Fast food is being taken over by meat alternatives. Impossible meat is now served at Burger King, White Castle, and Starbucks. Meanwhile, Beyond Meat can be found on the menus of Dunkin’ Donuts and Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.—and perhaps KFC soon. Even McDonald’s, which has held out the longest, has teased a new McPlant burger.
The pizza chains have been relatively quiet until now. Pizza Hut, teaming with Beyond Meat, is releasing the Beyond Italian Sausage Pizza nationwide for a limited time. I had the opportunity to try the pizza a few weeks ago when it was delivered to my door. And frankly, the product is good enough that it should just replace the real sausage on Pizza Hut’s menu.
Even before I opened the box, I smelled that signature Pizza Hut smell emanating from the container—that almost-buttery scent of pan crust mixed with warm cardboard. The only giveaway that something was different was the box itself: labeled with a big, green Beyond Meat logo.
Inside was a very normal looking Pizza Hut pizza, covered in a generous amount of cubic sausage chunks. I’ve had Beyond Meat’s breakfast sausage several times before, and wondered if it would taste more or less the same. Not at all. The product was formulated specifically with Pizza Hut. At my first bite, I’m greeted with a firm punch of fennel seed; plenty of paprika, garlic, and salt round out the flavor from there.
The texture is a touch drier than regular sausage, with a borderline crispy exterior that’s been browned in a high-temperature oven. (I wish I’d had a blind tasting to know if I’d have picked up on the swap.) But it’s every bit as decadent as eating real pork on a Pizza Hut pizza. The sausage carries a strong kick of seasoning that’s confident enough to contrast the blanket of cheese and dough, rather than attempting to fade into the background.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m from Chicago, which means that I’m a total pizza snob. (And contrary to stereotypes, it’s not just deep dish, but a whole culture of thin crust pizza with superb sauces and meats popularized by Italian immigrants who moved to the Midwest.) Pizza Hut’s sausage, like that of all big pizza chains, is not the rich and nuanced Italian sausage that I’d find on the top of a pie from my favorite local spot, like Aurelio’s.
No, chain pizza sausage is a different beast. It’s almost pebbly, and less about capturing the essence of sausage than providing a salty, umami kick. Frankly, it’s functionally a lot like the patty of a burger from McDonald’s or Burger King—not a hamburger patty as you’d expect from a gastropub, but a hamburger as a mass-produced brand. It’s a sort of dumb meat that never really lives up to the potential of meat as much as it does a corporate brand flavor. (Every McDonald’s burger tastes the same—a taste you can only really describe as McDonald’s.)
I believe that these extremes—of food as food, and food as brand—can and do comfortably coexist in our dining scene today. And what I’m saying is that the Beyond Italian Sausage Pizza feels like a perfect execution of the branded flavor of Pizza Hut, thanks largely to the Pizza Hut cheese and pan flavor you know, even though it happens to have a vegan meat on top instead of one made from pork. And this is just how I felt about trying Beyond Meat’s excellent chicken nuggets they made in partnership with KFC. Maybe the chicken wasn’t perfectly convincing, but the 11 secret herbs and spices certainly were.
So as we look to the future of alternative meats, we should be auditing every chain pizza topping and burger filling, and questioning if they really need to have a component as environmentally destructive as beef or pork inside when meat alternatives can get 85% of the way there. Because some meat is delicious for being meat. And some meat is really just there to be a familiar brand on your tastebuds.