Contest: Who's got the best vegan cheesesteak in town?

VANCE LEHMKUHL / DAILY NEWS STAFF This vegan cheesesteak's homemade - tasty, but not in the running for the city's best.
VANCE LEHMKUHL / DAILY NEWS STAFF This vegan cheesesteak's homemade - tasty, but not in the running for the city's best.
Posted: February 21, 2014

FROM THE BEGINNING, the Philadelphia cheesesteak has been evolving.

The original sandwich that caught on at Pat and Harry Olivieri's South Philly hot-dog stand in the early 1930s had no cheese - much less "Whiz," which only came along in 1952. Provolone - sorry, John Kerry haters -* was the original cheese add-on, followed soon by American. Variants of the basic item flourished around town throughout the 20th century and are still going strong in the 21st.

One variant that is showing up in more and more Philly joints is the vegan cheesesteak, a seemingly self-contradictory phrase, like "icy hot" or "nonworking mother." But there are plenty of them out there - more than even I, your intrepid guide to all things vegan in Philly, can keep up with.

You could easily go for a week eating them two, three, even four times a day without duplication.

Jonathan Bagot has a vegan-cheesesteak-listing website ( veganjawn.com), and even he sometimes can't keep up. He started keeping track in 2007, he said, because "I was basically sick of veggie burgers, and thought, 'This is Philly. People have to be making vegan steaks.' "

They were, and they are, and they're being gobbled up by people above and beyond Philly's vegan population.

Frank Olivieri Jr., the proprietor of Pat's Steaks, noted in a recent phone chat that "more restaurants and chefs are being creative and imaginative, and they have to. In order to be successful they need to appeal to a wider range, people who can't eat this or that."

And while Olivieri is in no hurry to "evolve" his store's iconic product into an all-vegan variety, he told me that his family has adopted a vegan diet at times: "It's not hard, exactly, it's just a real change in lifestyle."

The contest

The expansion of the cheesesteak into vegan territory - and growing interest in veganism - had me thinking that it's time to take stock of this blossoming variant.

So, today I'm announcing the V for Veg/ Daily News Vegan Cheesesteak Contest. We're going to find and officially name the best vegan cheesesteak in the Philadelphia metropolitan area!

We can't do it alone, of course. Send in your choices for "best" through midnight on March 11 either on the coupon here, or via email ( vforveg@phillynews.com), Twitter (#vegancheesesteak) or leave a comment on my blog ( philly.com/veganblog).

That's also where you'll find the complete rules. (Vendors can vote for themselves, too.)

We'll tally the votes. One submitter will be selected at random to receive a bonus prize of dinner for two at New Hope's classy-casual vegan oasis, Sprig and Vine.

The three most popularly acclaimed animal-free cheesesteaks will be blind-taste-tested in mid-March by our panel of experts, who will declare which one vegan sandwich rules them all!

The winner will be announced in this column on March 20, to coincide with the Great American Meatout.

Our judges are: The aforementioned Bagot; Takia McClendon, of Uptown Soul Food; "Christina Cooks" maven Christina Pirello (her next class, on shrinking your food footprint, is March 9); and a man with cheesesteaks in his blood, Frank Olivieri.

I mean the blood thing as a figure of speech, of course, though it's worth mentioning that Olivieri's response when asked to join in the judging event was: "Be honest: Is this an intervention?"

Well, even vegan cheesesteaks are not exactly a health food, but this event is meant as a step toward making these tasty, cholesterol-free sandwiches more accessible to everybody, as well as letting the world know that Philly is one of the most vegan-friendly towns anywhere.

It's not a stretch to see it becoming even more so. Says Bagot: "I dream of the day when my website will be obsolete, and vegan cheesesteak empires situate themselves catty-corner to one another in hostile Philly fashion."

All right, that day is probably a long ways off. But hey, like our iconic sandwich, we're gonna keep on evolving.

* I somehow got it into my head recently that Kerry ordered provolone. Of course it was swiss. About my own gaffe, as I said to the commenter who pointed it out, I can only guess that something recently made me never want to think about swiss cheese again.


Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist,

writer, musician and 12-year vegan.

"V for Veg" chronicles plant-based

eating in and around Philadelphia.

VforVeg@phillynews.com or

@V4Veg on Twitter.

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