Margaux Riccio, head chef at Pow Pow (1253 H St. NE; 202-399-1364), is not a hardcore vegan, and in her younger years she might have counted herself among the tribe that enjoys an occasional case of the meat sweats. Riccio is the one responsible for all the dishes at Pow Pow, including the shop’s plant-based takes on General Tso’s chicken and sweet-and-sour pork. She occasionally gets an earful from vegans bent out of shape by her approach.
“They are very vocal about it,” she tells me. “They let me know that they don’t understand it. They tell me it’s not a vegan thing.”
Then again, they also don’t understand the chef’s backstory.
Riccio has a rare genetic connective tissue disorder that she’s been managing since childhood. One of her coping strategies, especially once she became a chef forced to stand on the line, was to pound aspirin. A lot of it. She gobbled it “like candy,” she recalls.
The painkillers had a devastating effect over time. They caused Riccio to have allergic reactions to many foods. It took years for doctors to realize the reactions were because of the cumulative effect of the aspirin, years and years of it. When Riccio stopped the analgesics, she found she was permanently allergic to dairy products. Just a sip of milk, she says, can give her hives and cause her throat to swell. She now carries an EpiPen with her.
As a child who grew up around her family’s steakhouse in Northern California — and, of course, as a chef herself — Riccio knows the central role that dairy, particularly butter, plays in many professional kitchens. So she made a sensible, if not wholly welcomed, decision: She would go vegan. Actually, she converted to veganism almost without realizing it. She and her partner, Shaun Sharkey, also a founder of Pow Pow, went month after month without eating animal products.
“After a year, we realized we were vegan,” Riccio says. “But I really missed meat.”
Her solution was to develop dishes that reminded her of meat, that have the texture and taste of foods that she still loved but no longer ate. To create her plates, she didn’t consult vegetarian or vegan recipes. She combed through professional cookbooks, or reflected on her own personal history, searching for dishes she liked. Once she pinpointed the dishes, she then found ways to reverse-engineer the recipes for a plant-based restaurant.
Riccio’s sweet-and-sour pork is sold under the name Natalie Porkman, a homage to the actress and possibly the most famous (and open-minded) vegan on the planet. If you can execute the equivalent of a soft focus with your palate, you’d almost swear you were eating pieces of fried pork rather than seitan, which Riccio kneads in-house to better mimic the texture of animal muscle. Her secret, though, is her “pork” broth and its deft use of aromatics — mirepoix, herbs and an extra grind or two of white pepper — to fool the palate. It’s pretty ingenious.
Her General Tso’s knockoff — dubbed the General’s Chicken — can’t quite pull off the same deception, in part, I think, because the cubes of fake meat are not smothered in a housemade sweet-and-sour sauce. The General’s “flesh” is more exposed, cloaked with only a pinch of spice and a delicate application of sauce, including a mushroom-based “fish” sauce. Regardless, Riccio’s “chicken” could still run laps around almost every meat alternative out there (at least the ones without a Silicon Valley address and lots of venture capital).
I just don’t want to perpetuate the charade that you can’t tell fake meats from the real thing. You often can, and the people who tell you otherwise frequently have an agenda or a palate too far removed from their meat-eating days. Besides, I don’t believe a mock-meat dish has to taste exactly like animal flesh to be good. Case in point: Pow Pow.
Based on a few random samplings around town, I’d argue that Riccio’s mock meats have few peers. Over at Pi Pizzeria in Penn Quarter (910 F St. NW; 202-393-5484), you can order a deep-dish pie with crumbles of a plant-based Italian sausage, which has neither the texture nor the pop of fennel that I love about the classic link. The Reuben sandwich at Fare Well (406 H St. NE; 202-367-9600) trades mostly on its acidic sauerkraut, though if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can detect what tastes like the faintest hint of a salty, corned-beeflike cure on the pebbly planks of tempeh.
Two of the most successful meat substitutes take radically different approaches to their mission of serving a cheesesteak — without the steak. At Philly Wing Fry (800 New Jersey Ave. SE inside Whole Foods Market; 1309 5th St. NE in Union Market), chef Kwame Onwuachi has put together a powerhouse of a sandwich: A roll, crusty and browned from the flat-top, is stuffed with griddled mushrooms, smoked provolone, pickled Fresno chiles, herbed labneh and a spicy mushroom spread. It has none of the blue-cheese funk of Onwuachi’s traditional cheesesteak, which is layered with rib-eye meat dry-aged at least 50 days. It also doesn’t matter. This is whiz-bang vegetarian sandwich-making.
If you want a mock cheesesteak that tastes more like the Philly original, you need to get your hands on the Landsman at Call Your Mother (3301 Georgia Ave. NW). Chef Daniela Moreira incorporates crumbles of Impossible Burger — a meat analog that’s riding a winning streak longer than James Holzhauer’s — into a sloppy-Joe-like filling mixed with sofrito, cheese and the spirit of 1,000 Philly steak shops. I could eat this sandwich weekly and, I think, never again dream of Pat’s or Geno’s or Jim’s.