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Chicago’s Best Veggie Eats

Best Vegetarian Food Chicago

Well, this one feels like it’s been a long time coming. Believe it or not, Chicago has a plethora of vegetarian, vegan and veggie-friendly restaurants. My friend Melisser of The Urban Housewife proclaimed the “hog butcher for the world” one of the most veg-friendly places she’s ever visited, and she’s been everywhere, man. If you’re a Chicagoan, or a frequent visitor you’ll find some classics on this list, but you might find a few places you didn’t know about. I’m writing this with the visitor in mind, though, so I might skip a few places that have a few (lame) veg options but aren’t really worth wasting your precious time at. I’m separating this list into:

  • Cheap Eats – All veggie and/or vegan. Entrees average <$10, ideal for travelers on a budget or people staying a few days who don’t want to blow the bank on food.
  • Don’t Miss – All veggie and/or vegan. These joints tend to be $10+ for the average entree but are well-worth it. I even got married in one of them!
  • Fantastic Options – Omnivore businesses with better-than-average options for the vegetarian and/or vegan. You don’t win friends with salad, and you won’t get stuck eating salad at any of these places.

If you’re a local and you think I missed something great, feel free to say so in the comments. Let’s get started!

Cheap Eats

Quesadilla La Reyna del Sur – Super authentic vegan and vegetarian Mexican food for cheap. Seriously. If you’re a fake meat fan, this is your joint – fake goat, sheep, even pork skin – get it with your choice or dairy or vegan cheese in a quesadilla, huarache, taco or torta. Don’t worry, they also have soy-based chicken, beef, and other “normal” fake meats too. Not a fake meat fan? Try the mushroom, corn truffle or cactus. I usually go for the Veggie Cubana, which is soy-based mexican sausage with soy bacon and soy-based chicken for $5.75! They also do a ton of fresh juices and just started offering vegan desserts to. This is junk food vegan heaven, you guys. Don’t blow it. View the menu.

 

“Chicken” Run Ranch Burger Photo by Jessica R.

Native Foods - This is a chain, so check here to see if there’s one near you. We have three locations in Chicago, including one right next to the tattoo shop where my ex-boyfriend works, otherwise known as “the one I don’t go to.” This place is 100% vegan, and may be responsibly for launching CM Punk’s love affair with kale salad. The menu is mostly American-style sandwiches and salads, which a healthy vegan twist. They make their own soy meats and cashew-based cheese and the vegan ranch on the Chicken Run Ranch Burger is nothing short of amazing. View the menu.

Vegetarian Express - With it’s somewhat odd mix of Mexican and “other” dishes (panini, Thai-inspired smoothies, etc) Veg Express isn’t necessarily my favorite, but it’s dirt ass cheap and if you’re in Lakeview and killing time before you head to Chicago Diner or another less-cheap place, it’s a good choice. View the menu.

Urban Vegan – It’s pretty easy to veganize Thai food (just ask for no egg, no fish sauce, etc.) But why bother when there’s Urban Vegan? Most entrees squeeze in just under $10, and although there are combos available, I recommend sharing an app and getting your own entree. The rice and salad included in the combos aren’t really worth the extra few bucks you could spend on an app or dessert instead. View the menu.

Ground Control - Whereas most Chicago vegan/veggie joints have becoming institutions, Ground Control reminds me more of the quirky vegan restaurants in the Bay Area. The menu changes up pretty often, and they keep confusing hours – two irregularities that hungry Chicagoans normally don’t stand for – but we’re so happy to have an alternative to the long lines at both Chicago Diner locations we’re totally cool with it.

Don’t Miss

Chicago Diner – This is an absolute classic. Since 1983 The Diner has been serving up meat-free comfort foods in the heart of Boystown. I am obsessed with the Country Fried Steak, whereas my husband always goes for the Radical Reuben. You get a ton of food for your money, but don’t stuff yourself with dinner because you’re going to want to get a vegan shake at the end of the meal. Take my advice, and get the Cookie Dough Peanut Butter. Oh, and they also have beer, booze and a gluten-free menu. Oh, and did I mention that I got married there? Because I did. View the menu. (Chicago Diner now has two locations – check the site to find them both.)

 

Chicken-style Legs from Karyn’s

Karyn’s on Green – The website refers to Karyn’s businesses as a “vegan mini empire” and I’m inclined to agree. She also has Karyn’s Raw, Karyn’s Cooked, Karyn’s Fresh Corner, and a flipping spa! I’ve eaten my way around the “empire” and On Green is my favorite. The menu is contemporary American broken down into small and large plates. My husband and I always order a lot and share, but the Chicken Legs are my hands-down favorite. It’s a beautiful restaurant, so it’s perfect for date night – but they’ve never turned their noses up at Tony and me when we roll in wearing hardcore shirts and Nikes. View the menu.

MANA Food Bar – I can’t think of a better endorsement for this place than to say I brought CM Punk there recently and he went back for lunch the very next day. It’s a warm and cozy little place with a selection of small plates that are perfect for sharing. I always get the Salad Sampler, and the Pickled always gets one of those three spots. Never before in my life have I said the words, “Oh my god this salad is so fucking good!” Another go-to is the Mana Slider. I’m not even going to explain it, you just need to shut up and eat like, three of them. View the menu.

Blind Faith Cafe – This was one of the first vegan/veggie restaurants I ever went to back in the Krishna-core days. After a Shelter show you could pretty much count on Soul Veg (which I hate anyway) and Chicago Diner would be packed so those in-the-know would pile into cars and head out of the city to nearby Evanston for some Blind Faith yums. It was pricer than I could really afford back then, but nowadays it’s a good date spot and a nice place to bring my mom, who is also a veg head. The menu changes pretty often, but I always go for something with their delicious housemade seitan and dear god almighty, save room for dessert. Blind Faith is home to my favorite vegan bakery on planet Earth. If you eat in the sit-down restaurant, skip the plated dessert menu and order something from the bakery instead – like the Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake – dang. View the menu.

Fantastic Options

I just want to say, this is my favorite section. As much as I love all of Chicago’s exclusively vegetarian restaurants, I love finding hidden treasure even more. These are places that you can go with your omnivore friends (and remind them that they are not carnivores, that really annoys me,) or just go for the veggie stuff because it’s that awesome.

 

Chicago hotdog

Artwork by Betty Turbo

Budacki’s Drive In – I wish I had a video of the day my husband and I discovered this place that I could share with you. We were driving by when Tony thought he saw “veggie dogs” painted on one of the windows of this classic Chicago hot dog stand. He whipped the car around in a sweet Chicago-style U-turn and pulled into the parking lot. There it was, in bold painted letters, “We have veggie dogs.” When we made our way back for lunch the next day we were greeted with multiple $5 “Tree Hugger’s Specials.” Your choice of veggie dog with all the Chicago fixins, veggie burger or grilled cheese with fries and a pop for $5. Sure, you could wait in line all day long for a Morning Star veggie dog from Hot Doug’s, but why would you when you can sit at a picnic table, eating an oniony veggie dog and people watching on Damen Ave?

Dimo’s Pizza – For the past two years, if you’ve been following me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me yapping about Ian’s Pizza. Well, Ian’s is now called Dimo’s but it’s the same stoner-ific pizza in the same Wrigleyville location and I love it as much today as I did the day I first sank my teeth into their mac and cheese pizza. They use Upton’s Seitan to make amazing veggie slices and every Thursday is Vegan Slice Night with tons of dairy-free options. Dimo’s also makes a guest appearance in my cookbook! Follow them on Twitter for weekly specials.

Estrella Negra – While it isn’t necessarily tough to find veggie options at most Mexican restaurants, it is hard to find ones that make you, if you’ll excuse the expression, totally cream your jeans. Estrella Negra is a healthy, veg-friendly approach to Mexican food. There’s no shortage of tacos and tamales, but it’s light on the dairy, grease and salt, so the ingredients really shine through. The cool Día de Muertos interior made me a happy girl, and the punk rock and heavy metal sound track made Tony a happy dude. Best of all, though, was the Taffy Apple Empanadas with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream I had for dessert. View the menu.

Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen – To find falafel in my neighborhood, walk outside, pick up a rock, and throw the rock in any direction. Walk over to whatever you hit with the rock and go inside, because that place serves falafel. Is it a laundromat? Doesn’t matter, this is Albany Park – they serve falafel. So how does a falafel place stand out in a place like this? By serving some god damn delicious falafel, that’s how. Made-to-order and fresh as can be, bright green with parsley… and to think I only checked it out because it the name made me think of that one episode of The Office!

 

vegetarian sandwich

Artwork by Caged Tomato

Nhu Lan Bakery – Bánh mì oh my! (Sorry, I had to.) Bánh mì is the Vietnamese term for bread, and in the case of Nhu Lan Bakery, it’s a crusty French loaf sliced, and stuffed with crunchy veggies and amazing, pressed tofu. I’m obsessed with the lemongrass tofu, although the ginger tofu is also amazing. I did try the veggie pate and ham and wasn’t a fan, but god damn it, I’m just glad it exists! Did I mention that these gigantor sammies are a mere $3.50 each? Yeah, because that’s ridiculous.

Whole Foods City – OK, that’s our made up name for Whole Foods Lincoln Park, but it’s one of the biggest WF in the country so the name is well-deserved. When you’re done wandering the isles marveling at the array of groceries you never knew existed, make your way over to the food court. Here you’ll find an organic diner with a great housemade veggie burger and veggie dogs, a taco stand with several fresh, tasty vegan and veggie options, and vegan pizza slices just to name a few. We spend a lot of Saturday afternoons at Whole Foods City in the summer, because you can take your food outside and look out at the Chicago River while you dine.

Honerable Mentions

Here are a few other places where you can find decent veggie and vegan options. They aren’t here because they aren’t good, they just aren’t my personal favorites. Most of these have Tony to thank for appearing on this post.

  • Handlebar – tons of veggie and vegan options, tons of beer and tons of rolled-up jeans and ironic mustaches.
  • George’s Ice Cream and Sweets – a few really good vegan ice creams and if you’re lucky, you’ll see Puppet Bike.
  • El Faro – I honestly haven’t made my way down there in years, but they have tons of soy meat options for pretty cheap.
  • Pick Me Up Cafe – Pros: Open super late, really good vegan French toast. Cons: Way overpriced, apparently does not own a mop.
  • Loving Hut Chicago - Most major cities have a Loving Hut, and it’s definitely the only vegan restaurant run by an Asian cult you’ll find on this list.

So there you have it – the veggie places I recommend time and time again. Did I leave your favorite off the list? Feel free to leave a comment about it!

Posted in BLOG, Chicago's Best | 18 comments

Chicago’s Best…

Natalie in Miami

Taken in Miami. Ha ha... sorry!

I just spent a week in Miami covering the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and would you believe I nearly starved? The lines are long, portions are tiny and surprise, surprise – America’s top chefs are not concerned with being veggie-friendly. I did manage to find a pretty killer grilled cheese joint called MLT that sustained my life for my last two days in Miami with their truffle fries and over-the-top sandwiches, but other than that, I was a bit lost. (Full disclosure: I was so tired one night I ate French fries in the bathtub to save time so I could go to bed as quickly as possible.)

Thanks to my Florida-based friends I did find up one or two places that hit the spot, and I also spent a lot of time telling Miami vegetarians I ran into where they should eat when they come to Chicago. In fact, I have an email saved that I update and send to people whenever they ask me about things to do when visiting my fair city. After a quick poll of my Facebook fans, I decided to run some “Best of Chicago” posts here to hopefully make your visit to Chicago less hungry and crabby than my visit to Miami was. You’ll find them all categorized as Chicago’s Best on the right hand side of the site once I start posting them.

Here’s what I have planned so far – Chicago’s best:

  • Veggie Eats
  • Sweets & Snacks
  • Stuff to Do

What else do you guys want to see? Leave your suggestions in the comments and I’ll randomly choose one of you (with a US address) to win a care package containing my Internet-famous whoopie pies! I’m choosing a winner 3/6 so think fast!

 

Posted in BLOG, Chicago's Best | 34 comments

The Chicago Diner Vegan Bakery


chicago diner cookies
Originally uploaded by littlepretty

Today’s visit to The Chicago Diner reminded me of how much I love their bakery. I’ve been slacking on my bakery reviews lately, mostly because I post so many on Yelp but that ends now. There was a time, back when I was vegan, that TCD’s bakery was sub-par. Cakes were iffy- sometimes really delicious, others really dry. I remain terrified of the tofu cheesecake to this day, but I really should give it another shot because their bakery is now in my top 10, and I can eat butter and eggs with the best of them.
Teno and I popped in for lunch and to say hello to Vegan Baking Featherweight Champion, Malissa, who also happens to co-author one of my favorite foodie blogs, Per-Person. I devoured my biscuits and gravy with tempeh potato hash and Teno threw down on the vegan mac and cheese but the best part came in the form of a coconut-custard filled carrot cupcake with coconut “butter”cream. It was so moist and perfectly spicy and creamy that I had to rush home and post about it.

There are a lot of politics involved in vegan bakeries, I’ve found. In Chicago most conventional bakeries are getting hip to the vegan trend in our fat, lazy city and offering a few things here and there. New vegans are usually pretty psyched on the lamest of vegan brownies, but smart vegans investigate the motives behind these offerings. Places like The Bleeding Heart Bakery, for example, have had vegan baked goods all along and they offer a wide variety. The ingredients are organic, sustainable and locally grown and they even donate profits to good causes all over the city. This is the kind of business really dedicated vegans want to throw their money at. I only know two people from The Chicago Diner, and neither has told me anything about the ethics behind the business practices, but the restaurant is going on its 25th year of meat-free menus and they offer everything from Not Dogs for kids to raw chocolate cake for you wacky raw foodists. So I can only assume it’s another business vegans should support because they’re in it for the right reasons.
I vered off topic, sorry. Back to the deliciousness. I love Chicago Diner’s German chocolate cake, coconut bars, vegan scones and now the coconut carrot cupcake. If you’re visiting Chicago put the Diner on your list.
Here is a recipe for vegan choco chip cookies from their official cookbook, which you can buy in the restaurant or online.
Please click the pictures I have posted here to see their owner’s Flickr streams.

For the cookies you will need:

  • 1 1/2 cups turbinado sugar
  • 2 cups sifted whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup soy or rice milk
  • 2 sticks soy or other vegan margerine
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 cup dairy-free chocolate chips (try Sunspire brand)

Then you:

Cream margarine, sugar and vanilla together. Gradually add flour, milk substitute and chocolate chips. Mix well. Spoon onto a greased baking sheet at 350 degrees at 8 minutes. Yields 3 dozen cookies.

Posted in BLOG, Chicago's Best, Cookies, Reviews, Vegan | 5 comments