Vegetable Sandwich – Le Petite Bistro, Philadelphia International Airport, Philadelphia, PA

“Le Petite Bistro” barely exists. If I had to wager it, I would say “Le Petite Bistro” is the most common and least creative name for a restaurant in the world. Information about the eatery online is sketchy; some say “Petit”, some say “Petite”, some add an “Express”. Regardless, sandwiched between a wall of windows and a Dunkin’ Donuts in Philadelphia International Airport’s D Concourse is Le Petite Bistro, and when you are vegan in a restaurant, it is a blessing.

I’ve never been as uncomfortably hungry as a vegan as I have in airports. Charlotte’s airport has a California-style burrito place in their foot court, which is nice. Usually I am limited to Alternative Baking Company cookies and classic Lay’s. The Bistro provided a strange, reclusive jump away from that feeling while never quite removing it, presenting fresh vegetables and crisp, wet lettuce from behind a glass cafeteria case, served to me by people wearing rubber gloves. The vegetable sandwich (which was known both as “roasted” and “grilled” depending on the sign) was what airport food almost always is — exceedingly “all right”, pushed up to “tasty” by virtue of it being there in your hands.

The bread was unremarkable. The vegetables were fine, but tasted as though they could’ve been squirted from a Del Monte can moments before. The only vegan side dish offered was a banana, and it is not a far jump to think this fruit had lived a previous life in a wax bowl. Unfettered, I scarfed it down. I cannot remember how my stomach felt on the following plane ride. That may be the theme for this sandwich, and Le Petite Bistro. I’m happy it was there, but thinking back I can only truly remember how badly I wanted it.

Baguette Charm – Loving Hut, Matlock Rd., Arlington, TX

Baguette Charm, Loving Hut, Arlington TX

Loving Hut is a 100% vegan chain of restaurants with locations across the nation. That is a wonderful reality. The question of, “is it hard to be vegan?” should be eliminated from our dialogue. A short drive from our home base in Austin to Frisco for a game of Major League Soccer included a stop at the chain’s Arlington location, located in a strip mall across from a placed called “Sports Burger.” The juxtaposition was delicious, but not as delicious as the Baguette Charm, Loving Hut’s answer to the cheese steak sandwich.

The sandwich boasts succulent soy protein, bell peppers, onions, homemade veganaise and melted vegan cheese on a toasty baguette. It succeeds because it aims so low; often, vegan cheesesteaks are too ambitious, forgetting that the joy of an omnivorous cheesesteak is in its corruption, in its badness. A “good” cheesesteak, as defined by popular culture, involves enough grease to seep through a brown paper bag. Vegan cheeseteaks emphasize taste — the Baguette Charm emphasized a smoky flavor with sticky, molten hot cheese. Despite being homemade and vegan, it tasted bad for me. This made the sandwich extremely good. It’s a tricky line, and possibly one born from a childhood lived in poverty.

The true stars of the meal were the side dishes, vegan cole slaw (a rarity, at least in this style) and potato salad. They were perfection by any taste’s definition.

Veggie BBQ Sandwich – Mr. Natural, East Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX

Mr. Natural's Veggie BBQ Sandwich

Living throughout the country during my lifetime has allowed me to keep a shifting expectation for food. Although I was born in southern Virginia, where hot dogs can have mayonnaise and “gourmet cooking” usually constitutes stew cooked communally in the backyard, I’ve spent time in locations as diverse as south Florida, suburban Ohio, and now Texas. I do not go into a BBQ sandwich expecting one definition of barbecue — I am able to adapt with my surroundings and judge the dish on its own merits, outside of preconception. This is an enlightened view of food; I did not develop it by choice.

Mr. Natural is a 100% vegetarian, 100% natural eatery located in the outskirts of downtown Austin, staffed with smiling faces and a humorous expression of language. The Veggie BBQ Sandwich, for example, is advertised as “wheat protein sauteed in barbecuse sauce.” The sandwich itself is a disasterous masterpiece, falling out from within itself before you’ve even taken a bite, requiring a steady hand to finish without incident. At Mr. Natural, barbecue comes with lettuce and tomatoes, sprouts, and pickle chips. It is by no feasible definition a “barbecue.” Even the name of the sauce is merely an approximation. However, taken without preconception, the unusually sweet flavor and crisp, fresh vegetables add up to a delightful sum.

Should I find myself in another region of the country, I will surely find a vegan barbecue option that surpasses Mr. Natural’s efforts, but I will not forget the uniqueness of the effort, nor its degree of difficulty.

Vegan BLT – The Cove, W. Cypress, San Antonio, TX

San Antonio’s The Cove wears many hats. It is a car wash. It is a coin laundry. It is also a locally owned and operated eatery that began as an ice cream and hot sandwiches amongst those operations and expanded into a full-fledged restaurant offering everything from fish tacos to homemade vegan dishes. The ambiance will be either your greatest detriment or biggest complement — my meal was eaten amongst peers at a picnic table just outside the eatery’s back doors, between the car wash and a playground.

For a vegan, especially one who has never enjoyed the sticky guilt of bacon, a well-made, filling BLT can be Heaven. The Cove’s offering sports tofu bacon topped with an organic spring mix and tomato, as well as the Texas standard, chipotle mayonnaise. The bread is cut from a fresh, rustic loaf. It was exceedingly simple, as you may have gathered from the photo, and would’ve been an excellent experience were it not for two important points — one, that the ratio of tofu bacon to sandwich was not substantial, leaving me hungry, and two, the price point of nearly nine dollars. This is surprisingly expensive for a restaurant wedged into the side of a laundromat, especially when you realize the advertised fresh cut fries are not vegan, and you’re stuck with a fun size of Sun Chips.

Vegan sandwiches without french fries are like birthday parties without cake. It is inexcusable for a restaurant with a fresh garden and the slogan “Eat Well, Live Well” to prepare their fries in an unhealthy manner. I digress, as this is not a french fry review, and reiterate that the sandwich was pleasant, if not ultimately satisfying.

Philly Chicken Cheese Steak – Govinda’s Gourmet To Go, South St., Philadelphia, PA

Philly Chicken Cheese Steak, Govinda's Gourmet To Go

“Hing” can be a scary thing. It has an unpleasant, pungent smell in the raw and tastes of leeks when cooked. The spice’s real name is even scary: Asafoetida. Is that something you can eat? It’s the dried resin of a tree. Is that the most stereotpyical thing an ethical vegan can request on a sandwich? Something that is literally the essence of a tree?

Philadelphia’s Govinda’s Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant is almost always closed, but its sister establishment, Gourmet To Go, offers up classic Philly food with the least-classic imaginable accoutrements – hing, soy chicken, and, if you’re smart, a bowl of yellow split pea soup. The Philly Chicken is one of Gourmet To Go’s signature sandwiches, and one of the most palatable for first-time visitors, standing in stunned silence as they glance across a menu of kofta ball subs, grilled soy mackeral and something called “Chicken Queasily.” The chicken imitates without simulating; the bread stays crisp-into-softness, even when dipped in the dahl. Rainbow peppers are a delightful addition, and a more seasoned wordsmith might find more than a taste delight at their end.

I have dined at this South and Broad eatery on several occasions, and during nearly every visit I am accompanied by an omnivore. They never leave unhappy. While initially shocking in lieu of its deceptively simple name, Gourmet To Go manages to distill the essence of mid-Philadelphia cooking and leave the pungent smell at the door.

Smokey “Mozzarella,” Pesto, Spinach & Tomato Sandwich – Counter Culture, E North Loop, Austin, TX

Counter Culture Special, Austin TX

Food trucks are an interesting concept. In theory, eating from a classically unsanitary source such as an immobile vehicle seems sketchy, as does the idea of trusting someone in what amounts to a heavily-windowed van to prepare high-quality vegan food. Somehow the food trucks trend has exploded amongst the more liberal parts of our country, and Austin is leading the way with trucks like “Counter Culture,” where the curiously named “Sue Purr” prepared one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable sandwiches of my life.

In addition to sandwiches on the menu (including a garbanzo “tuna” and a Philly seitan), Sue whips up a daily special — while I am classically paranoid about venturing into specials, I was drawn in by the Smokey “Mozarella” Sandwich, with nearly every ingredient represented in its name. I’ve come to terms with vegan cheese, and I’ve learned to love it. Counter Culture’s handmade soy and cashew based cheeze redefined that truce and shattered it, opening my mind to where vegan sandwiches can go. With a side of black bean and corn quinoa, the Smokey Mozz entered my mouth and was listed amongst my favorites before it hit my stomach.

Vegan food from a truck. A tattooed-Austinite spun kitschy vinyl hits from turntables near Counter Culture’s outdoor picnic benches. Sue had to light two different anti-bug candles to keep the flies from ruining her creations. A drunken man danced in circles, kicking up dirt. I’m learning to love these new places I’ve seen, and the foods they give me.

Tempeh Club – Royal Tavern, East Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, PA

Tempeh Club, Royal Tavern, Philadelphia PA

I’ve been to the Royal Tavern several times, each time very late at night. The eatery remains open until the wee hours of the morning, and as my sojourns in Philadelphia are filled with deeply-scheduled and often raucous adventures, late night vegan dining is a necessity. The Tavern, located on a cross-section of barely parkable inner city streets, boasts a wide selection of cakes and desserts, but after my attendance at a downtown sporting exhibition, I found myself figuratively dying for a sandwich.

The Royal Tavern’s recommendation, clearly marked as vegan with a double asterisk, was the Tempeh Club. A different animal than Spiral Diner’s epic The Mitch, Royal Tavern’s club piled grilled tempeh high with vegan bacon, keeping accoutrements with lettuce and tomato. The sandwich requires a great amount of trust — the buttery nature of the bread may be thanks to Earth Balance or some sort of butter substitute, although it is not specified. The dressing, basil aioli, also rose suspicions. I ended up eating my sandwich dry, and while that seems a less than ideal situation, I found myself enjoying the textures, soaked slightly from the piled-high fries paired in the takeaway box.

The sandwich is not as tasty as The Mitch, but seemed more filling. Ability to fill is something a vegan sometimes forgets when building a sandwich. The tempeh was copious — the lettuce and tomato topped high enough to make a statement. All in all I found it a beautifully constructed sandwich, and were I to find myself in the Tavern with the sun up, lead by a knowledgeable food server, it might become a favorite.

Mi Lah Cheesesteak – Mi Lah Vegetarian, South 16th St., Philadelphia, PA

Mi Lah Cheesesteak

I spent three days of last week in a hospital bed in Austin, pained and dying slowly from the intestinal blockage poisoning my body. You can imagine the agony I went through, as Friday turned into Tuesday with only a cup of vegetable broth and potassium pills in my stomach. Because of this, I apologize for my absence in last week’s On Sandwiches postings. That being said, a Wednesday spent at home began to reignite my hunger for quality sandwiches, and a long-planned trip to Philadelphia on Thursday brought to light a reality I had to face with any amount of empty stomach — the reality that no man should visit Philadelphia without ingesting a cheesesteak. Even a vegan.

Enter: Mi Lah Vegetarian, the South 16th St. eatery known for its local, seasonal vegetarian cuisine. Mi Lah’s dishes are of an international array fit to impress the most sophisticated vegetarian palate, and I suppose that in a city where pizza parlors and street vendors all offer cheesesteaks, finding a steak on Mi Lah’s diverse menu was not a surprise. What was a surprise is an issue that has been fervently discussed On Sandwiches in the past, with a twist — a vegan cheesesteak with not a simulated provolone, but a simulated cheese whiz. I am open minded to the idea of whiz on a steak, but not a supporter of it.

The sandwich itself was delicious, possibly saved by simulated whiz and provolone not being as violently distinct as their omnivorous counterparts. I found the steak a bit dry, with cheese portioned along the curve of the bread rather than melted throughout, allowing for overwhelming bites on its inside and sparsely touched crisps on the out. I compared it directly to my normal Philadelphia stop, Gourmet-to-Go and their Pepper Steak sandwich, and while I could note the improved ingredients at Mi Lah, I may prefer the down-home, diner-like presentation of the latter. Regardless, I felt comforted participating in the ritual of the local favorite, and would recommend the sandwich (and especially Mi Lah) to any travelers. When you haven’t eaten well in a week, nearly anything tastes like Heaven … even cheese whiz.

Allie’s Vegan ‘Wich – Kerbey Lane Cafe, Hwy 183 N, Austin, TX

Allie's Vegan 'Wich, Kerbey Lane Cafe

Kerbey Lane Cafe makes the ethical choice of veganism accessible to those of us who grew up in decidedly non-vegan environments and hold close to our hearts the need to eat low-quality food at any random point in the evening. The 24-hour restaurant chain has been a staple Austin eatery for over thirty years, and though I can only admit to having participated in roughly eight months of that time, I have grown accustomed to discovering the ins and outs of the diner-cum-family-restaurant’s menu.

One of the selling points of KLC (as it is colloquially known) is the rotating seasonal menu. After a disappointing Winter with only a vegetarian chorizo sloppy Joe as an option, I was drawn in at the promise of vegan queso and surprised by the addition of something called Allie’s Vegan ‘Wich. The sandwich (as I purposefully refrain from using the playful abbreviation ‘wich whenever possible) is a crisp combination of tomato, cucumber, hummus, avocado and spinach on my choice of bread. Texas toast was recommended to me by my server, and I took their recommendation. This proved to be my downfall.

Having no concept of what the sandwich would be outside of the ingredients, I was greeted with a sandwich boasting absolutely nothing more than its ingredients. While the spinach was crisp, the avocado homegrown and the hummus tasty as always, I became disheartened the more I thought about how easily this sandwich could have been prepared at home. Nothing was here to make the sandwich memorable; nothing that would awaken me from slumber with a rumble and carry me up I-183 North in the middle of the night. It was simply tomato on top of avocado on top of hummus on top of spinach. Competent, certainly, but without a spirit. In all honesty, much of this disappointment was due to the Texas toast, which was not toasted and served stale, rendering it simply a Texas bread.

As a hopeful aside, the vegan queso featured a touch of chili powder and was delightful. I will come back to Kerbey Lane, as I often do, and each time I will hope that Allie has taken a second look at the statement of her ‘wich.

Black Bean Vegan Burger – Pizzazz Tuscan Grille, Eastern Avenue, Baltimore, MD

Black Bean Vegan Burger, Pizzazz Tuscan Grille

The Inner Harbor’s Pizzazz Tuscan Grille advertises itself as the only restaurant of its kind in the Baltimore area; Upscale casual Italian cuisine with no preservatives, pink Himalayan sea salts, no white sugars, only agave or organic raw sugar, cold pressed olive oils.  Vegan and gluten free options on a traditional menu nestled within the tourist trap of crab cakes and sno-cones.  Such an audacious boast left me searching through the Grille’s options, unsure of what to select.  The phrase “Black Bean Vegan Burger” left visions of a Red Robin monstrosity ketchup and salt-soaked in my brain.  Thankfully, my food-server informed me that the dish was not a burger, but a sandwich, similar to a patty melt.  For a moment I thought to wax on the nature of burgers to sandwiches, but I refrained.

Removing “ham” from “burger” opens up so many possibilities.  What I received (extremely late, explaining the partially-eaten nature of the photo, although this was to be expected in the Harbor) was true to the patty melt promise — a crispy black bean vegetable patty smothered with Daiya cheese, topped with tomato, onions, mixed greens and spicy mustard on whole grain bread.  As a vegan who spent twenty years as a Southern American omnivore, Daiya is a blessing.  It recreates the texture and nature of cheese while exhibiting a taste all its own; were I to return to meat and dairy at any point in my life, Daiya would remain a substitute for cheese – its superior.

While hardly a burger, Pizzazz’s vegan manna proved a grand reprieve from the barbecue and cocktail stench of Baltimore’s watery tourists.  The eatery’s philosophy of “food is medicine” could not be more accurate … without the Black Bean Vegan Burger, I would have been sick.