The Vegetarian Option: Urban Vegan
Urban Vegan is a meat-free Thai joint with locations in Lincoln Park and Lakeview. The menu favors the expected set of Americanized Thai (and some Chinese) dishes, such as pad Thai and pad see-ew, but also offers some more original creations that seem to be a direct outgrowth of the restaurants' vegan underpinnings. I recently tried a smattering of Urban Vegan dishes, admittedly only making a dent in the deep-running roster of offerings, and came away impressed. The flavors on the plate were in many cases as bright and intense as the wattage of the agressive fluorescents lighting the sparse Urban Vegan dining room on West Fullerton. (The weight of the lighting is thankfully lifted by the spirit of the friendly, gracious staff.)
The Chinese broccoli ($9.95) expertly pairs two wonderfully made-for-each-other flavors: that of pungent garlic and earthy, slightly bitter greens. I appreciated that the kitchen had separated the crunchy stems from the languid, tastily brown-sauce-logged leaves of the broccoli—too many places will leave it to you to solve how to eat the floppy greens fully intact. And here, too, was the first indication that Thai was not the only cuisine the restaurant could serve up with skill.
That being said, the chow mein ($8.95) was so delicately sauced and seasoned that it essentially fell flat. While there was nothing faulty with the noodles or vegetables, there was also nothing to make the dish special. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't order it in the future.
The fresh ginger ($9.95), on the other hand, sang with flavor. It consists of a stir-fry of garlic, green onions, green bell pepper, ginger, mushrooms, and the restaurant's meat-free, soy-based pepper steak (which I chose from a set of vegan meat and seafood options, seitan, and tofu). I hear a lot of people say they dismiss all manmade, meat-mimicking vegan proteins, usually after tasting some subpar stuff—and, yes, it can be pretty hit-and-miss—but Urban Vegan's pepper steak could perhaps make converts out of them. With a tender texture, juiciness, and pleasing spice, the pepper steak was delicious in its own right. I think it's also helpful to forget what it's presumably trying to imitate and it just enjoy it for what it is.
The veggie fried rice ($8.95) comes standard with a base of brown rice, which the kitchen steams to a delicate fluff. The menu calls for "seasonal vegetables" to accompany the rice, which on my visit meant bok choy, broccoli, and zucchini. The selection of vegetables didn't seem all that inventive, but I couldn't fault the kitchen's handling of them, drawing out lots of flavor while leaving their natural bite intact.
I got the sense that Urban Vegan doesn't do restraint all that well, evidenced by the bland chow mein; instead, it's at its best when going big with flavors and ingredients, like administering its rich brown sauce to Chinese broccoli, juggling lots of vegetables in one wok, and spicing its tasty soy steak.