THE GRAND FINALE of the 2015 Best Vegan Cheesesteak in Philly contest was a blast - a blast of very-late-winter snow! On Friday, three hours before spring's start, Philly was covered in wet, white stuff, jamming traffic and slamming our final judging event at Weavers Way Chestnut Hill.
Two of our perennially prompt judges arrived late, as a fallen tree closed Lincoln Drive, and many of those expected wound up being thwarted from attending. Still, a healthy throng of vegan and vegan-curious spectators cheered our judges (Frank Olivieri Jr., Councilwoman Cindy Bass, Dr. Ana Negron and dietitian Ed Coffin) as finalists Blackbird Pizzeria, Royal Tavern and Jerry's Kitchen submitted their wares.
American Vegan Society president Freya Dinshah was on hand as part of the store's celebration of FARM's Great American Meatout, and she graciously agreed to step in and collaboratively judge with the late-arriving Coffin.
The judges chose the sandwich from Royal Tavern (937 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-389-6694) as top Vegan Cheesesteak, with former titleholder Blackbird taking solace in the fact that its rival won with seitan made by Blackbird's Mark Mebus.
Olivieri, proprietor of Pat's King of Steaks, suggested that the quality of the entries had risen. "I think they all stepped up their game this year," he told me. "The sandwiches are just getting better."
Royal Tavern's Mark McKinney, who last year took second place with Cantina Dos Segundos' "vegan cheesesteak burrito," later told me that he was especially intrigued to attempt the real deal - only vegan - because "I never have had an actual Philly cheesesteak."
Was he able to definitively answer the question I always hear around this time of year: "What's a meatless, cheeseless cheesesteak made out of?"
McKinney saw it as a matter of individual taste: "Seitan is closest in texture to meat, but I have friends who swear by [soy] protein or portobello mushroom." He noted that three out of five judges remarked positively on the inclusion of roasted mushrooms in Royal Tavern's entry, which "may have put me over the edge."
For those who want to try this at home, McKinney cautioned about overcooking: "Remember that [seitan and soy protein] are foods that have already been cooked, so you want to go as light as possible. Don't hammer them. Strive for a good texture."
As for the newly crowned champion himself, he says he's busy dealing with "the business [the win] is causing. We've tripled our vegan cheesesteak sales since Friday."
And the chef who put Royal Tavern, Khyber Pass, Cantina Dos Segundos and others on Philly's vegan-friendly map is prepping a new slate of plant-based treats at Triangle Tavern, set to launch in mid-April.
"Wait till you try the vegan meatballs," he promised. "And the vegan hot roast beef sandwich."
They already sound like all-time favorites. And if previous McKinney creations are any indication, it's no contest.