Have you heard the one about the vegan cheesesteak?
The first time I did, I thought it was a joke. Wrong. And then I thought it was a novelty or at best a one-off, served only at a restaurant in Philly called Govinda’s Gourmet Vegetarian. Wrong again.
Turns out, there are so many vegan cheesesteaks in the City of Brotherly Love that a guidebook includes a section on them, and the Philadelphia Inquirer recently dove in to list the five best.
I’m mulling all this as I stand in line at HipCityVeg, a cheerfully bright fast-food joint right near Rittenhouse Square, and contemplate what to order. Would it be a curried tofu wrap? Arugula taco salad with black beans and corn? Or their own version of a cheesesteak — plant-based, of course?
The fact is, I’m not usually drawn to vegetarian food that imitates meat; the way I look at it, if you don’t want meat, why not just eat vegetables (and legumes and grains)? Nonetheless, I go for an udon noodle salad, a crunchy, bright tangle of cabbage, carrots, daikon radish and sprouts, even though it’s topped with what the menu calls “spicy glazed chick’n,” whose spelling is a clue that this isn’t chicken at all.
It’s such a satisfying combination that even after I sit in the green-and-white space, with people around me politely jockeying for a spot at one of the half-dozen tables, and pretty much wolf it down, I want more. It’s not that I’m still hungry, but so many other customers are ordering the “ranch chick’n” sandwich that I feel compelled to taste that, too. I take the thing and go for a stroll in Rittenhouse Square, figuring that I’ll never finish it, no matter how crispy-crunchy good it is.
Wrong, yet again.
As a recently confirmed vegetarian, I’m still getting used to the challenges of navigating an omnivorous world. What a surprise, then, to discover that one of the easiest places on the East Coast to eat delectable vegetables is good old working-class Philly — city of such iconic meat-heavy sandwiches as roast pork with broccoli rabe, fried-chicken cutlets with provolone and, yes, those gooey cheesesteaks.
I don’t try HipCityVeg’s “cheesesteak,” but the next day, I order one across town at Blackbird Pizzeria, which also tops all its pies with fake cheese. I’m even less enamored of mock cheese than I am of most mock meats. But Philly cheesesteaks often use processed cheeses such as American or even Cheez Whiz, so in a certain sense, the vegan stuff fits right in. If you close your eyes, the Blackbird cheesesteak isn’t half bad. The pizza? All I can think of is how much I miss the mozzarella, but that’s probably because I’m vegetarian, not vegan.
Some of the city’s best-known high-end restaurants do plenty right by vegetarians. For dinner my first night in town, I meet a carnivorous friend at the little townhouse spot that contains Vetri Ristorante, which Mario Batali once called “possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast” — high praise from someone whose own places could compete for that title. In one corner of this 30-seat dining room, under Vetri’s Murano glass chandelier, I don’t even need to declare any dietary preferences, because the menu setup eliminates the need. It’s a tasting-menu setup, but you can mix and match from categories that include, yes, vegetables.
I’d read about the onion crepe, and it was as good as I’d imagined: onions cooked so slowly that they’ve turned into a sweet, dark jam, inside a crisp crepe and sitting on top of a truffle-scented foam. But it’s chef Marc Vetri’s spinach gnocchi that I can’t stop thinking about: I’m usually the first one to clean my plate, but I eat each little pillow in slow motion and get a little chill each time as it melts in my mouth. Other courses include acorn squash on polenta and butternut squash ravioli — not enough variety for a $155 meal, I think — but then again, it is February.
If Vetri is one of the best Italian restaurants on the East Coast, then Zahav in Philly’s Old Town is surely one of the best Middle Eastern ones. And Israeli chef-owner Michael Solomonov celebrates vegetables, so even though Zahav isn’t vegetarian, I feel just as catered to as my friend Josh does. We get a parade of mezze, including the best hummus ever; it uses particularly clean, nutty tahini, which our waiter tells us is from the West Bank. We probably could have made a meal out of the hummus and “salatim” (collection of vegetable salads) alone, but why stop there when so much else awaits? Brussels sprouts, greens, bulgur, fried cauliflower, eggplant steaks, black lentils — they all show up in various guises, under dollops of whipped feta and dustings of tart sumac; in soups; over dill-inflected yogurt cheese; beneath a date puree; alongside apples; or spiked with fiery harissa paste.
From the outside, Zahav is a bit nondescript, with little more than its distinctive sign to set it apart. But inside, under the high ceilings with exposed ductwork, the descriptions could go on and on. Halfway through the meal, I look a little more closely at a large photographic mural on one corner of the wall and realize: It’s a bustling scene of an Israeli food market. I can feel the energy from across the room.
I decide to save the best meal for last, because I’ve been there before and I know what’s in store. In Center City, the dean of the city’s vegan-dining scene, Rich Landau, and his wife, Kate Jacoby, opened Vedge as an example of what they think a vegetarian restaurant can be. For one thing, they don’t call it vegetarian or vegan, even though it is. They refer to it as a “vegetable restaurant,” because they want it to be about the food, not about a diet, and that distinction makes all the difference in the world.
The last time I was in Philly, Vedge’s food made me swoon. So this time, I decide to bring along some of the most passionate omnivores I know, in a “can you believe it?” exercise. It works: Within minutes of the first course’s arrival, they’re in shock. In a good way. How does Landau get so much flavor into this plate of radishes, some of them raw, some pickled, some roasted? Who knew that smoked tofu and avocado and salt-roasted beets could play so well together?
Landau helped the owners of HipCityVeg develop their menu, but at Vedge, nothing is trying to play the part of anything else. No “chick’n” here. Landau’s talent is in coaxing all the best flavors and textures out of seasonal vegetables — he even has a daily menu of the latest from-the-ground dishes called the Dirt List — and turning up the volume with global flavors and the latest cooking techniques.
My two guests and I clink forks trying to get the last bites of Landau’s eggplant braciole, in which paper-thin slices of roasted eggplant wrap around a roasted cauliflower filling and sit on a pungent Italian-style salsa verde. And as we wonder aloud how Landau manages to get simple eggplant to reach such depths and the sauce to reach such heights, our server pipes in with the answer: “He’s a magic man.”
If this is magic, I’m happy to step right up and enjoy the show, anytime I’m in Philly.