Chef Mark McKinney gives the Triangle Tavern a menu makeover

Vegan options at the Triangle Tavern | photo by Ashley Thomas

Vegan options at the Triangle Tavern | photo by Ashley Thomas

by Marilyn Anthony

On a sweltering summer afternoon, Executive Chef Mark McKinney is wedged in a closet at the legendary Triangle Tavern, which closed down over six years ago; it’s the only quiet place available. He’s sharing the space with a pitcher of ice water and his cell phone, taking a break from Friday prep at the newly reopened South Philly landmark to talk about his food passion: vegan cuisine.

He attributes his love of food to the soulful Italian cooking of his grandfather, who made the Sunday sauce. With a vivid taste memory, McKinney recounts the homemade gnocchi and ravioli, and the scrambled eggs perfectly paired with brains. McKinney enthusiastically experienced authentic nose-to-tail cooking, and his family relished calves’ brains, eyeballs and “all sorts of other meats.”

McKinney adopted veganism as a “punk rock kid” rebelling against convention. His commitment deepened as he matured, but after 14 vegan years, he drifted away. At age 40, McKinney looked at his life, liked what he saw, and decided the best way to preserve his bliss was to return to veganism. “I felt so much guilt when eating meat. I don’t have any of that on a plant-based diet.”

McKinney has a strong foundation in meat-based cooking from his first gig at Delaware’s award-winning Mirage restaurant through a series of high-end Philly restaurants. For the past 11 years, he has been the executive chef for a growing group of casual eateries, where he has integrated vegan and vegetarian dishes into every menu, including the Royal Tavern, renowned for its burgers. He’s proud to claim, “We were one of the first restaurant groups to offer thoughtful vegan items, not just a hunk of bald tofu on a plate, but something interesting and healthy.”

At Triangle, McKinney keeps the burger basic and the other offerings incredibly tasty. “If you’re coming to Triangle for the first time, you’re probably already excited about other things than a burger. We think you’re going to be more adventurous with what you order.” On all his menus, McKinney builds at least one vegan offering into each menu section, along with seasonally inspired vegan specials.

Despite his personal commitment to plant-based eating, McKinney is no proselytizer. He persuades subtly, serving dishes so satisfying, you don’t feel deprived by going meatless. “At the Triangle, we sell tons of vegan chicken wings and meatballs to non-vegan people. We have a ton of vegan offerings—even the garlic bread—and no one says, ‘It would be better with parmesan cheese all over it.’ That makes me happy.” If you’re new to vegan cuisine, don’t be afraid to seek assistance. As a courtesy to the kitchen, McKinney advises asking politely, “Can the chef do this?” 

McKinney’s ideas come from frequently eating out, experiencing life and taking inspiration from what he sees all around. When not eating his own cooking, Vietnamese food is his go-to indulgence. “Vermicelli with tofu, that’s my treat. It speaks to your soul; it’s such simple, beautiful food.”

After over 20 years in the restaurant business, McKinney celebrates how much has changed. “Vegan cuisine is so accepted now, like a chef with tattoos who used to be considered a disgusting animal but is now normal and cool. In the late 80s, you were stuck dining on crappy pasta and crappy salads.  Philly now is super vegan-friendly. Restaurants that choose not to serve vegan food are making a very poor business decision.” The chef feels this is a time of great opportunity for chefs to express themselves. “It’s open for the small guy, not just the big restaurant groups.” 

Mark McKinney’s creative voice speaks quietly, but convincingly, and he’s ready to take on even the most skeptical eaters. “I wish my grandparents were here to taste Triangle’s vegan dishes. People who have lived in my South Philly neighborhood for 70 years come in for the regular meatballs. I slide them a vegan meatball. They are amazed.  My vegan meatballs would make anybody happy.”