An entirely vegan Philly cheesesteak pop-up is launching on February 1 at The Mocking Bird food cart, from two former Philadelphians and seasoned dining industry vets.
Buddy’s Steaks first caught the attention of the Portland vegan community via social media photos. The pop-up’s Instagram account posted close-ups of “meaty” cheesesteaks against a moody backdrop. The concept comes from Philadelphia expats Angela “Ang” D’Occhio and Buddy Richter, who are hosting the pop-up on their two-year anniversary of moving to Portland. D’Occhio is a general manager at Thai barbecue hotspot Eem, where she started as a busser two years ago. Vegans may recognize Richter, who knows his way around fried “chicken” sandwiches at The Mocking Bird and vegan cheeses at Vtopia. Both have worked in the industry for over a decade, and D’Occhio says “it was always a goal to contribute to the vegan food scene.”
When D’Occhio and Richter tried some of Portland’s vegan cheesesteaks, the sandwiches didn’t quite bring them back to their childhoods. “Every corner store in Philly sells cheesesteaks,” Richter explains. “Many people think of it as heavy, but it’s an easy bite for lunch or dinner.” The chefs felt that Portland’s offerings skewed seitan-heavy, and were too chewy as a result. Richter says the perfect Philly cheesesteak is “something you can eat with one hand, dripping with beautiful juice, and not chewing too much. You don’t want to feel like you need to nap after, but it is hefty.”
When Portland went into lockdown, the pair decided to develop their own vegan cheesesteak recipe. After 12 iterations for the mock meat base and 10 more rounds tweaking the seasonings and fat content, D’Occhio and Richter finally settled on a soy-based recipe. Instead of traditional seitan, the thinly sliced “steak” is a textured vegetable protein and vital wheat gluten hybrid. To create melt-in-your-mouth fatty pockets, the chefs freeze coconut oil with binders, then shave the frozen mixture over the “meat.” Vegan provolone slices don’t melt like dairy cheese, so the chefs created a cashew and coconut oil variety to achieve the gooey, melted Cheez Whiz appearance and texture that traditional Philly cheesesteaks are known for.
Although cheesesteaks will be the focus of Buddy’s Steaks, D’Occhio and Richter — both from big Italian families with a love for food and cooking — will also serve family recipes that represent Philadelphia’s food culture and Italian influences, including sausage pepper sandwiches, meatball subs with marinara, and mozzarella sticks. Inspired by Eem chef Colin Yoshimoto’s passion for offering dishes for all diners, D’Occhio says Buddy’s Steaks aims to be “super conscious of accommodating allergies.” While gluten is unavoidable for the “steak,” a gluten-free “chicken” sandwich made with soy curls will be available. Cashew-free cheeses will be on-hand for those with nut allergies. Richter says Buddy’s Steaks will offer budget-friendly family packages as that is something he remembers from his childhood.
Named after Richter, the name Buddy’s Steaks follows the tradition of naming the cheesesteak shop after the owner, while capturing the essence of Philadelphia — nicknamed “The City of Brotherly Love.” “There isn’t a lack of that here in Portland. We want to expand upon it,” says Richter. “Everyone [in Philadelphia] is looking out for each other. There’s a lot of community.” The black-and-white logo of a cupid juxtaposed with the silhouette of the letter “B” also represents the couple’s love for food and intentions to build a friendly and approachable vegan brand.
Working at the new(ish) fried chicken cart the Mocking Bird, Richter knows that openings can be hectic. Between the stress of starting a new business and the pandemic-induced instability at the heart of the current restaurant industry, the two are just focusing on the first pop-up. Opening a food cart is the final goal, but D’Occhio is looking forward to exploring farmers markets too. “It’s valuable for connecting with the community, especially at a time when everyone is wearing masks,” she says.
The chefs have plans to focus on humanitarian and mutual aid projects through Buddy’s Steaks after seeing how Peninsula Park, the neighborhood they live in, provides lunches for kids and community support. “We grew up with programs like that, but Portland almost does it better,” D’Occhio says. “We saw that there are people in need and want to provide to the community. We’ve been in this industry a long time. We want to switch around and give back in a way we couldn’t before.”
Buddy’s Steaks will host its first pop-up at The Mocking Bird food cart at Rose City Food Park on Monday, February 1 from 3 to 7 p.m. or sold out. Menu details and future pop-ups will be announced on Instagram.