With more than 100 people in attendance at Union Transfer Sunday afternoon, Blackbird Pizzeria recaptured the title of Best Vegan Cheesesteak in Philly. Having won the first contest in 2014, the beloved vegan pizza joint was ousted in 2015 by Royal Tavern but was favored this year by judges Stu Bykofsky, Lisa Tynes, Leila Vaughan, and Babette Josephs.
Blackbird owner Mark Mebus said his team was "happy about it because the only thing we've changed since last year was the bread." After experimenting with house-made rolls, the pizzeria switched to vegan baguettes from Metropolitan Bakery. And that version may stick: "It's a pretty solid sandwich," Mebus observed.
Though Mebus would like to see his creations stand alone rather than be "a replacement for something else," he recognizes that people may be eating healthier but they still want the flavors and textures of iconic foods. "When it comes down to it, Blackbird is a nostalgia-based restaurant," he said.
Second place went to Triangle Tavern, which introduced a new cheesesteak from Mark McKinney (2015 winner with Royal Tavern) just in time to qualify for the contest.
Third-place finalist Frankie's on Fairview was named best newcomer, having put in an especially strong showing in social-media voting. Frankie's, in Woodlyn, Delaware County, also handed out plenty of vegan cheesesteak samples before the event, as did Northern Liberties' Abbaye (fourth in our top 10 and host of the Vegan Wing Bowl). Crust Vegan Bakery gave out cookies after the judging to round out the event.
Pat's King of Steaks owner Frank Olivieri Jr. served as emcee, and he was joined briefly by former contest judge Christina Pirello. The two will collaborate on a vegan-cheesesteak pop-up at Caffe Valentino on April 3.
Alfoncie Austin, former proprietor of Basic 4 Vegetarian in the Reading Terminal Market, was recognized at the event for her trendsetting cuisine. Austin, mother of contest judge Tynes, opened Basic 4 in 1981. She made her own seitan for her iconic PhillySteak, which introduced many Philadelphians to the idea of vegetarian and vegan cheesesteaks and helped move the sandwich into the mainstream. As a token of appreciation for her pioneering role - Basic 4 was also the first African American vendor in the Market - she received a gift card donated by Vedge.
Judges received books and fresh Dottie's Donuts, in celebration of that team's new storefront at 4529 Springfield Ave. The sweepstakes prize winner, Susie Adams, got dinner for two at Miss Rachel's Pantry.
As always, new venues offering some form of vegan cheesesteak came to our attention in the course of this contest, most prominently Frankie's on Fairview. For the record, here are the Top 10 nominees as of the end of ballot voting on March 16:
1. Frankie's on Fairview; 2. Triangle Tavern; 3. Blackbird Pizzeria; 4. The Abbaye; 5. HipCityVeg; 6. Royal Tavern; 7. Govinda's Gourmet to Go; 8. French Quarter Bistro (Royersford); 9. Tattooed Mom; 10. Monk's. (Note that Monk's is regularly served on a nonvegan roll with dairy cheese.)
Having expanded significantly from last year's, the 2016 contest gave us something to build on for next year. We offer a big thanks to all who came out and those who provided food and/or support for this tasty celebration of the growing tradition of excellent vegan cheesesteaks in Philadelphia.
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician, and 15-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.