Chef Rich Landau's deft hand with vegetables has propelled his Washington Square West restaurant, Vedge, into the national restaurant-scene spotlight. (Photo by Yoni Nimrod for COOK)
[Philadelphia’s charms as an eating town are increasingly well known, but it’s also a city that harbors a fair number of hidden delights. Visit Philly asked five local food luminaries to share where they like to go on their off-hours, what they snack on late at night, their favorite low-cost meals and why they love to cook and dine in Philly. Here, we share the results.]
Chef Rich Landau and his wife Kate Jacoby first revolutionized local meatless eating with their suburban restaurant Horizons, which they later moved into Center City, and it built them a fervent following. Yet it’s their most recent venture, the fine dining, plant-focused Vedge that’s brought their gifts to a wider audience.
With a new cookbook, a winning appearance on the Food Network’s Chopped, plans for at least one new restaurant and a legacy of Landau-trained chefs going on to open their own vegan ventures, Landau epitomizes the generous spirit and creative force of the Philly food scene.
What draws you to Philadelphia and how would you characterize this city’s eaters?
I love being a chef in Philly because people here have really embraced vegetable cooking and vegan restaurants more than you can imagine. It’s so dated to say that we’re a cheesesteak town — we’re a top-notch food town, period (that just happens to have cheesesteaks in our repertoire).
Another thing that distinguishes us is that our BYOB (bring-your-own-bottle) culture has made owning a restaurant a viable way for younger chefs to get started. For less than $100,000, a chef can start up a place, which is very accessible. In bigger cities, most restaurants are not chef-owned, and the ones that are usually aren’t chef-operated. In Philly, it’s not unusual to see a chef-owner at his or her restaurant working the line. These chefs have the freedom to turn out some amazing food with their signature.
But best of all, Philadelphians love new restaurants, and without our dining public, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.
What’s your favorite local guilty pleasure food?
The vegan cubano sandwich (smoked tofu, seitan pepperoni, seitan bacon, pickles, mustard aioli, caramelized onion and vegan cheese) at Blackbird Pizzeria is my favorite sandwich in Philly. I could eat one every day. Mark, the owner, used to work for us at Horizons, so I couldn’t be more proud of what he’s done there.
What are some of your favorite locally made ingredients?
It just so happens that the best seitan and tofu on the planet come from Fresh Tofu up in Allentown. I have sworn by their product for almost two decades.
What’s your best-kept local food secret?
The H-Mart on Cheltenham Avenue (where it intersects with Old York Road). It feels like you’re in Korea as soon as you walk into the below-ground mall area, but, best of all, the upstairs food court has stalls representing every Asian cuisine, all done remarkably well. The dolsot bibimbap there is as good as any we have had in Korea. I also have to give a nod to Bitar’s falafel. It’s outrageous, and the pickled turnips make me crazy. And it’s only $3.00. I wish they would raise their prices just a little, so I didn’t feel so guilty ordering it all the time.
Where’s the best place to eat on the cheap?
Well, besides our amazing falafel culture here (Maoz, Mama’s Vegetarian, Bitar’s, food trucks), you just can’t beat the food trucks in West Philly and on Callowhill Street. Kung Fu Hoagies makes a killer (vegan) bahn mi. In general, the banh mi sandwich is one of the best bargains in town. With such a strong Vietnamese culture here, we have so many little banh mi shops to get these addictive sandwiches. They are very cheap and incredibly good. In fact, it may be Philly’s new signature sandwich.
[Photo: Yoni Nimrod for COOK]