The cheesesteak is the quintessential Philadelphia sandwich. It seems like if you are from Philly, live in Philly or ever visited Philly and never ate a cheesesteak you would be considered ‘odd’. I think it speaks volumes to the Vegan movement that this is the Third Annual Philly.com / V for Veg (A vegan column by Vance Lehmkuhl) Best Vegan Cheesesteak in Philly contest. The preliminary round was open to public nomination / voting. A total of 35 nominees and over 500 votes cast that narrowed the field down to the final top three vote getters. This year the top vote getters were Frankie’s On Fairview, Triangle Tavern, and former winner from year one Blackbird Pizzeria.
However there were some technical issues with voting which caused an early ending to the balloting. The top ten vote getters where all invited to showcase their vegan cheesesteak offering at the event but because of the voting problem all of the nominees were invited to set up shop and show us what they got!
The venue, Union Transfer, was cool and provided an ample space for the event with an elevated stage for the judging. They also had a bar open so you could wash down the food with a cold brew. The doors opened at 3PM with public tasting starting at 3:30. However only two vendors showed up to showcase their food. Frankie’s On Fairview and The Abbaye which came in as the number four vote getter. The event host, Vance Lehmkuhl, did make an announcement that a third vendor was confirmed but had to back out last minute due to an injured employee, but he didn’t mention the restaurant. This was pretty disappointing to me as I was excited to try food from a variety of places and ready to eat A LOT! With only two vendors and over 100 attendees the food went quickly and I didn’t really have time for seconds! However I did make sure to cue up to get an awesome chocolate chip cookie from Crust Vegan Bakery.
The Abbaye offered a cheesesteak with a deep depth of flavor made from thinly sliced seitan, sautéed onions and peppers, spiced with a slight amount of heat and topped with Daiya cheese served on a crusty baguette. It was a really good sandwich. The rich flavor and creaminess of the Daiya cheese gave it a familiar taste and mouth feel of what you would expect from a Philly cheesesteak and I personally like the extra ‘crunch’ from their use of a baguette.
Frankie’s on Fairview had a sandwich also made from thinly sliced seitan, sautéed mushrooms, onions and peppers. I didn’t notice any cheese on top but was told it was mixed through the entire sandwich. It was served on a softer style roll, more typical for this style sandwich. While it didn’t have the depth of flavor as Abbaye’s, it was a really good sandwich that, to me, ate more like what I remember a chicken cheesesteak tasted like rather than one made from beef. Not that this is a bad thing…I’d happily eat an entire sandwich (or two) from Frankie’s!
The official judging of the three finalists started at 4:00PM. The gig was emceed by Frank Olivieri Jr. of Pat’s Steaks. I guess I get the connection-Pat’s is considered the godfather of cheesesteak joints here in Philly-but as a vegan I personally don’t see the need for him to be there and don’t need the ‘Don’t hate me ’cause I eat meat’ comments. I get enough of that during a regular day and can go without it at a vegan event, but hey – that’s just me. The Judge’s panel was mix of omnivore, vegan, and vegetarian judges and I get that – good to have a varied panel to see how far the appeal of the flavor goes. The judges were: Lisa Tynes, former manager of the former Basic 4 Vegetarian Restaurant, a past fixture in the Reading Terminal Market (her mom pretty much pioneered the vegan cheesesteak in Philly); Stu Bykofsky, a well known columnist from the Daily News; Babette Josephs, who served 28 years in the PA House and a longtime vegetarian/vegan; and Leila Vaughan, president of Peace Advocacy Network the nonprofit that runs the Vegan Pledge Programs helping people transition to a vegan lifestyle.
The judges made pretty quick work of their offerings, Stu even starting before the official ‘Go’ was sounded! They used a color coded card system to rank their favorites and Olivieri checked in with each judge for a comment while the votes were calculated. Stu mentioned one tasting like a ‘chicken cheesesteak’ and I thought to myself – I know he must be talking about Frankie’s! Oddly, to me anyhow, the majority of them mentioned how they thought the sandwiches needed more ‘spice’. That was never a factor back when I ate the meat versions. All that was needed was deep rich flavor, creaminess from the cheese and yeah a little grease! If I wanted a spicy cheesesteak, I just added some cherry peppers! But hey, things and tastes change right? They all said that the three sandwiches were all solid offerings, it all came down to which reminded them most of a traditional Philly cheesesteak.
A few minutes later Vance came back on state to announce the 2016 winner:
Having eaten a Blackbird cheesesteak more times than I should admit, this didn’t come as much of a surprise. They do a solid job and the win is deserved – congratulations guys! You have the crown back for 2016!
I didn’t make the past two contests, so this year I was stoked that I was able to attend and really looked forward to tasting food from a variety of places, some of which I have never tried out yet. As a vegan I think contests like this are an important way to showcase vegan food to non vegans who are usually skeptical that vegan food can be satisfying, flavor packed and more than a salad! So I really love the idea of this contest and so happy it has turned into a multiyear event. With that said, I was a bit disappointed. I don’t want to sound like I am being negative just for the sake of complaining. I hope that this is taken as constructive criticism, with maybe a couple of helpful ideas to enhance the future contests. The event came across as a little haphazardly organized, but Vance handled it well and turned a couple of things into funny moments. I guess I just envisioned this as more of a ‘battle’ of restaurants like we have become accustomed to seeing on TV cooking shows. Maybe for future contests we can really encourage more vendors to show up and provide food samples for people, even if it means having to up the cost of the $10 ticket. Have the top 5 or 10 restaurants set up shop with maybe a bit more interactive style event. How about taking a page from the Top Chef playbook and give people coins to deposit in the box of their favorite vendor? Maybe even hand out a Golden Seitan award to the winner!
Philadelphia has a proud, vibrant and growing vegan community and I think this event should, and can, reflect that community. Vegans are extremely passionate about spreading the message of compassion for animals. Philadelphians are passionate about their cheesesteaks. Mix these two together in one bold and fun event and no doubt will we begin to change more hearts and minds!