Vegan in a Cow-Eating Town

When people say Chicago dining, vegan isn’t usually top of mind. And, we still have a ways to go when it comes to the absolute of veg-diets. (For those living under a rock, vegans only eat plant-based foods. So, no dairy, no honey, no anything that comes from or is made from an animal.) There are more than a few vegetarian-friendly joints around town that have vegan-happy options. But, when it comes to a purely vegan experience, it’s slim pickin’s.

Native Foods LogoEnter Native Foods Café, a California-based chain that now has two locations in Chicago (with a third opening pretty soon). The restaurant can best be described as casual (or as my friend said, “A bit like eating in a cafeteria.”) It’s one of those places where you grab a menu, get in line, order your food at the counter, take your number, and then wait for a staff member to bring out your food.

To be fair, the food comes on actual plates and the server doesn’t dump a tray but places said plates in front of you. In addition, the presentation on the main dishes is exciting—weird skewers and crazy stacks of stuff. Alas, the desserts come in to-go containers and are displayed in a refrigerated case up front.

And, if you’re new here, yeah… I’m a meat eater. And, for other meat eaters out there, dining vegan won’t kill you. Sometimes, it can be rather pleasant.

What We Ate

We each tried the soup of the day—lemon lentil. Not at all what we expected: It was a lackluster clear broth with the lentils hanging out at the bottom of the bowl and a few floater vegetables. Not much in the way of lemon taste. Definitely the fail of the meal.

But then we split the sweet potato taquitos. Holy deep fried awesome! Corn tortillas filled with coconut mashed sweet potatoes and drizzled with chipotle crema. “Hold up,” you say? “Where do they get off serving crema at a vegan establishment?” They have “Native” meats, cheeses, and creams—which is their plant-based answer to the non-vegan items. (I’m still a scared about non-dairy “cheese.” I’ve had too many soy cheeses to haunt me for a lifetime.)

I went with the sesame kale macro bowl. Two slabs of tempeh skewered on top of lightly steamed kale, brown rice, ginger sesame sauce, sauerkraut, and gomasio (basically sesame powder). The bowl was garnished with green onions and toasted sesame seeds. It came with a cucumber and seaweed salad on the side. I remembered as I was eating the side salad that I’m not such a fan of the seaweed flavor, but the bowl was a whole lotta love. The Asian flavors and sauerkraut played really nicely together. And, it was definitely a huge portion. I was completely crammed full of kale.

One friend ordered the bacon cheeseburger which is thinly sliced seitan topped with melted “cheddar,” caramelized onions, and “bacon.” Then, on the other side of the bun, you get BBQ sauce and non-dairy ranch dressing, lettuce, carrots, onions, and tomato. Oh, and let’s not forget the stack of battered and fried dill pickle chips. (I so love fried pickles!) Yeah, it’s a mountain of a not really burger burger. If you get it when it’s a special of the day, you get a free side. My friend chose the potato salad—an oil rather than mayo-based bit of loveliness.

My other friend ordered the Reuben. Again, thinly-sliced seitan on marble rye stuffed with homemade sauerkraut, horseradish cheese, and Russian dressing. So, there were a few issues with the sandwich:

  1. Not enough dressing—really barely any at all.
  2. When compared to the Chicago Diner’s Reuben… well, let’s just say that there’s no comparison.

My dining companions ordered dessert. I, alas, was too stuffed (which made me sad because lactose-free desserts are difficult to come by). They had a vanilla cupcake and a slice of cheesecake. The ginger-crusted cheesecake comes in the aforementioned plastic to-go container with a little side of blueberry sauce. I did taste a touch of the vanilla cupcake frosting. Very grainy and incredibly sweet. It felt like it had too much unmixed powdered sugar.

What We Drank

Did I mention that they have a small selection of package liquor? A few beer selections (including Two Brothers and Bell’s) and an equal number of wines by the glass or bottle. There are free refills on the non-alcoholic selections (coffee, tea, lemonade, and watermelon fresco).

So, if you’re in the mood for a veg-friendly Rueben, you should still stick with Chicago Diner. But, if you want a quick bite to eat, there are a number of decent dishes on the menu. Once the Loop location opens, I would highly recommend popping in for lunch.

Location: 1023 Belmont (the other location is on Milwaukee in Wicker Park). Right off the Belmont stop. Parking is horrendous in Lakeview—especially if there’s a show at the Vic.

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