After 12 years of vegetarianism, I decided I had done my time. I was never an animal rights vegetarian, but an environmental one, albeit with serious foodie tendencies. In a city like Philadelphia it’s ridiculously easy to be veg, but I’d given up enough unique eating opportunities over the years (like the homemade tamales served at midnight at a wedding in L.A.) to get to the breaking point.
The beauty part of being a former vegetarian is being comfortable with every step and landing of the food pyramid. Gluten? Sure. Pig’s ears? Why not. Nothing is off the table. But when I was veg, my dogmatism was a bit more severe, unsurprisingly. The Basic 4 Vegetarian Snack Bar was exactly the kind of place I would have sneered at, with a menu dominated by fake meat. My former self would have looked at the Hanna Barbera cartoon strips of facon and rolled my eyes. Instead of pressing seitan into strange shapes, why wouldn’t a vegetarian restaurant serve, I don’t know, vegetables?
But with age comes mellowness and I followed my companion to the snack bar one Sunday. He’d raved about the vegetarian corned beef, but being a lover of the real version, dripping with brine, fat and mustard, I was dubious. We ordered the corned beef and a sunrise panini, with sun dried tomatoes, spinach and cheese mixed with tofu fried and chopped to resemble soft scrambled eggs. We topped it off with a slice of sweet potato pie.
Your bubbe would’ve been unimpressed by the corned beef, but I liked it. The color and texture were almost right on and, while it needed mustard, it would make a satisfying lunch. The panini was better, a gloppy, warm, satisfying mess on a whole wheat roll. Inexplicably, the sweet potato pie was served warm from the microwave. Ask for it cold instead to get the custard to the right density. Warming it, though, brought out the spiciness enough that I could smell it across the table.
How does the Basic 4 Vegetarian Snack Bar fit into Reading Terminal Market? There are plenty of other places to get a vegetarian meal, but Basic 4 seems to be creating a niche–American vegetarian comfort food. Carrot “tuna” salad? Sure. Soy chicken hoagie? Why not.
Recommended: sweet potato pie, cold; sunrise panini.