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VEGGIE INTERESTING

Going meatless? Your quest needn't be fruitless in Philadelphia

IT'S THE LAST day of January: Have you given up on all your resolutions yet?

Many New Year's pledges are to eat "healthier," often meaning less meat. This makes sense, as Americans' average daily consumption far outstrips nutritional needs. And just in the past three months, two major studies have definitively linked common meats to cancer, while the health benefits of increased fruits and vegetables are undisputed.

Still, if you're one of those striving for a more plant-based diet, you may have struggled to work that into your daily routine. While there are always places to find animal-based foods, it seems you have to know exactly where to look for the alternative.

Well, looking just got a whole lot easier with this month's launch of VegPA.net, a site that makes searching for veggie eats around here a piece of carrot cake.

In a couple of clicks, you can find restaurants or groceries close by. Pulldown options focus searches on Pennsylvania towns (e.g., Ardmore, Jenkintown, Media) or Philadelphia neighborhoods (e.g., South Philly, Northern Liberties). Besides hours, directions, Web links, and other usual, useful data, each entry (there are more than 300) describes what kind of non-meat options are available there, with occasional asides about the quality of the food.

With a list of not just "veggie" sites but sites that serve veggie food, it immediately becomes apparent there are a lot more great veggie options out there than we might have guessed.

I don't mean default items like salad, pasta marinara or - shudder - eggplant. Hey, even veggie burgers and wraps are commonplace now, and that's fine. I'm talking about serious alternatives - stuff like vegan meatloaf (Belgian Cafe, Center City), spicy tofu sandwiches (Tap Room, South Philadelphia), vegan BLTs (Mugshots, Manayunk), seitan cheesesteaks (Abbaye, North 3rd Street), vegan chicken cheesesteak (Verree Express Pizza, Northeast) and even vegan chocolate shakes (Viva Las Vegans in West Philly).

VegPA.net's candid descriptions and commentary provide these and other useful factoids. How else would we learn that Steve's Steaks on South Street is a "typical steak place except they also serve a vegan Philly steak sandwich for $6," or that the Nile Cafe in Germantown has "healthy Southern cuisine [and] also holds many educational workshops"?

Or that Vesuvio - which won The Today Show's "Best Sandwich in America" prize last fall for its Cheesesteak BLT - has a "very extensive, separate" vegetarian menu? (Their Grilled Portabello sandwich gives the Cheesesteak BLT a run for its money.)

Maybe it's too early to call it a trend, but one thing VegPA.net makes clear is that interesting, thought-out veggie options - that's options, plural - are becoming a mainstay on the menus of more and more non-veggie eateries.

That's not to say the concept itself is new: At least two well-known Philly eateries have been doing this since the mid- to-late '90s.

Adobe Cafe (Roxborough) has long offered a full menu page of seitan burritos, fajitas and enchiladas, and the servers automatically ask, "Soy dairy or regular dairy?"

Now they have competition in this niche with Mad Mex (University City), a statewide chain with a wide range of custom vegetarian/vegan dishes in a Tex/Mex vein.

And Gianna's Grille (6th Street, 20th Street) has long been legendary among the young and the streetwise for their vegan meatball sandwiches, vegan sausage and other roughneck standbys on their full-page veggie menu.

Gianna's Paul Aguirre says it was bike messengers who both spurred him to create the wide range of options they now carry and then spread the word. Gianna's started as a pizza shop, "but we didn't want to be a regular kind of place - we made pizza with four different cheese options. One was a soy cheese. We didn't sell a whole lot of it, but we sold some of it."

One bike messenger saw the soy-cheese pizza and told his friends, who talked Aguirre into offering slices. "Then they said, 'You should make a vegetarian cheesesteak.' "

As word spread, Aguirre found a steady stream of happy customers for his growing line of faux-meat sandwiches and platters. That led to a full line of vegan desserts made by Paul and his wife, Babs. And that's led to a burgeoning mail-order business.

Their odd niche attracted the attention of the Food Network with a spot on "Road Tasted" last summer.

Neither of the Aguirres are vegetarian, but their intent, he says, is inclusiveness: "Everybody's welcome - whatever you want to eat you can eat it. A vegan can sit next to a non-vegan and have a great meal."

This kumbaya sentiment is the flip side of a liability called the "veto vegetarian." If a group of friends includes one vegetarian, that person may veto any restaurant choice that doesn't offer him or her a credible meal. This was the stated rationale behind the 2005 launch of Burger King's BK Veggie burger.

Shannon Dougherty, a vegetarian for 16 years, had plenty of experience with group-eating hassles. "Most places it was hard," she says. "There'd be only one [vegetarian] option. And it's hard to get your friends to go to a vegetarian restaurant."

So when Dougherty and her friend Liz Peterson decided to start a restaurant, "I joked about having it be completely vegetarian, except for one hamburger."

It didn't quite turn out that way, but A Full Plate (Northern Liberties) opened in spring 2006 with an interesting balance of vegetarian and vegan "comfort foods" alongside the burgers, ribs and turkey meatloaf.

But the main dishes like tofu jambalaya and vegetarian riblet sandwiches aren't the whole story.

"All of our sides are vegetarian," Dougherty points out. "We don't put [meat] stock in soups or anything like that. If it can be made vegetarian, we do."

Similarly, the restaurant watches out for vegans, whose difficulties Dougherty recognizes.

"If there doesn't need to be cream or butter in the dish, we don't put it in there. But," she cautions, "we don't have a vegan mac and cheese."

Overall, inclusiveness is a common refrain. While vegetarian restaurants tend to be started by vegetarians interested in persuading palates, many regular restaurateurs are seeing vegetarian and vegan menus as good economics.

As omnivore Moshe Malka says about his vegan sandwich line (see sidebar), the decision to go veg was "strictly business. It's not a way of life with me."

Nick Cooney, who oversaw the launch of VegPA.net (the site is a project of Philly-based vegetarian organization Hugs for Puppies), agrees that commerce can be a real motivator.

"It's got to be good for their business, or there wouldn't be so many restaurants adding these items to their menu and keeping them there. And I think that's due to the fact that there are more and more vegetarians every day."

Whatever the reason, the trend seems to be putting Philly on the veggie map. Late last year, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corp. put out a news release touting Philadelphia's many vegetarian options to out-of-towners.

When asked what spurred this PR scheme, GPTMC's Donna Schorr confirmed that veggie alternatives were on the uptick. "Consumers are getting to be smarter, making better choices; people are more concerned about what they're eating and how they're eating. Even smaller restaurants recognize that consumers want these choices."

She pointed out that Philadelphia has its share of strictly vegetarian places. South Philly's Horizons, for instance, "is becoming well known as a Philly destination for a great meal," but mainstream eateries are also getting on board.

"You can now go into about any restaurant in the city and say you're vegetarian, and even the upscale restaurants don't flinch. They'll have something for you."

That's VegPA.net's philosophy, too.

"We wanted to make VegPA.net as extensive as possible, because we want to make veg eating as easy as possible," said Cooney. *

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