Grubaholics jerk chicken cheesesteak and Shugar Shack salmon cheesesteak at the Black Chef Showdown. Very few of the contenders put forth classic beef cheesesteaks. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Best known as a hardcore wrestling venue, South Philly’s 2300 Arena was the scene for a more culinary competition this past Sunday, with jerk chicken, slow cooked brisket, and vegan shrimp battling it out at the first Black Chef Showdown

Organized by Black and Mobile, the local online food delivery service that works exclusively with Black-owned restaurants, and Katika, the Philly-based Black business directory, Sunday’s event brought together nine chefs in a friendly competition to determine who makes the top cheesesteak — and vegan cheesesteak.

The idea was to expand the endless “best cheesesteak” debate to options beyond the “usual names that people go to,” Black and Mobile founder David Cabello explained to Billy Penn.

“I think this will put a highlight on how talented these chefs are,” Cabello said. “And I hope people will support them outside of just coming to this event.”

It all came together quickly, with Katika founder Jason Coles reaching out to Cabello in late May about a collaborative event bringing together a number of Black-owned restaurants, he said.

To determine which businesses would participate in the competition, the duo turned to Black and Mobile’s directory of over 300 restaurants and set out sampling. Their efforts — “I don’t want any more cheesesteaks for a year,” said Cabello — seemed to have paid off, based on a steady stream of attendees throughout the day.

Black Chef Showdown at the 2300 Arena. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Ticketholders were encouraged to cast one vote per category, awarding a point each to their two top entries. Five judges — social media influencers selected by the organizers — also cast their votes, worth 10 points each. The prize? $500 to each of the two winning restaurants.

People could choose from a few different price points, depending on how many sandwiches they wanted to sample.

“I thought we were only going to do four [cheesesteaks],” said 34-year-old Tony Holmes, attending with his wife Carilyn. “But we’ve liked it so much that we’re going to buy more tickets so that we can try more.”

Prior to the event, the couple hadn’t heard of most of the participating businesses, but “now we actually want to go and try some of these restaurants,” said Tony.

“I wish there were more events like this to expose smaller businesses in the city,” said Carilyn, adding that often, when local chefs do get recognized, she feels “it’s not for your typical Philadelphia cuisine.”

“To see chefs that are actually taking a Philly staple and putting a spin on it, it’s really cool,” she said.

Black Chef Showdown at the 2300 Arena. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

There was no shortage of spins on Sunday, with only one of the nine participating competitors offering a sirloin beef steak in a lineup that one judge described as having “slim pickings” for fans of the classic version.

“The traditional cheesesteak wasn’t really there,” said Nia Gipson, owner of Nia Hope & Company which sells handcrafted beauty products. “But I honestly loved that. I loved the surprise.”

Competing chef Keenya Cain of Shugar Shack Soul Food agreed.

“I’m glad there’s so much variety,” Cain said. “I think it’s great to open your eyes to Philadelphia being a vast melting pot for different cultures, and different ways of doing things.”

Here’s a look at what was in the running, and who came out on top.

Brotherly Grub’s Tanesha Trippet holds her ceremonial prize check for winning at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Brotherly Grub: Brisket cheesesteak — WINNER

While thrilled with her win, owner and head chef Tanesha Trippett wasn’t particularly surprised. “We put a lot of time into it,” she told Billy Penn. “We did a lot of traveling all through the south just to find the perfect spices to make the rub for the brisket.” A lot of time goes into its preparation as well – the brisket is smoked for 12 hours before being chopped up, packed into a seeded Liscio’s roll, and topped with a housemade remoulade.

Trippett, a Mt. Airy native, said the creation is an homage to her family’s roots in Georgia, and came out of a desire to “bring ‘down south’ to Philadelphia and create a signature sandwich for my food truck.”

While the Brotherly Grub truck is currently in repair — Trippett hopes to have it up and running by Made in America — her brisket cheesesteak, along with “Philly original” and vegan cauliflower versions, can be found on the menu at her Germantown restaurant Jacobs Northwest.

Brotherly Grub brisket cheesesteak at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

7165 Germantown Ave. | 6 to 11 p.m. Wednesday, 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

Fast Break: Salmon cheesesteak

In terms of keeping up with the crowd, Troy Johnson’s crew killed it during the showdown, with griddles sizzling long after voting had closed and other booths were packing it in. 

Jam-packed with salmon, spinach, American cheese, and more salmon, these Liscio rolls are served alongside an array of optional housemade sauces, from chipotle mayo and mango habanero to garlic parmesan and sweet chili. Even with a heavy dose (and side serving) of the recommended mustard-blanc, the salmon remained prominent, making this a suitable choice for seafood lovers.

Fast Break salmon cheesesteak with mustard blanc at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

5411 Woodland Ave. | 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday 

Grubaholics: Jerk chicken cheesesteak

A happy accident for former postal workers Thomas and Natalie Smith, who stumbled onto their signature sandwich after a health department official mistook two separate menu items for one during the couple’s initial application. Deciding it would be “perfect for Philly,” the Smiths forged ahead with their jerk chicken cheesesteak, making it the signature sandwich of their food truck launched in 2014.

While most booths at the showdown sliced up regular rolls into smaller portions for attendees, Grubaholics’ samplings came in palm-sized dinner rolls with an unusual firmness that ultimately held up well against the heavily jerk-sauced combination of chicken breast, sauteed onions, and pepper jack cheese.

Grubaholics jerk chicken cheesesteak at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

5401 Tacony St. | 12 to 8 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday

Reggae Reggae Vibes: Jerk chicken cheesesteak

Less visually cohesive than Grubaholics’ take — the cheese here is layered onto the bread in solid half slices, the jerk sauce squirted on the whole as a finishing touch — these steaks packed a considerable punch nonetheless, mostly due to a pineapple jalapeno salsa served on the side and a lighter hand on the sauce that gives chef Hugh Walker’s seasoning a chance to make a solid impression.

Reggae Reggae vibes chef Hugh Walker at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

517 West Girard Ave. | 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday 

Shugar Shack Soul Food: Salmon cheesesteak

While acknowledging that the idea of a salmon cheesesteak “for a lot of people, is a challenge” — it’s long been popular in Philly neighborhoods, but less so in the mainstream — chef Keenya Cain felt confident enough in her attempt to have made it the current sandwich of the month at her restaurant Shugar Shack Soul Food, as well as her entry in Sunday’s showdown.

Housemade Cooper sharp-pepper jack cheese sauce, onions, peppers, and a “special fish sauce” balance out the salmon for perhaps the least fishy of the showdown’s seafood steaks. A bonafide hit with at least one attendee, who, without being asked, informed Billy Penn that it was their third time in line.

Shugar Shack salmon cheesesteak at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

45 N. Chester Pike, Glenolden | 2 to 9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 1 to 7 p.m. Sunday

Twan’s Grill & Seafood: Traditional cheesesteak

It was Antoine Warren’s stick-with-the-basics approach and laid back attitude that saw him secure Billy Penn’s vote for the night. “It’s tradition, it’s Philadelphia, and it’s a cheesesteak contest,” the 53-year-old shrugged as he handed BP an open Liscio roll pinned down under a gooey mass of chopped sirloin beef, American cheese, and a few slices of red onion.

Warren, who with a former partner ran Samiches Deli in West Philly until 2010, when he stepped down to look after his children, will be launching his own food truck in two weeks on the corner of 50th and Woodland.

Hibiscus Cafe: Spicy vegan cheesesteak — WINNER

Wholegrain Amoroso rolls set chef Quora’s cheesesteaks apart, along with the fact that they’re entirely dairy-free and meatless. Spicy seitan, sliced peppers, sauteed onions and pungent vegan cheese proved to be a winning combination for showdown voters.

Hibiscus Cafe spicy vegan cheesesteak at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

4907 Catherine St. | 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Supreme Oasis Bakery and Deli: Vegan seafood cheesesteak

Why? Because “good vegan seafood is hard to find,” according to owner Sister Nuyen, who decided to do something about it. S.O.B.A.D. got its start in Baltimore in the early 80s but when the family decided to relocate to Philly in 2018, they brought their business, and a broad menu of vegan and halal meals, with them, from vegan deviled eggs and crab fries to chicken and fish dinners and a range of desserts including a “supreme” bean pie.

As for the competition cheesesteak (really a cheesesteak hoagie, given the inclusion of tomato slices and shredded lettuce), the dominance of the vegan shrimp, surprisingly close to the original, and abundance of lettuce give the effect of an eggroll in a toasted Italian roll instead of a fried wrapper. A drizzle of housemade cocktail ketchup added a little sweetness to the leafy crunch.

Supreme Oasis vegan seafood cheesesteak at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

4401 Lancaster Ave. | 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday

Vegan Vibes: Vegan oxtail cheesesteak

We didn’t get a chance to try Notoya Knight’s vegan oxtail cheesesteak — grilled mushrooms, peppers, onions, and “authentic Jamaican oxtail seasoning” — before it sold out, so a trip to the West Philly cafe may be in order.

Vegan Vibes vegan oxtail cheesesteak at the Black Chef Showdown (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

3426 Conrad St. C-3 | 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.