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In upstate New York where I spent the holidays with family, there's a regional dish beloved by hearty locals and long loathed by


Vegetarian Cheesesteaks and Garbage Plates

Welcome home!
In upstate New York where I spent the holidays with family, there's a regional dish beloved by hearty locals and long loathed by vegetarians: The Garbage Plate. It's an artery-destroying pile of, as Wikipedia describes, "one selection of cheeseburger, hamburger, red hots, white hots, Italian sausage, chicken tender, fish (haddock), fried ham, grilled cheese, or eggs; and two sides of either home fries, French fries, baked beans, or macaroni salad. On top of that are the options of mustard and onions, and Nick's proprietary hot sauce, a sauce with spices and slowly simmered ground beef. It's served with rolls or Italian toast on the side."

Most cold regions have a variant of this greasy dish, like Canada's poutine, for instance (and if you didn't catch what a "hot" is, it's a hot dog). But the "Heartburn Special" (as it's also affectionately known) was clearly conceived without the vegetarian in mind. Same goes for Philadelphia, the cheesesteak-loving city where Toby and I routed our travels. Before we left on our trip, we asked a Philly-bred Seattleite what to eat while in town and after remembering we were vegetarian, she suggested the street pretzels.

Grilled seitan, creamy parsnips, truffle steak sauce. Merry Christmas to me!
But these meat-pushing locales are not without a handful of excellent vegetarian restaurants, and there's no better time to splurge on a fine meal than the holidays. Philadelphia's answer to the Garbage Plate was the "Dirt List," or fresh sheet, at Vedge, a popular downtown vegan restaurant. The Dirt List featured creative daily specials like shaved, grilled brussels sprouts with smoked mustard and crispy cauliflower with green curry, black vinegar, and spicy sambal, while the dinner menu offered heartier entrees like grilled seitan (pictured) and autumn squash pierogies with chantrelles and hazelnut picada.

Flavors were adventurous but refined--like the clean profile of the radish three ways, roasted, raw, and pickled, with smoked tamari and avocado--and the shareable plates of creative cuisine revealed a veggie-friendly side of the city worth a visit.

Driving north into New York we capped our holiday gastro-tour at Ithaca's Moosewood, the area's vegetarian institution. Where Vedge is cutting edge and modern, Moosewood is homey and simple, with over 30 years as a collectively-run business and all the time-tested wisdom you'd expect to go with it. The menu changes nightly and features four entrees, each culled from the restaurant's catalog of cookbooks. Between Toby's Indian eggplant with homemade crispbread and chickpea daal and my sweet potato gratin, we were fortified for the week ahead, whatever meaty entree might be set upon Mom's holiday table.

What's more, we avoided street pretzels and garbage plates and encountered a budding vegan movement in the same city where Benjamin Franklin introduced--and reportedly loved--tofu. Here's to the holidays and 2013, the year of the Philly Vegan Cheesesteak!

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