A Vegetarian in Cheesesteak City

Philadelphia, of all places, has become a mecca for vegetable enthusiasts of all stripes. But what does the landscape really look (and taste) like for the dedicated vegetarian living in this meat-loving town?

It’s a Sunday night, at the tail end of a beautiful August weekend and an ugly Shore traffic jam. Jamonera—the 13th Street tapas restaurant with a name that translates, loosely, as “Yum, bacon!”—is hosting a 10-plate vegetarian dinner. This, I thought, should be an easy reservation.

But the earliest I can get a table for two is 9:15. It’s nearly 11 before we finish our feast: pickled peaches on tangy whipped Spanish blue cheese, bitter-sweet grilled figs with radicchio, kale salad with watermelon radish cut so thin that its creamy white and pale pink flesh looks, in the moody lighting, like a forbidden slice of Serrano ham.

A couple of years ago, being vegetarian in Philadelphia wasn’t this delicious, and this assignment—seven days of eating as a vegetarian in Philadelphia without forsaking the city’s best restaurants or my food-centric social life—would have meant plate after endless plate of roasted-vegetable-pasta-something. Now, it’s scoring a seat that’s the hard part.

Oh, there are some restaurants I won’t be going to. Serpico on South Street, to name one, was high on my must-eat list, until I read the menu with a vegetarian eye. Tomato and bean salad? Comes with Chinese sausage, dried scallops, dried shrimp and squid. Corn ravioli? Perfect, except for the chorizo. All the city’s steakhouses were off-limits, too. Sure, I could try to make a meal of steak fries and creamed spinach, but why?

But I easily built a delicious meal of vegetables at pork-worshipping Alla Spina off North Broad. And Zahav’s Israeli salads and hummus with laffa are so substantial that it’s foolish to so much as consider the rest of the menu—even when the restaurant’s signature fried cauliflower is given billing equal to its signature grilled duck hearts.

The menu at Vernick on Walnut Street is decidedly omnivorous, but the section labeled “Vegetables” gives the flavor-loving vegetarian hope. And indeed, the vegetables are actually vegetarian—which isn’t always the case—as are many of the restaurant’s delectable toasts, topped with avocado and spicy radish or charred spinach and leeks. The morel toast, the waitress informs us with some regret, isn’t vegetarian; there’s chicken stock in the glaze for the mushrooms. But she returns a few minutes later to say the kitchen can easily leave that out. When the dish arrives, the morels taste of earth and butter; no one would miss the splash of stock that is often just kitchen habit.

(Would Serpico have accommodated my vegetarian requests, too? Probably. But sometimes the vegetarian substitutions miss the point entirely. Evidence: Those steakhouses. Also: Tofurkey.)

It was the lunches, I thought, that would be the toughest part of my vegetable marathon. Lunch is a meal dictated by unpredictable demands: last-minute meetings, urgent emails, and for me, during this week, a day of jury duty. So I stocked up on ingredients for brown-bag lunches at Sue’s Produce Market—my favorite greengrocer, on 18th Street—and at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market on Saturday.

Again, though, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that finding vegetarian options wasn’t as challenging as I expected. It was choosing between them that was tough. There’s the spicy garlic pizza from food truck Pitruco, an ample falafel sandwich at Mama’s on 20th, and the simple but memorable caprese sandwich at Sansom Street’s Corner Foodery, to name just a few of my adopted go-tos.

On my busiest, hungriest day, a co-w­orker kindly delivers her favorite black bean burger from Di Bruno Bros. On a break from doing my civic duty, I seek out a vegetable stir-fry with shiitake mushrooms, snow peas and bean sprouts at 16th Street’s Honeygrow. There, I find I’m far from alone in my search for a vegetarian lunch. At this spot where you can build your own meal on touch-screen monitors, the choose-your-own vegetable stir-fry is the fourth most popular item on the menu.

Perhaps I should have stated this more plainly from the start: I’m not actually a vegetarian. But then, most of us aren’t. A recent Gallup poll found that only five percent of American adults describe themselves as vegetarian. What I am is an omnivore who loves vegetables and has chosen to make them a bigger part of her diet. In Philadelphia, there seem to be a growing number of us, judging by the increase in “V’s” appearing on restaurant menus to denote vegetarian (or even vegan!) dishes, and the long lunch lines outside HipCityVeg on 18th Street on almost any day without rain.

The fast, casual vegan restaurant near Rittenhouse Square turns out an estimated 300 lunches a day. The green smoothies, classic Ziggy burger (“Our Big Mac,” says owner Nicole Marquis) and udon noodle salads are top sellers. And yes, there’s a Philly ’steak on the menu—one that feels almost authentic in its comforting hardiness despite its lack of steak. Or cheese.

“Most of our customers aren’t vegetarian or vegan,” says Marquis. “They call themselves ‘flexitarians.’ Or they’re just trying to stay away from red meat or to choose the healthier option. We get people who don’t even know it’s vegan food. They just know that it tastes really good.”

And there it is—the reason Philly’s vegetarian options are expanding, even if there’s no evidence there are more vegetarians in the city. We’ve grown out of our awkward teenage vegetarian stage, when swearing off meat can seem like little more than an excuse to eat cheese fries and pizza, and we’ve discovered that vegetables—especially in the hands of our most talented chefs—just taste really good.

Chef Rich Landau has known this for a long time, of course. He began cooking vegan food in the Philadelphia suburbs almost two decades ago, when, he recalls with precisely no nostalgia, you were “lucky if you could get pasta marinara as a vegetarian in Philadelphia.”

I’ve eaten at Landau’s vegetable-glorifying vegan restaurant, Vedge on Locust Street, many times. In the name of research, I sat down to another meal, of smoky chioggia beet “pastrami,” seared hearts of palm, as delicate as scallops, in a sweet, fragrant lemongrass corn puree, and a hearty and visually impressive roast maitake mushroom main course.

By dessert, I wasn’t convinced that Philadelphia’s restaurant scene had improved for vegetarians. I came away convinced that the city’s restaurant scene has improved for everyone.