Why This Vegan Columnist Predicts Pat’s Will Soon Have a Vegan Cheesesteak
You might know Vance Lehmkuhl from his vegan column “V for Veg” in the Philadelphia Daily News, or maybe you’ve spotted him giving a drool-inducing food description in one of our vegan-centric “The Best Thing I Ever Ate in Philly” features. Wherever you know him from, we’re guessing you know he is quite the authority on the vegan food scene in Philly. To wit: He just released a book all about it, “V for Veg: The Best of Philly’s Vegan Food Column,” a compilation of his columns from the Daily News, essays, vegan-movie reviews, and more.
Below, we asked Lehmkuhl to tell us what his all-time favorite vegan dish in Philly is, where he thinks the vegan food scene in Philly will be in a few years (Spoiler: He sees mainstream restaurants upping their vegan offerings and more vegan cheesesteaks making it onto menus, including — gasp! — at Pat’s King of Steaks), and what he wishes Philly’s vegan scene had more of. Check out his answers below, and if you’re hungry for more vegan reading, you can get your hands on Lehmkuhl’s book here or on Amazon.
What prompted you to become vegan?
I was prompted to go vegetarian in 1985 by my discomfort with participating in the killing of animals, and then in 1998 when I attended Vegetarian Summerfest for the first time (I’ll be there again this weekend for the 19th year in a row), I learned that what I really wanted to be was vegan. Vegetarian foods are still very much involved in animals’ imprisonment and killing. At that point I decided I would be vegan by the end of 2001, but wound up getting to that point sooner. I know for a lot of folks, and probably for a lot of Be Well Philly readers, plant-based may be more of a health-oriented way of eating, and although I do feel more physically fit this way (hey, man, I just climbed to the top of the new Comcast tower last week!) that wasn’t really a big motivator for me. Now, though, I feel like it’s kind of an ongoing responsibility to try to stay healthy since any problem I might have will be seen by others as “a problem with eating vegan.”
When did you start writing about the vegan food scene in Philly?
I started writing vegan pieces for the Daily News in the late spring of 2001, kind of on a lark. With grilling season coming up, I suggested it could be fun to have a piece for regular folks about how to survive having a vegetarian guest. In the course of that piece I explained that I was a particular kind of vegetarian called a vegan, and for all I know introduced the first definition of the word into the pages of the Daily News. That one came out well and the editors had me write a column for much of that year, every other week, alternating with the wonderful Christina Pirello.
How has the vegan scene in Philly changed since you started writing about it?
That’s an easy one because it’s changed by there actually being a vegan scene now. In 2001, one of my first pieces was about this amazing restaurant you had to go all the way to Willow Grove for called Horizons Cafe — there was nothing even close to that here. There was Govinda’s, which I think had not yet started doing fast food, and there was Harmony, of course, and a couple other places in Chinatown, and there were spots like Gianna’s and Adobe Cafe that had vegan menus. But anything as crazy as, say, vegan pizza or vegan bar food or especially exquisite upscale vegan plates was pretty close to unthinkable. I guess I’d date our vegan scene back to February of 2006, when Horizons moved into town. Not just because that food changed a lot of non-vegans minds about what vegan food could be, but because many of our current vegan-dining moguls started out at Horizons. And of course Vedge, etc. have just taken it all even further.
What’s the all-time best vegan dish you’ve eaten in Philly?
My wife Cynthia Way is a wonderful cook who also has helped me learn to cook competently, and she’s come up with some fantastic vegan meals, so it would probably be one of those. There was an Indian-based dish she made with scallion pancakes just a while back that would likely be near the top. But if we’re only counting meals outside the home, first, let me stress that I’ve had a lot of good vegan dishes from all sorts of places, and that I’ve never had anything made by Miss Rachel’s Pantry’s Rachel Klein that wasn’t terrific — and she makes a lot of different kinds of things. But if I absolutely have to choose one, I’m gonna be boring and say one of the iterations of the ever-evolving Grilled Seitan at Vedge. If I must choose a single version from among those, just bring me all of them and I’ll be happy to select a grand-prize winner.
And the worst vegan dish you’ve eaten in Philly?
Well, obviously I won’t name names on this one, but there was a meal recently that I took a newly vegan friend to at a place that I had last been to and enjoyed right after it opened, and I wound up this time having to apologize for the quality of the food, which was presented as fresh but just simply was not at all fresh. There was brown where there should be green, for example. The troubling thing is that it didn’t seem to be a one-dish aberration but part of an overall shrug that “this is good enough,” which I find disheartening among vegan establishments, which of course are judged more harshly by those non-vegans who want them to fit into a story of vegan food not measuring up. It’s a sad reality but if you’re going to be part of the revolution in plant-based dining, you have to fight a little harder than “good enough.”
When it comes to Philly’s vegan scene, what do you wish you saw more of?
Well, for one thing I wish I saw all the vegan developments going on as they happen. I carved out this role as the vegan guy “in the know,” which was an easy part to play 10 years ago. But with the explosion of vegan options throughout the city, I sometimes hear about things long after other people, which is not just a hit to my narcissistic pride but means it will be longer before I can get the word out to a wider audience (if you see something, say something!). Other than that, I’m gratified that multiple other parties are taking on explicitly vegan-branded events along with the ones that I do, and maybe eventually we’ll get to the point of saturation, but for now I’m like, bring ’em on! And in terms of establishments, I’d love to see more non-white proprietors and culinary traditions represented in Center City. There are some nice African-American places out in Germantown, but we lost Basic 4 Vegetarian Cafe and never really got anything else of that caliber downtown. Then again, since I’m so often behind the curve, maybe a place has just opened fitting that description and it won’t be until two weeks from now that I learn about it!
Imagine you can only eat at one Philly restaurant for the rest of your life (a painful thought, I know); Which restaurant is it?
Wait, do I have to pay for it, or is it like I’m a political prisoner in the basement of some restaurant and the food is being brought to me? If I don’t have to pay for it, then clearly it would be Vedge, although I’m unclear on how Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby would get mixed up in this whole situation where I’m being held captive. But their stuff seems to be endlessly varied and surprising, so overall that would be a pretty sweet deal. Now, if I do have to pay, I’ll go with Blackbird, which has a little narrower palette but still a great variety (especially in different kinds of pizzas) that I could certainly eat every day without complaining.
Which five Philly vegans would make it onto the invite list for your dream dinner party?
Well, I’m gonna name Jay Dinshah an honorary “Philly vegan” — he did originally go vegan in Philadelphia in 1957 — and bring him back to this dinner table, since I was just getting to know him in 2000 when he died. For the other four I will not name living Philly vegans because then they’ll read their names and expect me to throw a vegan dinner party for them, but would instead invite people who are very close to going vegan but, to my knowledge, have not done so yet, and I would have Jay talk vegan values in the way he did so tirelessly for so many years so that by the time they leave the table they will also be vegan.
What are your predictions for Philly’s vegan food world over the next few years? What will change, what will stay the same and what will disappear completely?
It’s a no-brainer that more and more mainstream restaurants in Philly will step up their vegan offerings, as it’s now become evident that a veggie burger or plate of pasta with grilled vegetables is simply not going to do the trick when so many other places are getting so creative. And maybe it’s because I’m working on this column right now, but I see veganic growing gaining a larger presence here and getting integrated with dining in a garden-to-table format. I’m also sure there will be more vegan places opening, and occasionally some closing, but more and more mainstreaming of the concept. With more vegan places, one thing that will have to go away is the concept of being “good enough” just because you’re a vegan restaurant — with more supply, people will demand a higher standard. And I’m confident that year after year we’ll see more places offering vegan cheesesteaks as contenders in the Philly vegan cheesesteak contest. And I’m even going to predict a vegan cheesesteak at Pat’s King of Steaks within five years. You read it here first!
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