THE cheesesteak question for area vegans has long been: "Who's got the best vegan version in Philly?"
That's aside from the other cheesesteak question for vegans: "Why would you or anyone want to eat a vegan cheesesteak?"
This week, the first question was finally and decisively answered - and maybe the second one, too!
A month ago, I announced the V for Veg/Daily News Vegan Cheesesteak contest and asked you to nominate your favorite spots. Well, more than 1,000 votes were cast for 23 Philly-area venues.
The three top vote-getters - Blackbird Pizzeria (300 votes), Cantina Dos Segundos (248) and Hibiscus Juice Bar (126) - moved on to the finals.
A "People's Choice" was won by Cantina Dos Segundos on Tuesday. Also that day, the final judging event was held at Grindcore House, the vegan coffeehouse on 4th Street in South Philly.
Our judging panelists: Jonathan Bagot (veganjawn.com), Takia McClendon (Uptown Soul Food), Frank Olivieri Jr. (Pat's Steaks) and Christina Pirello ("Christina Cooks," plus many books).
Easily the wackiest entry was Cantina Dos Segundos' vegan cheesesteak burrito. But as one of two entries added to menus just for this contest (the Cantina's Mark McKinney has long specialized in vegan-friendly items and daily specials), the off-kilter "sandwich" earned its moment.
Some were outraged that a burrito could compete in a cheesesteak contest. But remember, some believe that vegan cheesesteaks are an outrage in themselves. (An article on Vice yesterday threw them in with Subway's "Philly" sandwich as enemies of a supposedly static, "only slightly toxic" cheesesteak tradition.)
Judges enjoyed the burrito's spicing and overall taste, but the format was a sticking point. Olivieri called it "an interesting interpretation," while Pirello said she "loved the flavor" even though "it's the least authentic one" of the bunch.
The sandwich from Hibiscus had a traditional format but with a less-greasy spin. As chef Sarah Scandone told me, the West Philly cafe's motto is "Food for Life," and she was happy that she'd brought "the healthiest cheesesteak there is" to the contest.
But did that work against the overall effect? While judges agreed it was tasty, McClendon noted that the bread might be "too healthy" to evoke "the steaks I used to eat."
As for Blackbird's, a couple of judges gave appreciative nods to the thin-sliced seitan and soft, light roll - a roll, by the way, made without the animal-derived additives like whey powder or L-cystine commonly found in Philly sandwich shops' long rolls (including, unfortunately, two of those nominated by readers, so "vegan buyer, beware").
Bagot, calling himself "kind of a roll guy," singled out the entry.
Using color-code squares, judges indicated their personal favorite as well as a second-place winner - to be used in the event of a tie. That proved unnecessary, as the judges were unanimous:
Blackbird Pizzeria had won!
An exultant "Yyyesss!" sounded from the back of the room as Blackbird chef/owner Mark Mebus triumphantly raised his arms.
And so today, which happens to be 2014's Great American Meatout Day, we have a definitive answer to the epic vegan cheesesteak question.
Waiting for this moment
Mebus opened Blackbird in 2010; a cheesesteak was on the menu from day one, he told me.
He'd sampled the local animal-free varieties and, having eaten plenty of regular cheesesteaks in earlier days, he found the animal-free ones good but "not like I remembered. You know, the ribeye sliced paper thin . . . "
He became determined to approximate the original in a plant-based version that "fit the criteria people were looking for in a cheesesteak."
Mebus was able to improve on that later when he began making his own seitan (Dos Segundos uses Blackbird seitan) and marinating it.
Why go to all the trouble?
Olivieri, for one, seemed bemused.
"Why would you want something [faux meat] in a sandwich that you don't want to eat [meat]?" he said. "Why would you want that mouthfeel?"
Later, Mebus indirectly answered by explaining his motivations. He didn't open a vegan pizzeria so he could eat more vegan pizza. "A casual spot has a greater impact for the cause" of veganism, he explained, as long as you offer something "that does justice to the original, that people will try it and say, 'Hey, this is just as good.' "
If and when they do - and many of the votes in this contest contained eager testimonials from nonvegans - that might provide an answer to the mouthfeel question, and even to the larger philosophical quandary: Why eat vegan cheesesteaks at all?
"Initially," Mebus said, "the point was simply: 'Hey, you people can eat these things without harming an animal.' "
Blackbird Pizzeria proved that and kept going, growing into a beloved, iconic vegan community hub where you can also count on getting great pizza. And wings. Oh, and one other thing: Best Vegan Cheesesteak in Philly!