By Betsy DiJulio
If you went looking for a tasty vegan Philly Cheesesteak in a punk rock-leaning pizza and beer joint—with a custom 33 tap bar—you’d be wasting your time. That is, unless you went looking at Cogans Pizza in Ghent (where its known as a Philly Sub).
With locations in Norfolk’s Ghent, North Colley, and Waterside—I visited the Ghent location—Cogans is a world unto itself. In Ghent, vestiges of its former life as a venue for poetry readings, underground folk and punk rock are ever present: pulpy sci-fi wall murals, posters, bumper stickers, a collection of antique toys and vehicles, and a pair of imposing wagon wheel chandeliers.
But the aroma, even at 10:59 a.m.—they open at 11—is all pizza. For a dive bar, this establishment smells—and looks—ultra clean. The mouthwatering fragrance of Cogans’ signature pies and sandwiches hover over the scent of a well-scrubbed establishment.
Perhaps that has something to do with the well-seasoned owners: Dave Filipowski and Rich Katz of Belmont House of Smoke fame. I know the House of Smoke (formerly, The New Belmont). And I have long heard of Cogans Pizza. I just didn’t know they had anything to do with each other.
Since its beginning in 2001, Cogans’ reputation has been solid. By 2015, it was a throng which prompted the owners to scout out a new location overlooking Knitting Mill Creek where they opened Cogans North with more taps and a rooftop deck. Next came Cogans Waterside.
But back to that enticing aroma emanating from the open kitchen where two men cooked attentively. One expertly tossed pliable wheels of dough into the air, hands gloved. I watched, enchanted, as I sipped my ice water offered to me by the welcoming woman behind the bar. Beyond the pizzarista, the other prepared my vegan sandwich to order for $9.99.
He perfectly toasted the long, fluffy hoagie-style roll while he kept a watchful eye on my sizzling crumbled “beef”—vegan “chicken” strips are also available—and ample slices of sweet onion and green pepper. A sandwich—or any dish of few ingredients—depends on the quality of each component and the balance between them: textures, tastes, and proportions.
Cogans got it just right. There was plenty, but not too much, of the pleasantly spiced “beef;” juicy, tender, and translucent onion and bell pepper sautéed in garlic oil and white wine; and white American-like Daiya cheese—yes, folks, this vegan cheese melts(!)—and bread. For an additional buck, I opted for fries as my side because I am a crinkle fry aficionado and advance research indicated that Cogans serves ‘em up crinkly and crispy.
But here’s the rub. I don’t eat like that. Ever. But I was yearning to try this sandwich I had heard so much about. So, I tasted the bread. It passed my taste and texture test with flying colors, but the birds got the entire remainder. I devoured the filling—quite possibly my eyes rolled back in my head—enjoyed half the fries with a hint of ketchup, and fattened up area feathered friends with the rest.
My to-go order came in a plastic lidded container, so the roll and fries steamed slightly. Else, I’m sure they would have been even crispier. Regardless, this sandwich is delicious. Does it taste like a meat-lovers Philly Cheesesteak? Why, I have no idea. I had long since stopped eating beef when I met my late spouse in graduate school, an Italian-American Philly native and cheesesteak expert.
But if pizza is more to your liking, judging from the appearance and scent of the pair of pizzas placed on the mini-buffet during my short wait and the fact that the vegan cheese is so appealing, I would imagine that Cogans’ Veganator Pizza ($18.99) or Vegan BBQ Chicken Pizza ($24.99) is every bit as successful and superlative. And then there are the vegan Garlic Knots ($6.59). If you’re nice, I bet they’d sub their vegan proteins and cheese on any of their other otherwise vegan American eats.
Cogan’s Pizza—Ghent, 1901 Colonial Avenue, Norfolk, , 757.627.6428, cogansghent.com