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.

Grilled Vegetable – The Steeping Room, The Domain, Austin, TX

Grilled Vegetable, The Steeping Room, Austin TX

Austin’s The Steeping Room operates in the most manufactured, globalized area of a city that prides itself on being “weird.”  To its left – a Starbucks.  To the right – the Apple store.  In between is a closet-sized nook hoping to bring exotic teas and delectable cuisine from the Eastern hemisphere to customers more concerned with the logo on the bag than the items inside of it.  However, in the outdoor mall “The Domain,” where vegan menu choices are limited to overpriced sushi and selections from the California Pizza Kitchen, it is a refreshing hideaway.

After a disappointing experience with a lukewarm ginger tofu sandwich, I took the recommendation of my company and enjoyed The Steeping Room’s piping hot Grilled Vegetable.  Roasted butternut squash mixes with eggplant, caramelized onions, arugula, walnuts and hummus standing in for goat cheese.  The most shocking revelation the sandwich offers is the thought that hummus can be enjoyed hot.  It loses the signature identifiers of classic Lebanese hummus and becomes adhered to the ciabatta bread, not only serving as a replacement for the cheese, but acting to fill the expected highs and lows of milk fat and proteins.  As always, field greens drizzled with balsamic vinegar provide the perfect accompaniment.  All in all it is a fantastic first bite that leaves you with an unusually warm aftertaste.

This sandwich enthusiast recommends ordering your Steeping Room selections to go, to avoid the lethargic cooks and hit-or-miss service.  Nothing destroys the ambiance of a classy tea room faster than an uninformed Austinite who can’t remember what you ordered, when you ordered it, or if you have ever spoken before.  I apologize for the facetious tone.

Purple Parma – Melt Bar & Grilled, Detroit Ave., Lakewood, OH

Purple Parma, Melt Bar & Grilled, Cleveland OH

Cleveland’s Melt Bar & Grilled masks decadence with the trappings of comfort food, offering a homestyle grilled cheese sandwich with the works and delivering a grease-filled monstrosity of dripping goop and fried-to-a-crisp everythings.  However, this is not Melt’s condemnation, but its greatest success.  It is unique in the truest sense of the word, and a beer-bathed beacon of hope in Cleveland’s sparse culinary landscape.  With the Hard Rock Cafe and House of Blues ranking as two of the city’s top ten restaurants, Matt Fish’s entrepreneurial gem has set fire to more than the Cuyahoga River.

The “Purple Parma” is the eatery’s vegan melt of choice.  Hand breaded eggplant, grilled tomato, sun-dried tomato pesto and provolone cheese, easily replaced with a choice of vegan cheddar or mozzarella, smashed hard between two buttery slices, served with crispy fires and coleslaw.  In the four years I spent as a resident of the Metropolis of the Western Reserve, sandwiches never came close to equaling this.  Melt expects you to wait – I never personally waited less than 45 minutes for a table, even as the restaurant was opening – but the payoff, from the presentation of the “alternative” style waitstaff to the somehow happy feeling of a brick in your stomach as you leave, is worth any wait.

Melt Bar & Grilled nearly transcends food reviews, battering me with pleasant sensory memories until I’ve found myself writing hundreds of words that amount to a shill.  The process isn’t perfect, and as my brain matures it may find itself less and less willing to wait up to two hours for a grilled cheese sandwich – but for now the speciality of the specialty is enough.

The Mitch – Spiral Diner & Bakery, West Magnolia Avenue, Ft. Worth, TX

The Mitch vegan club, Spiral Diner, Ft. Worth, TX

If I had been lucky enough to be a part of the “On Sandwiches” endeavor when it was first set upon, I may have had more influence on the “finest sandwich I have ever eaten” link at the top of the page.  My contemporary has a refined, almost ethereal sense of taste; however, differing opinions on the consumption of meat occasionally lead to creative conflict.  This being said, I hope not to question the finest sandwich in America, but to raise up Spiral Diner’s “The Mitch” alongside it as the finest sandwich I have ever eaten.  At the very least it is the finest meatless sandwich in America, and no vegetarian or vegan in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area worth their salt should miss it.

Named in honor of the irreverent humor of late comedian Mitch Hedberg (“I order the club sandwich all the time, but I’m not even a member, man. I don’t know how I get away with it.”), Ft. Worth’s Spiral Diner & Bakery adheres to the tropes of the classic club while reconstructing and enhancing it for a vegan palate.  Grilled tofu is topped with lettuce, tomato and surprisingly effective bacon bits both above and below the sandwich’s “special extra piece of bread.”  Served with an impeccable potato salad, preferable to chips, The Mitch is actually so good that it detracts from the remainder of Spiral’s challenging and adventurous menu — more times than not, my peers are dissuaded from a tasty vegan meatball sub or the avocado-laden “Simpleton” not because of the sandwiches themselves, but because they would so miss the taste and experience of Spiral’s Mitch.

The only negative to The Mitch could be the Texas area’s over-reliance on chipotle mayo for vegetarian sandwiches when a mustard or standard, eggless mayo would suffice.  It is a valid criticism — vegan variety is sometimes taken for granted in the cultural oasis of Central Texas — but one can only imagine that those sandwiches bear a similar taste in an attempt to draw glory from The Mitch.  They do not succeed.

I have learned the rule the hard way.  Order The Mitch, or spend your afternoon chewing through diced seitan, wishing you had.

The Classic – green Vegetarian Cuisine, North Flores Street, San Antonio, TX

The Classic, vegan sandwich at Green Vegetarian Cafe, San Antonio, TX

green Vegetarian Cuisine & Coffee came to San Antonio in 2006, and remains the area’s only totally vegetarian eatery. Searching Texas for a high quality vegan sandwich outside of the Keep Austin Weird ideological bubble can be challenging, but green chef Mike Behrend prides himself on being the exception, boasting on the restaurant’s website about how he is “anxious to show people just how good vegetarian cuisine can be.”  green’s name is purposefully in lowercase, and Behrend grows everything he prepares in a garden in its front yard; two things that should appeal to vegans.

A restaurant that has been in operation for only five years may be making a dubious claim by labeling their signature avocado, cucumber and sprouts sandwich as “The Classic.”  The sandwich, served between two slices of delightfully thick whole wheat bread, walks a fine line between disappointment and satisfaction, offsetting a misrepresentation of ingredient portioning with a delicious taste that can hardly be described.  Listing avocado as the primary ingredient was the first misstep, as avocado exists only as a textured spread and rendered almost non-existant by a heavy dose of chipotle mayo.  Sprouts dominate the body of the dish, bound up and twisted, pushing the bread so far apart that the presentation seems open-faced in spite of itself.  My dining guest was unable to enjoy the sandwich because of this, referring to it as “nothing but sprouts.”

Despite these criticisms, I found myself enjoying the sandwich more and more as it continued, and while the avocado and chipotle mayo began confusing themselves with each other, I found their mingling intoxicating.  As a vegan, I sometimes share my colleague’s skepticism in regard to fake or “false” meats.  Because of this, a mouthful of sprouts became a journey, offset once and again by the crispness of a homegrown cucumber.

The final verdict on the sandwich is a positive one, though green’s definition of “classic” seems positively niche.  As a related note, I enjoyed mashed potatoes as an unconventional side dish, choosing it from a list of choices; however, I was disappointed to find that many side staples, such as french fries and onion rings, were only available at an increased price.  Perhaps a sense of propriety should be grown alongside the sprouts.

Vegan Sandwich – Figueroa Produce, N Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA

The "vegan sandwich" at Figueroa Produce in Los Angeles, CA

This was a fine sandwich. The bread was particularly good, large, tender sourdough bringing together fake chicken, fake cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a bit of avocado. I could go on a diatribe about the woeful inadequacy of yellow mustard, but that’s best saved for another day. The “vegenaise” was a more than acceptable substitute for the standard mayo, and that points at what is bothering me about this sandwich. The fake cheese wasn’t particularly good; you could see where it was aiming but it missed the mark. But the fake chicken, like the mayonnaise, was a fine substitute. Sampled alone, outside of the sandwich, it had a pleasing taste and a texture not at all unlike your standard cold cut. This was a good sandwich, I enjoyed eating it and would gladly return to Figueroa Produce and order another one. But even good sandwiches sometimes suggest larger problems.

I like chicken. It’s tasty, it’s versatile, it’s more-or-less good for you, and it makes a damn fine sandwich. You’ll find plenty of sandwiches here built around a chicken breast. But a lot of chicken sandwiches aren’t made with the breast. The same can be said for ham sandwiches, and turkey. These sandwiches are made with cold cuts, with lunch meat. This feels like a bit of a confession, but I don’t particularly care for lunch meat. Think about a chicken, and think about the kind of chicken you might get from the folks at Boar’s Head. Try as I might, I have trouble connecting that to an honest-to-goodness chicken. And that’s what this sandwich points to. What is done to meat that a couple of soybeans can cling together and stand in its place? Through the flavoring, the shaping, the retexturing, how does chicken get so far from itself that it’s just as easy and just as good to have such a drastically different ingredient? How might be the wrong question here, I don’t want the process explained to me. A better question is why? I understand the demands of cost and efficiency, but should we not aspire to higher ground? A sandwich can be a moment of delicious serenity in an otherwise chaotic life. Why let processing and preserving and stabilizing horn in on that?

I know I’m tilting at windmills. Let the supermarket delis exist, let franchise sandwich chains bury processed meat in salt. Let what was once an honest bit of pork sit, hopelessly round and absurdly pink, one side exposed to the air. Let it sit there for years, never going bad. I will be elsewhere, looking for a better sandwich.