This is the messy, spicy, overstuffed sandwich that will make you reconsider vegan food

Chef-restaurateur Mike Isabella was emphatic: “Please tell me you’re not going to do a vegetarian sandwich.”

We were talking about my entry into a charity tournament his team has been running for a few years at G, his sandwich shop on 14th Street NW, and now also at Graffiato downtown. Sandwich Madness pits guest “chefs” (in the current rounds, journalists) against one another, each designing a sandwich to be sold for a month. Customers vote with their orders, with part of the proceeds going to the charity of each contestant’s choice. The winners advance, bracket-style.

Of course, I told him, I would do a vegetarian sandwich because, well, I’m vegetarian. But Isabella’s point was that all previous plant-based entries have been trounced in the first round. I couldn’t let that happen.

So I came up with my take on one of the heartiest, messiest, most delectable sandwiches I know. It’s a twist on the Mexican pambazo, stuffed with chorizo, potatoes and refried beans, on a bun that’s been dipped in a chile sauce and griddled. I made the chorizo from tofu, and in consultation with G chef Mark Petonito, we added avocado and pickled cabbage, and let customers add cheese and/or an egg for an extra charge. I dubbed it the Sloppy Yo. This round, it benefits the Houston Food Bank.

Thanks to some viral vegan social media networking, it won the first round in July and is back for the semifinals through September, up against a pressed Cuban by Rebecca Cooper of the Washington Business Journal. With barely a week left for voting, the Sloppy Yo was behind but did get an unintended boost when a commenter on G’s Instagram said, “Nobody wants some trash a– vegan sandwich,” and plant-based eaters rushed to its defense. Here’s to the power of outrage!

Obviously, I’m hoping everybody who reads this buys one (or more), enough to put it into the finals. I’ve already proved Isabella wrong, but I wouldn’t mind settling the question, once and for all, of whether vegetarian sandwiches can find an audience.

For those outside the area, or who might have a taste for the Sloppy Yo once the contest is over, I’ve streamlined the recipe for the home cook. With apologies to Pati Jinich, my friend and public television host who gave me my first taste of (and recipe for) a pambazo, this one uses store-bought instead of made-from-scratch versions of two elements: the refried beans, and the chile sauce that soaks into those buns. I replaced the pickled cabbage Petonito makes with store-bought sauerkraut mixed with salsa.

One thing I’d never take a shortcut with is the tofu chorizo. I have improved the recipe, which makes for a damned good sandwich, one you certainly don’t have to be meat-free to appreciate. The Sloppy Yo is for anybody who ever thought vegetarian or vegan food isn’t filling or hearty. I dare you to say that after eating one.

Vote for your favorite in Sandwich Madness through Sept. 30 at G by Mike Isabella, 2201 14th St NW, 202-234-5015,; and at Graffiato, 707 Sixth St. NW, 202-289-3600,

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