We know Philadelphia likes cheesesteaks. It's our destiny to be reminded of this, particularly from those outside of the city, over and over again. Philly is the king of greasy, thinly sliced meat, which, if you so choose, comes bathed in gooey Whiz, Provolone or American.
While our touristy trademark is not new news (unless you count Chima's latest rendition), what is a topic of conversation is the rapid onset of the faux cheesesteak scene. Philadelphia, once a city ruled by Jim's, Pat's and Geno's, has now also become a place filled with rich, vegetarian versions of our city's culinary signature. Meat or meat-free, there are now more than a handful of places for everyone to dig in.
When comparing a veg. version to its classic counterpart, a lot of the components are the same – fried onions, crusty bread, cheese –though the primary filling is obviously quite different, at least in its literal sense. The "meat" of the meat-free cheesesteak is generally derived from seitan, also known as wheat gluten, comprised from the protein of wheat. When made properly, seitan takes on a chewy, rather meaty texture and when marinated, thinly sliced, and placed on an oil-splashed griddle, can make one rich and satisfying, steak-like hoagie filling.
Don't be fooled. Just because there's no cow-derived steak doesn't enable vegetarian cheesesteaks to classify as health food. They're far from it and generally every bit as indulgent as the real deal. Okay, so maybe that's a tiny stretch, but cheese-smothered seitan is no granola.
Below, five local chefs tell us why the vegan/vegetarian option makes it onto their menus, and what is needed for the ultimate faux cheesesteak experience.
The Spot: The Pub On Passyunk East (P.O.P.E.)
Vegan or vegetarian: Your choice of various cheeses or a homemade vegan cheese sauce (made from flour, water, roasted garlic, dried mustard, a little white pepper, some lemon juice and nutritional yeast)
How long the veg. cheesesteak's been on the menu: Four years
The voice: Pete Miller, kitchen manager and menu maker
Why it's on the menu: "I like to have a sandwich option for everyone because I think Philadelphia is a sandwich city. It's a fairly easy sandwich to turn out and it's a classic Philadelphia option. Our cooks are not prejudice against vegetarians or vegans. No one is back there whining about having to cook for a vegetarian. We don't just write it off as something that has to be done, so it brings another quality option to the menu."
Key component(s) of a veg. cheesesteak: "One of the most important things is to get a good sear on the seitan so it gets a little crispy. You also need to really caramelize the onions, and a good marinade will take the seitan far in terms of flavor."
What sets The P.O.P.E. apart: The Asian-flare derived from their marinade, given a base of soy sauce, ginger and cilantro.
Ketchup or no ketchup? "I don't believe in ketchup on cheesesteaks. I will say that for meat or seitan."
Location: 1501 E Passyunk Ave, (215) 755-5125
The Spot: Blackbird Pizzeria
Vegan or vegetarian: Vegan, topped with a liberal dose of Daiya "cheese"
How long the veg. cheesesteak's been on the menu: Since the opening in 2010
The Voice: Mark Mebus, owner and head chef
Why it's on the menu: "It's classic vegan comfort food."
Key component(s) of a veg. cheesesteak: "Choosing quality bread is an absolute must. Really, it's an important part of any good sandwich. We get ours from an artisan bakery called Wildflower."
What sets Blackbird's version apart: The homemade seitan. The labor-intensive process allows for Mebus to be in complete control of the texture, which allows for a softer consistency than store-bought seitan. Thinly sliced, this is the texture one would expect of a cheesesteak. The seitan's also marinated in a porcini mushroom broth that draws a richer, meaty flavor.
Ketchup or no ketchup? "For me, it's ketchup all the way. I always put ketchup on cheesesteaks before I was vegetarian. Not everyone feels that way, but it's always been a necessary component for me.
Location: 507 S. 6th St., (215) 625-6660
The Spot: Sabrina's
Vegan or vegetarian: Vegetarian, topped with sharp Provolone
How long the veg. cheesesteak's been on the menu: 12 years
The Voice: Robert De Abreu, co-owner with his wife
Why it's on the menu: "When we took over the restaurant 12 years ago, it had already been open for 6 months and it was a vegetarian restaurant. Prior, there was a vegetarian cheesesteak on the menu and we saw there was a need for that so we expanded upon it. Plus, Philly is known for its cheesesteaks, and at the time, not too many places offered a vegetarian version."
Key component(s) of a veg. cheesesteak: "You need a quality seitan product and great bread. We use bread from Sarcone's, and seitan from an Asian market in South Philly. Also, the onions need to be really caramelized."
What sets Sabrina's apart: The long hot peppers. The peppers get marinated with garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil and add an unusual twist to the steak.
Ketchup or no ketchup? "No ketchup. It takes away from the cheesesteak experience."
Locations: 910 Christian St, (215) 574-1599; 1804 Callowhill St, (215) 574-1599; 227 N 34th St, (215) 222-1022
The Spot: MilkBoy Philly
Vegan or vegetarian: Vegan with the option to add Provolone
How long the veg. cheesesteak's been on the menu: Since the opening one and a half years ago
The Voice: Bill Hanson, one of three partners of MilkBoy Philly and head of the food and beverage side
Why it's on the menu: "We identified a kind of change in dietary preferences citywide and nationwide that were happening in the last decade or so. Some of our clientele were requesting more vegan options and we thought this was a cool application to meet those needs."
Key component(s) of a veg. cheesesteak: "You have to use seitan. It's heartier then most other vegan/vegetarian options. We source ours directly from a maker in Allentown. Seitan won't get lost in the bread, and is filling and satisfying."
What sets MilkBoy's apart: It's a slightly lighter version in comparison to other veg. cheesesteaks, and draws on a generous portion of sautéed mushrooms and onions for flavor.
Ketchup or no ketchup? "We don't believe a good cheesesteak should need anything extra."
Location: 1100 Chestnut St, (215) 925-6455
The Spot: The Abbaye
Vegan or vegetarian: Vegetarian, generally served with Swiss
How long the veg. cheesesteak's been on the menu: 6 years
The Voice: Marc Sonstein, an owner
Why it's on the menu: "There were a lot of people that would come in that were vegetarians or vegans who would like to have the option to dine and not have meat, and we wanted to give them that. So now we make our own veggie burgers, our own vegan buffalo wings, and have the steak option."
Key component(s) of a veg. cheesesteak: "Ideally you'd want homemade seitan and an excellent roll."
What sets The Abbaye's apart: The roasted garlic aioli, which includes a hint of cayenne and paprika, and the roasted tomatoes that offset the sweetness of the caramelized onions.
Ketchup or no ketchup? "No ketchup. The aioli's awesome, so definitely sans ketchup."
Location: 637 N. 3rd St, (215) 627-6711
Other places to pick up a vegan/vegetarian cheesesteak:
Fergie's Pub; 1214 Sansom St, (215) 928-8118
Govinda's; 1408 South St, (215) 985-9303
HipCityVeg; 127 S. 18th St, (215) 278-7605
Mi Lah Vegetarian; 218 S. 16th St, (215) 732-8888
Monk's; 264 S 16th St, (215) 545-7005
Sugar Mom's; 225 Church St, (215) 925-8219