The Vegetarian Option: Protein Bar
Step into any of the five Protein Bar locations slung across downtown Chicago, and the context clues are hard to miss: the tornado-whir of high-powered blenders pulverizing ingredients into earthen-colored smoothies; wall-mounted menu boards complete with nutritional information and calorie counts; and the slender, peaceful-looking ladies toting their yoga mats. Yep, you've ventured into health-food country. But it's OK, no need proceed with caution—the food is good.
Organic quinoa, the hearty grain hailing from the Andean highlands of South America, is what packs the protein in Protein Bar. So, for instance, its selection of "bar-ritos" swap rice for quinoa (as well as low-calorie whole wheat tortillas for conventional flour ones) to remain squarely in healthful territory while tasting similar to some more popular guilty pleasures—like, say, a Buffalo chicken wrap. Protein Bar's grilled Buffalo bar-rito ($7.29) has become a staple order of mine since the chain popped up in River North last year. For someone who has a a taste for all things Buffalo'ed, this wrap satisfies my oft-recurring craving without all the butter typical in a Buffalo sauce. (The Buffalo bar-rito, with its standard all-natural chicken, like all menu items that come with meat, can easily be made vegetarian by asking for tofu instead.)
Protein Bar's house-made vegan Buffalo sauce, while a little thin, packs heat. And I really like the blue cheese; it's bright and creamy with just the right amount of mouth-watering kick you want in a good blue cheese. The quinoa, for its part, does everything rice would do and more. It's moist, nutty, and fluffy, and each tiny kernel provides a popping crunch not unlike fish roe.
The southwest salad ($9.99) is another tasty option that holds up well in its vegetarian guise (it also comes with chicken in its standard configuration). Yes, this is a ten-dollar salad, which might leave some wondering if it's worth it. I would argue yes, mainly because you get so darn much of it. There is enough organic quinoa, seasoned black beans, shredded cheddar cheese, fresh avocado, tomatoes, and the restaurant's "Super 6" salad mix stuffed into the bowl for you to easily make two meals out of the purchase. There's no dressing, per se, besides a moderate hit of Cholula sauce, but give all the ingredients a good toss before eating and the crushed avocado does the trick to keep everything interesting.
Trust me, after consuming the helping of quinoa in either of these, you're going to be pretty full. And what I like about Protein Bar is that the fullness you feel is also pretty guilt-free.