Tofu Hoagie – Fuh Wah Mini Market, 47th St, Philadelphia, PA

As something of a coda to last week’s post on the vegetarian bánh mì, I present to you the tofu hoagie. On my last trip to Philadelphia I found myself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, waiting upon the arrival of an associate. Luckily, they had told me beforehand that there was a fine sandwich to be had at the Fuh Wah Mini Market, the tofu hoagie. Imagine my surprise when I found not a generic sandwich starring tofu, but a bánh mì. While it’s true that this bánh mì is a tofu hoagie, in the same sense that a croque-monsieur is a ham sandwich, it doesn’t really properly express what’s going on. The first time I spoke about Philly cheese steaks on this blog, I criticized an establishment for a “misguided but strong provincialism [that seemed] exactly Philadelphian.” I thought back to that phrase as I ate my sandwich, having a good laugh. I imagined an enterprising sandwich shop nearly going broke trying to sell bánh mìs, watching Philadelphian after Philadelphian walk by, glance at their shop with a confused look, and move on to lunch somewhere else. Finally, realizing their mistake, they re-categorize their wares under the familiar “hoagie,” and the business is saved. To say “only in Philadelphia” would be trite, but imagining that situation in any other city I know of seems absurd. In Philadelphia, it seems vaguely reasonable. You can find a lot of people who will say a lot of things about Philadelphia, friends, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who will say it isn’t special.

The sandwich itself was tasty, with considerably more pepper than you find in most bánh mìs. To tofu had a fairly firm texture, having (presumably) been drained and well cooked. The baguette was crisp, and the veggies fresh and crisp. Everything I previously said about vegetarian bánh mìs applies here, but that doesn’t mean that the sandwich didn’t hit the spot on a warm afternoon in the city that loves you back.

Jewish Corned Beef – Hatville Deli, Arch St, Philadelphia, PA

Don’t serve me a sandwich with a fork in it. This has happened to me a number of times recently, and sooner or later I’m about to start demanding that it be served with an apology as well. Serving a sandwich with a fork in it is a naked concession of defeat. It is openly admitting that the sandwich you have served me will fall apart in my hands. “This is gonna be a mess,” it says, “you clean it up.” It’s an insult, and I’m tired of it. There are plenty of sandwiches that lose a bit or two as you eat them, but including a fork almost makes it seem like you think it’s a feature. Don’t give me a fork. Put a little effort into putting forth the best construction you can.I’m going to leave aside the curious fact that the Hatville Deli, staffed by the Pennsylvania Dutch, felt the need to label the corned beef as Jewish. It’s something that doesn’t strike you at first, but a split second later earns a full “Wait, what?” I’m not sure what’s going on there, so I’ll focus on the fact that they mince it practically to dust. A big hunk of corned beef can easily be sliced into strips fit for a sandwich. In fact, it works like nearly every other meat. But not so at the Hatville Deli! There they prefer to completely obliterate the cut of meat, shredding it to a completely irresponsible degree and leaving you on cleanup duty. There wasn’t really anything special about the sandwich beyond that. Minced beef, Russian dressing and coleslaw all came together in a sloppy construction it somehow became my responsibility to remedy.

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.

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.

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.

Classic Philly Cheese Steak – Cheese Steak Shop, E Santa Clara St, San Jose, CA

The Classic Philly Cheese Steak from Cheese Steak Shop, a Bay Area chain

Some time ago, I dined on a po’ boy and considered the role of the outpost. If a sandwich is attempting to represent an entire region, I reasoned, being univentive is no great crime. And the folks at the Cheese Steak Shop make it very clear that their sandwich is intended to be just what you might get in Philadelphia. A Bay Area chain, they really stress the authenticity of their food. They go to some lengths in this pursuit, importing the rolls and peppers from Philadelphia. I do not wish to sully sandwich discussion with my own personal thoughts about America’s varied cities, but it seems to me that this kind of misguided but strong provincialism seems exactly Philadelphian. Think about the fact that the rolls are shipped across the country. The roll, while serviceable, was unspectacular. Surely there is a Bay Area bakery capable of producing an acceptable hoagie roll. Sourced locally, it would be bright and fresh when it gets to me. What makes this roll so special? Why is it good? I can imagine the reply: Because it’s from Philadelphia. If aiming to convince me of your quality, this is ultimately a losing strategy. If you’re only going to put one thing on your resume, make it something other than your address.

Enough. The sandwich hit the spot on a rainy Saturday. I enjoyed it. But something about it was bothered me, and it wasn’t until I was back out on the street that I figured it out. The Cheese Steak Shop understands what a Philly Cheese Steak is: Beef loin is minced beyond recognition, piled in with provolone, onions, and hot & sweet peppers. Grease dripped out as I lifted the sandwich, and the cheese was, at times, a bit much. That is not a complaint, those are hallmarks of the Philly Cheese Steak. In fact, what I came to realize is that it isn’t that the sandwich is needlessly authentic, it’s that it isn’t authentic enough.

For all of the boasting of imported rolls, the sandwich is missing something some essence of Philadelphia. It isn’t aggressive. The cheese is only overwhelming at the occasional bite. Grease may leak out, but the sandwich itself holds together nicely, the portions are sensible and easily managed. Upon finishing the sandwich I was satisfied, but I did not sit back and let loose one big sigh and two or three cusses. And that, as you might imagine, is a far cry from Philadelphia. This sandwich may be enough to impress someone who has never been to the city of brotherly love, but that isn’t me. I’ve been to Philadelphia, and “sensible” isn’t a word you would use to describe a cheese steak.

Chicken & Cheese – Philly Diner, Walnut St, Philadelphia, PA

Chicken & Cheese - Philadelphia

An associate of mine has very strong opinions about cheese on sandwiches, which is to say that he doesn’t approve. It is a virtual categorical prohibition with him, not due to lactose intolerance or any other allergy but simply because he sees it as unnecessary. It is a dominating ingredient, drowning out more subtle notes and far too often the cheeses used in the sandwich world are fairly common in flavor. I sympathized with him but had long held that cheese, like any other bold ingredient, had its place. Cheese, I thought, simply needed a skilled hand.

This sandwich caused me to revisit everything I thought I knew about cheese. A grilled chicken breast and sauteed mushrooms drowned in American cheese between two pieces of toasted white bread. “Well there’s your problem,” I can hear you saying, “try something a little less pedestrian next time and you’ll find yourself doing all right.” I will give you that point but I have to wonder about the larger issues, especially as found in restaurants. Sure, while at home you can carefully incorporate just the right amount of fine goat cheese but what about when out in the world? There are ingredients in sandwiches that one should stay away from in most shops, such as fried foods, but cheese can hardly be avoided. It is ever present in restaurant sandwiches from the lowest franchise ‘eatery’ to the most rarefied sandwich shops and I fear the day where America’s love for plenty overwhelms its good sense.