September 2008 Archives

Veggie Dining in Chicago

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There are as many reasons for avoiding animal products as there are people who are vegetarian or vegan. Some skip four-legged critters because they object to the conditions in which they are raised, some observe religious practices that prohibit dairy, and others know that their vegan girlfriends can always tell when they've had an Italian sub for lunch. No one, however, becomes a vegetarian because they want to experience the thrills of menu navigation when they dine out. For vegetarians and vegans, going out to eat is often less about choice and more about elimination. "I'll have the chicken Caesar salad, without chicken please. And are there anchovies in the dressing?" "Beef and bean burrito, hold the beef, hold the cheese. Wait, were the beans fried in lard or in oil?" "Steamed rice and, uh, an extra packet of soy sauce?"

Hyde Park is friendlier to vegetarians than most places in the Midwest, with lots of veggie-friendly menu options at our plethora of Thai and Mediterranean restaurants. The lentil soup at Cedars is made with vegetable stock, and the Snail is happy to make you a pad thai without egg. But if you're looking for something new outside the neighborhood, consider one of these restaurants that are run with vegetarians in mind.

The Chicago Diner is a great place to go to remind yourself that vegetarian meals are rich, flavorful, and creative. From the "Radical Reuben" made with slices of grilled seitan to the "Pan Seared Filet" of sesame tofu, you can't leave the Diner without eating well and bringing home leftovers. Don't leave without dessert--the peanut butter soy shake will change your life. Expect to spend between $15 and $25 for an evening at this Boystown hotspot. The restaurant is tiny and may be difficult for those with mobility impairments to navigate, but in nice weather the patio is open and expands the seating considerably. To get to 3411 N Halsted, take the red line to Belmont, walk east two blocks to Halsted, then north about three blocks to Halsted and Roscoe.

Just a few blocks away from the Diner is Pick Me Up Café, a super veg-friendly spot that's open late every night and 24 hours on Friday and Saturday. The cheese fries should be considered required dining for every non-vegan who wants to truly call herself a Chicagoan. For five dollars the veggie chili pairs nicely with the fries. Where Pick Me Up truly shines, however, is in its breakfast entries. Ask for the mixed berry pancakes vegan-style, and you'll never look back. For the 21+ crowd, some creative cocktails are available. Try the rum punch with frozen strawberries instead of ice cubes! Check out the gigantic bulletin board covered with mementos from previous diners, and bring your own piece of memorabilia to add to the collage. Expect a meal to cost between $8 and $15 here. Take the Red Line to Belmont, walk east a block to Clark Street, then head north to Roscoe.

The Kopi Travelers' Café in Andersonville has a mostly vegetarian menu (with a little tuna thrown in for the pescatarians). They do wonderful things with goat cheese here, and the faux-turkey slices are the best mock-meat I've ever nibbled. Take off your shoes and sit on pillows at the floor level tables, or grab a spot on the sidewalk and enjoy people-watching on Clark Street. Check out the nifty Jalan Jalan boutique in the rear of the café to see clothing, artwork, books, and jewelry from around the world. Expect to pay about $10 for a meal and a cup of tea. Take the Red Line to Berwyn, walk west about six blocks to Clark, then head north a few yards to 5317 N. Clark St.

Farther north still is the bleeding liberal heart of Rogers Park, the Heartland Café. The massive menu leaves me torn every time I go--do I go with the best black bean burger with soy cheese in the city again? Or should I try the soba noodles with seitan? The menu includes information about bread ingredients, and the wait staff is incredibly helpful when you have questions or want to make substitutions. Shh, don't tell--you can run into a number of former members of the Weather Underground and other activists past and present. Live shows and community meetings take place here all the time. Expect to pay about $15 for a huge meal, and bring a little extra for the general store full of books, craft kits, and activist buttons, stickers, posters, and swag. Take the Red Line to the Morse stop, and walk down the stairs on the north end of the platform to step into Heartland's front yard.

Ice Cream Tour of Chicago Neighborhoods

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Mmmmmm....Ice cream.  Ouch, brainfreezeWith a few weeks of (potentially) warm weather, here's my favorite way to check out neighborhoods.  Locally-owned shops carry the flavor of the community.  Hanging outside you see a cross-section of the city get a cup or a cone.

A Nostalgic Evocation:
On a warm summer evening, I walk over to the Penguin - a mom and pop Argentine gelato shop on Lawrence, between a dry cleaners and a Korean restaurant.  I mean mom and pop - mom is running the register, with baby in the stroller behind the counter.  Pop is scooping; the grandfather makes deliveries. Yes, deliveries.  His popeye forearms tell a lifetime of hand-cranking tubs of chocolate, grapefruit, or sambayon (wine).  The Penguin is gone, unfortunately - but there's plenty of tasty, unique frozen spots all over town.

On the subject of tours, sign up for the South Side History Bike Tour - email to register.

The List
The parlors below are my favorites - and will take you all over town.  Warning: Space out your visits to avoid the potential for massive weight-gain and crippling brainfreeze.