Growing up in South Jersey, a mere 20-minute drive from Center City, I have been consistently swamped with Philly’s “world best cheesesteak” marketing from a young age. Every corner on the drive to the city featured a new billboard talking about why Gino’s or Pat’s or Tony Luke’s or John’s Roast Pork or Mike’s Barbeque had the best Philly cheesesteak. My love of these cheesesteaks started young, but a few years ago I left that life of luxury behind– I became a vegetarian.
Life was hard without the occasional Donkey’s cheesesteak to calm my adolescent nerves, but I persevered and instead tried not to think too hard about the taste of perfectly caramelized onions on a bed of tender, shredded steak. But no longer will I have to suffer like this. Thanks to the general rise in people on vegan and vegetarian diets, as well as the subsequent influx of restaurants specializing in either, I no longer have to suffer without cheesesteaks in my life.
The age of the vegan cheesesteak is here.
In pursuit of vegan cheesesteak glory, I have scoured four different locations and tried five different cheesesteaks so that my fellow South Jersey and Philly vegetarians no longer have to suffer.
The search began in the heart of cheesesteak city at Monster Vegan. Located on Spruce Avenue, this upscale, neon and gothic-themed cocktail lounge is a mere two blocks from the 13th & Locust Street Patco Station. As the name suggests, everything on the Monster Vegan menu is both monster-themed and vegan. While old horror movies were projected on the walls around me, I began to anticipate the restaurant’s “Chopped Cheesesteak.”
This cheesesteak featured impossible beef as the base, paired with lettuce and tomato, sauteed onions, vegan garlic mayo, diced pickles and a vegan cheddar cheese sauce on a crispy roll. For a classic cheesesteak, Monster Vegan delivered. The vegan cheese had the perfect, smoothed texture, as did the impossible beef. Of course, lettuce, tomatoes and sauteed onions are a given on any cheesesteak, with this one being no exception. The vegan garlic mayo was subtle but balanced well with the presence of pickles.
Although this cheesesteak was a good, solid option, it made me aware of a problem I hadn’t considered. When you’re recreating a classic, cultural dish as a vegan option, it needs to be elevated in some way beyond the classic recipe. The vegan cheesesteak is never going to taste the same as a classic cheesesteak because the “meat” just doesn’t carry the same flavor notes as real meat does. Therefore, something needs to be added to the vegan cheesesteak to make classic cheesesteak lovers think beyond the “where’s the beef” elements.
Unfortunately. While Monster Vegan’s $15 cheesesteak certainly presented a good, classic taste, my quest for the best vegan cheesesteak must continue.
Vegans Are Us
To pivot my search in the complete opposite direction, I traveled to Vineland, New Jersey in hopes of ending my hunt with Vegans Are Us’ “Philly V Steak.” A small and simple restaurant, Vegans Are Us markets itself as a location for healthy alternatives “with a touch of soul” where every item is completely vegan.
This vegan cheesesteak contained their seasoned vegan steak, lettuce and tomato, sweet peppers, vegan cheese and their special (probably mayo-based) sauce. While eating the cheesesteak was an overall pleasant experience and the flavors all meshed together quite well, I’m not quite sure this was actually a cheesesteak.
The vegan meat used was crispy and managed to have a good amount of tenderness to it that I hadn’t anticipated. However, the texture and slicing of the meat were much more reminiscent of ground beef than it was the thin, seasoned slices of steak that marks the success of a traditional cheesesteak.
Was it delicious? Yes. Did I revel in the price point of $8.99 for half a cheesesteak? Also yes. Would I, using all of my Philly-engrained food instincts, call this a cheesesteak? Not at all. I would, however, try the other items that Vegans Are Us has to offer, such as their vegan “Bratwurst Banger” or vegan “Shrimp Po Boy.”
Monarch Diner and Restaurant
In an effort to bring my search closer to home and make these restaurants more accessible to the average Rowan student, I decided to visit one of Glassboro’s two diners; Monarch Diner and Restaurant. Here, there were two different cheesesteak options available and since I went here with a friend, we were able to experience both. Oh boy, would I live to regret that.
The first option available was the diner’s “Vegan Cheesesteak” which featured seitan as the steak substitute and vegan mozzarella cheese. No lettuce, no tomato, and no onions. I have never felt more personally offended while eating food in my life. Seitan, a wheat-based protein that can serve as a strong substitute for meat, can be made and seasoned to taste good. In this case, it tasted like potatoes. My non-vegan friend who had ordered this cheesesteak really tried to enjoy it for my sake but couldn’t hide the pain in her eyes as she ate the boiled-wheat and non-melted cheese horror that Monarch had served her on a Liscio’s roll. A waste of a perfectly good roll.
I ordered the second vegan cheesesteak on the menu, the “Not Cho Cheesesteak.” As implied by the clever world play, this vegan cheesesteak contained vegan cheddar cheese. As a blessing from God, this cheesesteak also contained onions. If I had to say something good about this cheesesteak, it would be that it was better than the cheesesteak my friend had ordered. There was clearly no effort to create a cheesesteak texture out of the seitan, nor was there any effort to fully mix the cheese with the meat substitute or even ensure that it was all melted.
Vegans and vegetarians, beware of Monarch Diner’s vegan cheesesteaks. If you want a pleasant diner experience, save yourself the $15.99 these two items cost and eat at Angelo’s Diner. It is the better diner of the two, located right on Glassboro’s North Main Street and I’m a big fan of their egg salad sandwich.
The fifth and final vegan cheesesteak that I would steak my vegetarian reputation on was the Cinder Bar’s “Vegan Cheesesteak.” Cinder Bar, located in Williamstown, New Jersey, is a restaurant that discovered the exposed brick and industrial metal aesthetic and never let go. However, when I had visited this restaurant before my vegan cheesesteak search began, I recalled the food to be pretty good, if a bit over-priced for my college-student food budget.
The vegan cheesesteak on the menu was no exception, priced at $17. I decided to split the meal with a friend of mine, but since we were big spenders, we did decide to upgrade the french fries the meal came with to truffle fries. This was an excellent choice on our part, regardless of the cheesesteak.
This vegan cheesesteak was made with plant-based meat, vegan American cheese, vegan caramelized onion mayo, cherry peppers and the option to add jalapeños that I immediately jumped on. The texture of the plant-based meat in this cheesesteak was on-par with that of Monster Vegan’s and had a great cheese and meat mixture that was distinctly lacking in Monarch Diner’s.
Although I never preferred peppers in my regular cheesesteaks, the presence of them in Cinder Bar’s cheesesteak made for a pleasant surprise and finally gave me the elevated cheesesteak that I had been searching for. The seeded roll, while not traditional outside of Donkey’s cheesesteaks, provided a complementary texture to that of the meat substitute and smooth vegan cheese. If I had to nitpick this cheesesteak, I would add that I couldn’t always taste the caramelized onion mayo and that it had no regular onions. However, compared to the rollercoaster journey of vegan cheesesteaks I had taken myself, and several of my unsuspecting friends, on, this was the cheesesteak I had been looking for.
If you’re missing the quintessential Philly cheesesteak or are just looking to prove to friends and family that just because food is vegan doesn’t mean it’s bad, visit Monster Vegan for a simple and classic Philadelphia cheesesteak. And if you’re looking for that step above, the cheesesteak that distinguishes itself from the sea of impossible meat and sauteed onions, get to Cinder Bar as fast as possible. Now that my journey has come to an end, I can rest easy with the knowledge that when people tell me they’ve never had a Philly cheesesteak before I know two locations that are ready to serve them an iconic, Philadelphia experience.
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