Blackbird squeaks past challenger Wiz Kid to retain vegan cheesesteak title

BB-2017
Blackbird Pizzeria won the first Best Vegan Cheesesteak in Philly contest, in 2014, lost the crown in 2015 and regained it in 2016. Will its formidable sandwich carry the day in 2017?

It was truly a vegan cheesesteak extravaganza last night at the Philadelphia Ethical Society. OK, we haven't heard back from Guinness yet, but it may well have been the first time ever that so many different kinds of vegan cheesesteaks were gathered in one room. Certainly these were some of the best vegan cheesesteaks available anywhere as we gathered to name 2017's Best Vegan Cheesesteak in Philly.

Finalists Blackbird Pizzeria, Wiz Kid and Frankie's on Fairview all served samples of their popular sandwiches, as did high-placing vote-getters The Tasty and PlantPure Cafe. These latter two, plus Wiz Kid, opened within the last year, and all put in a strong showing in this year's contest and at the Ethical Society auditorium. At the event's end, attendees were also treated to vegan Tiramisu and other treats from Vegan Chef Lenka, courtesy of The Plough and The Stars.

Our fantastic judges - PMN columnist Jenice Armstrong, chef Fran Costigan, City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and architect Joel Spivak - were both eloquent and voracious, leaving only a couple crumbs on their respective plates (having been good sports about not partaking of any cheesesteak samples before they were seated). In particular, Councilman Johnson made an impromptu speech giving a shout-out to Philly's vegan businesses and citing their key role in making plant-based living and eating easier to adopt when people have a mind to do so. Frank Olivieri, Jr., proprietor of cheesesteak-originator Pat's Steaks, kept things lively, interviewing judges and humorously razzing me when I started going on about the health liabilities of nonvegan cheesesteaks.

Judges' gift bags were donated by V Marks the Shop, whose Carmella Lanni and Carlo Giardina were present, Carlo reminding vegan food-contest lovers about the upcoming 'Philly MacDown II.' Also generously providing prizes were Miss Rachel's Pantry, Wear Bare Bones vegan tees, Chef Christina Martin and Michael Cassady of Michael's Seitan.

In the end, the judges' panel awarded two #1 votes to Wiz Kid and two #1 votes to Blackbird - a dramatic tie that was broken by Blackbird's top showing as 'Fan Favorite' among Vegan Cheesesteak Fans Everywhere.

Definitely a squeaker of a win for Blackbird, but that's two in a row for the beloved pizza joint and three years out of the four total for the contest - a dominating presence, for sure!

In conversation after the win, Blackbird owner Mark Mebus turned the focus to the vegan scene in general, saying he's most excited "to see the demand for non-animal-based foods growing drastically, even among places you'd assume would have no interest in vegan food. There's now a lot of places in Philly committed to opening people's eyes, and that's being accomplished by the efforts of a lot of people. It's great to see people waking up to these topics."

For this year, Wiz Kid, whose entry had its origins in a 2016 cheesesteak custom-made for Senator Cory Booker, had to settle for second place and the "Top Newcomer" award. Frankie's on Fairview, which came in second in voting, was well received by the crowd and continues to perform impressively in the contest for a small, far-flung venue, but is taking on an always-a-bridesmaid role that the Woodlyn diner will doubtless seek to cast aside in 2018.

Despite such comic moments as my discovering the Official Vote-Card Stapler had no staples in it, the event went smoothly overall thanks to our wonderful volunteers, coordinated by event-planning mastermind Char Nolan, who also made the welcome table and judges' table into things of beauty.

Congratulations once again to Blackbird and all who participated. Here again are the top ten vote-getters from this year's contest, all worth sampling on your next vegan-cheesesteak crawl. (Happily, no asterisk - all these places' vegan offerings are on 100% vegan rolls.)

  1. Blackbird Pizzeria
  2. Frankies on Fairview
  3. Wiz Kid
  4. Royal Tavern
  5. The Tasty
  6. HipCityVeg
  7. Triangle Tavern
  8. Tattooed Mom
  9. The Abbaye
  10. Govinda's