Here's the meatless burger Ciccio Restaurant Group is rolling out next week

Launching the Impossible Burger locally has been more than year in the making.

click to enlarge Chef Luis Flores of Ciccio Restaurant Group with the Impossible Burger, dressed in classic fixin's. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
Chef Luis Flores of Ciccio Restaurant Group with the Impossible Burger, dressed in classic fixin's.

It seems only natural for a bold Tampa Bay restaurant empire like Ciccio Restaurant Group to be the first to introduce local eaters to a burger that's been called revolutionary many times over. You know the meatless quarter-pounder (that bleeds) I speak of. It's the one backed by Bill Gates and Google, the one Momofuku's David Chang praised post-tasting, and the one at the center of a project that CRG co-founder Jeff Gigante says he's been obsessed with for more than a year.

The Impossible Burger, created by Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods, is scheduled to roll out to all CRG locations on Sept. 27. That's — count 'em — six concepts for patrons to choose from, excluding Fresh Kitchen because the plant-based patty contains gluten, which FK avoids.

"It reaffirms that we're trying to be [cutting] edge," said Gigante of the new partnership with Impossible Foods founder Dr. Pat Brown on Wednesday.

Inside the Epicurean Hotel's shiny culinary classroom in Tampa during a private tasting, Gigante told CL how he got connected with Impossible Foods, which introduced its burger (whose ingredients include soy, coconut oil, potato protein, vitamins and a magical molecule called heme that helps give it a meat-like quality) to New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas chefs last year. He met Brown during a trip to Silicon Valley, where he was looking at some tech investments through a friend who owns a small venture capital fund. Gigante, who'd been following the former Stanford University professor's work for a few years prior, was excited to sample the burger at the Impossible Foods offices, but did so with cautious optimism.

click to enlarge Look at those meatless burgers sizzle. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
Look at those meatless burgers sizzle.

Silent for about three minutes, as he tells it, taking it all in, he was happily blown away by the taste — and Brown's mission: sustainability of the planet, something the Tampa-based restaurant group that feeds 200,000 people per month is also big on.

"We had this amazing discourse," Gigante said. "First of all, I was very complimentary, and I said, 'So I'm over the hurdle of being fooled that this is meat because it tastes amazing.' My second question was, 'Can I have another burger without the fixings?' Because I wanted to taste that. And my third question was, 'What, if anything, are you not thrilled with on this product right now?' Because I had one criticism, and I wanted to see if we were kinda on the same wavelength. It was the texture.

"[Brown] said, 'We're working with the components of the actual ingredients and recipe to have the texture be a little more binded.' And I was like, 'You got it, you got it.'"

With a price point similar to grass-fed beef at around $10 per pound, the Impossible Burger has the pretty-darn-close texture — not to mention appearance, mouth feel and aroma — of its conventional counterpart (even that lovely crust), which is why it's billed as totally meat-free but totally made for meat lovers.

And kids, apparently. Gigante says he fed the patties to his 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, who sopped up every last bite.

Of course, the CRG gang plans to take this spin on a traditional burger even further when it launches the product next week. Executive chef Luis Flores, who adds some olive oil to the flat-top while grilling the tasting's star, says diners can expect to see a Cuban-style Impossible Burger on the menu with toppings like mustard aioli and Swiss. They have the ability to expand into other items, too — among them medallions, meatballs, tacos and Bolognese — as the plant protein's versatility allows it to defy burger boundaries.

CRG serves as the 63rd partner to introduce Impossible Foods' burger. According to Gigante, they hope to sell 3,000 or so pounds of the stuff across the company in a month's time, but profit, and exclusivity, aren't really the point.

"The whole goal is not to be exclusive. I'm just so thrilled 'cause I've been working on this for a year that we get to be the first here," he said. "I want all of these restaurateur friends of ours and all the big chains to go, 'Oh my god, this is amazing, this is a great thing. It's a great product,' and have them jump on board so everybody can get this. That's the goal."

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