Cheap Eats: In Defense Of Vegan Meatballs


There’s no end of reasons to hate on fake meat, but the ultra-processed, pathetically aspirational, environmentally shifty stuff does have one thing going for it: it’s not fake seafood.

That’s the first thing that came to mind when the Kung Fu Hoagies cart returned to its customary weekday spot at 38th and Sansom streets at the end of March, ending several weeks of personal lunch-hour deprivation caused by owners Paul Davis and Steve Renzi’s recent jaunt to Saigon. I arrived licking my lips at the prospect of some fresh Vietnamese inspiration, only to find the following special scrawled on the wood placard dangling above their compact wares: Veggie “Shrimp” Fried Rice.

Back at the office, I looked it up. Insofar as veggie is an abbreviation for vegetable, the guys might have considered another word.  My Google search yielded a product whose first six ingredients were water, curdlan gum, refined konjac powder, modified tapioca starch, potato starch, and raw cane sugar. The smaller species in my $2.50 cup of fried rice were noticeably different (lacking cosmetic orange shrimp-like markings, they really seemed closer to spongy cashews), but when you come right down to it, a fake shrimp is a fake shrimp. Its culinary function depends entirely on an indifferent palate and the suspension of disbelief.

So it’s a little strange to admit that Kung Fu Hoagies has become one of my trusty standbys over the past few months. Almost everything they serve contains fake flesh. Vegan ham, vegan beef, chick’n meatballs: it’s like a greatest hits album of conceptually revolting edible food-like substances.

But here’s the thing: Davis and Renzi manage to transcend it. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I was supposed to be appreciating about those spongy shrimp simulacra, but everything else made up for their strangeness: the funky fermented beans; the spicy pickled chili shreds; the clean, watercrisp scallions. Worth every penny of $2.50.  (Lose the “shrimp” and it would have been worth $3!)

That didn’t rank among my favorite daily/weekly specials. I’m partial to Kung Fu’s yellow curry, whose tofu, squash, mushrooms and leafy greens constitute the sort of vegetarian cooking I can get behind. (Meaning, the kind where actual vegetables are on the marquee.)

But the main reason I keep coming back to Kung Fu is the “meatball” banh mi sandwich—which is neither as simple or as faux-meaty as it first seems. For one thing, Davis and Renzi make the meatballs from scratch, using tofu (a venerable food that bears no relation to mock duck or false shrimp) as a base. They’re tender, not too spongy, and yet don’t fall to pieces when you bite one halfway through. They’re braised in a mild red sauce that plays second fiddle to the normal banh mi accouterments: cilantro, pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, a little spicy sauce, and some perfectly respectable vegan mayo if you want it. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll also ask for a dash of deep-fried red onions; you’ll see the gigantic container sitting there.

And you’ll pay a whopping $4. Which I will freely admit is another reason I count myself a loyal Kung Fu customer. In these days of the $15 Stuff White People Like pork belly banh mi, it’s nice to see a couple wide-smiling West Philly karate-chopping half-hippies doing their own twist on the sandwich for the same price it fetches in the Asian shopping plazas on Washington Avenue.

Just as long as they don’t expect me to add vegan ham for an extra buck.

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