April 22, 2012

Three Observations of Vegetarian Cheesesteaks

The second stop on the vegetarian portion of Sandwich Quest was Blackbird Pizzeria at 6th and Lombard. Several people suggested Blackbird after reading about my disappointment with Govinda’s “chicken cheeseteak."

This post has been a battle to put into the right words and clearly articulate my feelings. I also expect to see some tough comments and reactions. Before you read on, know that I have a completely open mind to trying new things and put forth a lot of effort to understand the food of each culture and type of eater. We write this blog as a way to share some of those discoveries.

It's also one of the reasons why I wanted to tackle some vegetarian "cheesesteaks." I hoped for the chance to share a positive experience with skeptics and explain why you should try them. Sadly, that has not turned out to be the case after stops at two highly recommended places. The vegetarian cheesesteaks have been a disappointment.

The seitan cheesesteak at Blackbird was no better than Govinda’s, and probably worse. Even more disheartening is that the same complaints surfaced.

Like Govinda’s, the Blackbird cheesesteak lacked flavor and the mushy consistency was off-putting. It was like eating pureed steak inside a roll, which just does not work. The only texture came from the onions of which there were too many.

Blackbird's seitan cheesesteak

Kristy was with me on this trip and she had to hear me talk out loud for 30 minutes trying to put my finger on what’s wrong with these cheesesteaks. I’ve come up with three things.

1. The aftertaste is not appealing. Unlike a real cheesesteak that coats your taste buds with meaty, juicy flavor, the seitan version leaves an odd coating of flavorless flour. It’s not good.

2. They're not authentic. I felt like I was eating a fake concoction made to taste like something else. It seems to me that a vegetarian sandwich should take advantage of the authentic flavors of vegetables and herbs to make a great tasting meatless sandwich, but not aim to make it taste like something else. The Sarcone Veggie at Sarcone's Deli, for example, is delicious and doesn't try to be anything other than a veggie hoagie.

3. This really comes down to a branding issue. These “cheesesteaks” should not be called cheesesteaks nor compared to them. They don’t taste like cheesesteaks and don’t have the same texture. Put simply, they are not cheesesteaks.

My advice is to call them something else such as a seitan roll, Blackbird Special, or something more creative. Using the term "cheesesteak" limits the ability of a non-vegetarian to find them tasty because your mind is trained to associate them with the traditional meat version. Eateries definitely have an opportunity to attract people who enjoy traditional meat-based cheesesteaks to their vegetarian options, but just have set the expectations properly so we look at them as a new type of sandwich to try, not a cheesesteak replacement.

I’m still more than willing to try meatless sandwiches on Sandwich Quest. Just no more that are positioned in the same category as something they are not. Suggestions?


Kate Harner said...

As someone who recently went vegetarian (not for ethical reasons), this post resonated with me for several reasons:
1. I do not like seitan or tofu or most soy-based products. I can imagine what that sandwhich tasted like and am not surprised you found it off-putting. I find that this is often the case when those "meat substitutes" are prepared. The best luck I've had with cooking them was to cut them into tiny diced cubes and pan fry and a high heat in order to create a nice crust and non-sludge-like consistency.
2. I'm annoyed by non-meat foods that try to "be" meat or meat-like. Vegetables are not food, and more often than not, the attempts to simulate or create the meat experience with them, fails. You're totally right about the veggie sub at Sarcone's though.

I love[d] cheesesteaks, and I miss them, sometimes. But, I think that trying to create a vegetarian version of it should be left well enough alone.

Lindsey said...

I'd recommend the Grilled Veggie Steak at Steaks on South. Instead of seitan, they use a chopped up Boca burger patty with roasted peppers and broccoli rabe.

Grace @FoodFitnessFreshAir said...

Hmm, have you tried American Sardine Bar's veg. cheesesteak?

Turmeric Finger said...

Nice steaks & best thing is that all are vegetarian. I like veg teaks. Thanks for sharing this recipes.

brian said...

sketch's seitan cheesesteak is the best one i've had!

Kristen said...

Well, I'm still disappointed that you didn't like Govindas, but I'll get over it. I agree that most veg "cheesesteaks" or other soy-based fake meats are misleading -- meat-eaters should not think they will taste anything like the real thing. So, the name alone creates the wrong expectation. I've tried many and have yet to find one that tops Govindas for me. South Philly Tap room has a vegan hoagie that's pretty good -- its clearly not trying to be a cheesesteak, and its made with tempeh, which I find to be far better than most meat substitutes.

There are some great bean-based veggie burgers in the city -- Good Dog, Devil's Den, and Sketch are my top pics. Curious to know, what do you think about these?

Lisa said...

Has anyone talked to the restaurant owners, to get their take on why they brand a vegan sandwich to be similar to a meat sandwich? They must have a reason, whatever that could be.

I agree, call it something else.

22nd and Philly said...

Thanks for all the excellent comments.

Kate- looks like we are in agreement. Let us know if you have any suggestions for veggie only sammies you prefer?

Kristen - i do have some guilt about Govinda's since I had w/o mayo. Not planning to try in the near future though. Will look at the others.

Lisa - sounds like we might have to work on that for a post. good suggestion.

Thanks for the all the other suggestions Brian, Grace, Lindsey, etc). Who knows we might try another.

Allison Berger said...

You need to try the seitan cheesesteak at Monk's. No funny aftertaste and the cheese is the ish.

Kate said...

I would heartily suggest the Vegan (tempeh) Hoagie at South Philly Tap Room - it is not trying to be anything but a large and awesome tempeh+vegetable sandwich. The Vegan BBQ Pulled Pork at the Khyber is also a favorite (as well as their other two vegan sandwiches, though the veg chicken 'po-boy is on the bottom of the list). Sketch has the best vegan burger that I've ever had, and I return quite often for it. There are also very good veggie sandwiches to be found at Memphis Tap Room, and Royal Tavern, and I don't believe they are masquerading as 'meat-filled' sandwiches. That said, you may also enjoy one of the sandwiches at Blackbird (or Govindas) (and Hip City Veg!) that are more veggie-based.