IS AMERICA ready for vegan fast food? Two joints that just opened — one in Center City, the other on the Main Line — indicate that at least Philly is.
And how. HipCityVeg, off Rittenhouse Square (127 S. 18th St.), has been open for barely two weeks and already it's something of a phenomenon. This seems partly due to the attention to detail in its planning, and partly that people just really, really like the food. "We planned for a gradual increase [in customers]," owner Nicole Marquis told me. That part of the plan was thrown out the window on the first day when HipCity wound up mobbed with curious customers and ran out of food. "I've hired seven more people since then," Marquis noted, watching more people stream in to the funky green-and-white eatery. Good thing too: On a recent morning the lunch crowd had already filled the place by 11:30 a.m.
For vegans, HipCity is a dream come true (though our dream would likely put it in every neighborhood of the city), but surely most of these repeat customers are not vegan. They may like the ethics of the place, but they're here for the food, which cleverly mixes and matches from the "junk" and "health" food sectors.
You can get a (seitan and mushroom) "Philly Steak" sandwich and wash it down with an antioxidant-rich "Groothie" green smoothie. There are stuffed salads and vegan desserts balancing the menu's core — burgers — and other sandwiches. An early customer favorite is the Crispy HipCity Ranch burger, a "chick'n" patty with burger toppings plus a tangy ranch dressing.
Given HipCity's out-of-the-gate boom, it's good Marquis knows her way around a restaurant. A former manager at Horizons (Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's celebrated pre-"Vedge" restaurant), Marquis grabbed the best help possible. Her head cook is veggie chef Lauren Hooks, and the menu offerings were designed by Landau, who serves as a mentor/consultant to Marquis but has no stake in the restaurant.
Meanwhile, at 845 Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr, Cafe VGE opened quietly — almost stealthily — last week. Here, Fernando Peralta puts a slightly healthier spin on the fast-food concept. The tofu banh mi was good but almost out of balance with its hearty whole-grain roll. The fountain "lemonade," though, was a pleasant surprise. "Hey, this is real lemonade!" my guest exclaimed after a taste.
Peralta's goal is simply "to make it easy for people to eat healthy," and the fast-food aesthetic is a friendly frame: "People say, 'Why do you do a cheesesteak?' What these [established forms] do is create a structure that people are familiar with, that people will recognize."
So with a new emphasis on "quick, affordable, healthy" food, as Peralta puts it, might we look forward to a vegan fast-food chain that takes the country's eating habits by storm?
Marquis wouldn't rule it out: "My first project is to perfect this [location]. That will take a year at least."
But she admitted to a long-term plan: "I want to make vegan fast food available to millions of Americans, whether it takes five, 10, 20 years."
"I want to make veganism mainstream."
With outlets like Hip City Veg and Cafe VGE, it's well on its way.
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 10-year vegan. "V For Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Send your veg tips to VforVeg@phillynews.com and follow @V4Veg on Twitter.