The Vegetarian Option: Native Foods Café
With three new locations in Chicago since last summer, the vegan fast-causal restaurant chain Native Foods Café has quickly established a pretty strong foothold in town catering to vegan, vegetarian, and otherwise meatless-meal-seeking diners. The menu—designed by vegan chef Tanya Petrovna—rambles widely across a range of cuisines, incorporating lots of Native Foods's own in-house meat alternatives like tempeh, "chicken," and seitan sausage.
But can one restaurant successfully serve up Greek, Asian, and Italian flavors, just to name a few of Native Foods's points of culinary reference? And, maybe even more importantly, can it deliver authentic, honest, and ultimately delicious flavors via its proprietary line of fake meats? I paid a visit to the Native Foods Café in the Loop to see for myself.
Indeed, the menu is so broad that it can be daunting to zero in on a selection. The sesame kale macro bowl ($8.95) seemed like a good choice, since it highlighted grains, vegetables, and a vegan protein. This dish consists of a bed of brown rice, lots of steamed kale, a vegan sauerkraut, scallion, and a ginger-sesame sauce, plus a side of sesame-laced cucumber-seaweed salad. The steamed kale was bright, juicy, and fresh—its delicate earthiness was on full display. I can't say the same about the brown rice, which seemed flat, flavorless, and inconsistently cooked. The kraut was pungent and gingery and paired well with the kale (that said, by itself, the kraut tasted a little odd). Two large pieces of Native Foods's tempeh topped the bowl, lending it a crispiness and nutty flavor that tied everything together. I also liked the side of cucumber-seaweed salad, which provided a bright, tangy lightness backed by a nice sesame undertone. When the starchiness of the rice got to be a little much, the acid of the cucumber salad was a useful palate-cleanser.
While I simply just liked the kale bowl, I was bowled over by the super Italian meatball sub ($7.95). The meatballs—made from Native Foods's sausage seitan—were juicy and deliciously seasoned, with a hot-paprika kick. The roll was fresh, crispy, and tasty, although a little greasy. The thinly sliced charred onions and bell peppers were great, and the tomato sauce was a tangy, very respectable marinara. For a fake-meat sandwich, this was flavorful and filling without leaving you feeling like you ate particle board.
Comparing the two proteins I tried, I definitely preferred the Native sausage seitan over the tempeh. And dish against dish, the sub was, surprisingly, much more manageable than what felt like a bottomless bowl of rice and veg. But I only scratched the surface of this deep and varied menu. What are your favorite dishes at Native Foods Café?