It was obvious that the opening of Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's Wiz Kid at 124 South 19th Street was going to be a pretty big deal. But could this team, who'd transformed the image of vegan dining in Philadelphia with Horizons (2006), upped the ante with the nationally-acclaimed "vegetable restaurant" Vedge (2011), and created the definitive vegan bar with V Street (2014), really change the game again with a friendly, funky fast-food joint? Of course, and they have.
A small lunch-counter version launched inside the Fairmount Whole Foods back in the fall, but there are important updates in the standalone storefront version, located right next door to V Street. The menu features the WK Philly, a vegan cheesesteak that came within the thinnest seitan slice of upsetting returning champion Blackbird Pizzeria in this year's contest, to the KFT (Korean Fried Tempeh) of which I sang the praises here back in January, to fries, salads and brownie-like "potholes," plus some less-common drink options.
There's also a new sandwich, the Roast Rabe, using trumpet mushrooms to suggest pulled pork, but it's clearly the KFT that is closest to Landau's heart, as I learned when I stopped there on Monday for the venue's official first day.
"The original concept was actually based off the KFT, it was gonna be just KFT and fries, a little hole in the wall, extremely basic. But Kate suggested we had to do a cheesesteak," so he tinkered with Vedge's rutabaga fondue to create a very credible vegan "whiz," tweaked and perfected over time at the Whole Foods location. Jacoby reminded me that back in the day, Horizons Cafe in Willow Grove had a cheesesteak on the lunch menu, so that concept didn't come out of nowhere. But Landau is still KFT- and tempeh-focused.
"I really believe tempeh is going to be the next big thing" for vegan chefs, he said, noting that people increasingly want more protein options than seitan, tofu and the amalgams in premade products such as Gardein. "It's an ancient protein, it's real food, it's fermented - fermented foods are very 'hip' now - so yeah, we're diving in" and "pressing forward, taking it to the next level."
With his track record of setting trends, if Rich Landau points to a potential trendsetter, it's probably worth paying attention, especially if that trendsetter is as tasty as the KFT.
The rainy day doubtless squelched what could have been a jam-packed madhouse for opening day but instead was a pleasant steady stream of customers with ample seating usually available. I arrived to find Alice Leung of Soy Cafe, vegan desserts diva Fran Costigan (newly relocated to Philly from NYC) and Char Nolan of the Town Dish finishing up a salad-heavy lunch with the explanation that they'd already come on Friday and tried the sandwiches so they were branching out.
As a veggie business owner herself, Yeung said she appreciated the "simple, well-balanced menu - it's really well thought-out." Nolan added that the items are also "well-priced," and added that "if you're more fo a health-conscious vegan you can work the menu to meet your dietary needs." (Nolan had used a bread-free Roast Rabe to top her salad and loved the result.) For her part, Costigan went in somewhat the opposite direction: "When I want a cheesesteak and fries, I like the idea that you can have that and you can add whiskey to your lemonade - you've got all the bases covered."
It's true - being attached to V Street and having its own liquor license gives Wiz Kid an advantage over most Philly sandwich joints, an increased range and variety, from healthful beverages like the Water-ade, a watermelon/lemonade hybrid, to straight-ahead booze - two beers, two wines, two hard liquors.
Sure, that's innovative, but the real news for many of us is the slogan emblazoned on cups, bags and other high-visibility spots: "Steak Shop. Vegan."
Loudly and proudly using the V-word in this way for the first time in their Philly history signals that Landau, especially, is now comfortable that the term (always applicable to the couple's food) is now common enough and user-friendly enough that it won't scare customers away.
I asked what made him ditch his practice (at Horizons, Vedge and V Street) of eschewing "vegan" in signage and promotional materials, and while he insisted that Vedge and V Street will still do without the epithet, in general, he agreed that times have changed.
"In 1994," he said, referring back to the launch of Horizons Cafe as a juice stand /snack bar, "I knew 3 vegans. Nobody knew what the word meant. Right now it's one of the most accepted words, it's everywhere - you saw the SNL thing with Justin Timberlake, right? It's a common word, it's mainstream."
Landau sees "vegan" as having passed a tipping point, where positive connotations now outweigh the old cliches. Nowadays, "it's just a way to eat. People are not worried that if they come here they'll come out wearing tie-dye and smelling like weed with their hair in braids."
Now Landau warmed to the impersonation. "'Wow, I love the Grateful Dead!' you know? 'Hey, I have this sudden urge to go to a Phish concert!'"
Yes, folks, he's not just a wiz - he's a wiz wit.