonade was refreshingly tart and the tots had the crisp outside-soggy inside contrast we all expect.
Unlike the quasi-flagship Mixt location on Valencia Street, which foregrounds salads while sapping the idea of a salad (and also Valencia Street) of their vitality through buzzy self-regard, you really are doing the world a small favor by eating here — and with burgers in the $8 range, it’s not as if you’re paying excessively for that bit of virtue. The transition away from regular Whoppers is going to be as rocky as the transition away from single-occupant commutes powered by internal-combustion engines. That Beyond (like Impossible) fine-tunes its formula is another saving grace. Belcampo this isn’t, but Next Level’s All-American Burger is satisfying and purposeful. Now somebody just invent an egg-less brioche.
Next Level Burger, inside Whole Foods Market, 450 Rhode Island St., nextlevelburger.com