Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
We recently hired someone new at my office, and I casually mentioned the whole food writing thing as I was introducing myself. By "casually," I mean I flat out bragged, because I'm a shameless turd burglar sometimes. She said, "Have you ever been to Kramer's?" Most of the time people mention a lunch place I've usually heard of it, but Kramer's didn't ring a bell. "It's on Wabash right by Jackson." Nope, still didn't ring a bell, though to be honest, not a whole lot of bell ringing going up in my dome these days.
Upon further conversation, I found out that Kramer's Health Foods is a health food store with an array of vegetarian and vegan products for the health nuts out there (you know who you are). But the real surprise is the cafe located in the loft space above the retail floor. The food they serve is mainly vegan, with a few vegetarian options (dairy, no meat or eggs). I see some of you Italian beef and hot dog people rolling your eyes at me, but I'm willing to give all places their fair shake, all in the name of all things Serious Eats.
Kramer's Health Foods is located just a few storefronts down from Exchequer Restaurant & Pub, which pretty much serves the opposite of health food. Despite that big awning, I had no idea it was there, which goes to show how observant I am.
Up front you'll see a cooler displaying an impressive array of convenient, freshly made sandwiches. There's a ton of tofu, seitan, and veggie sandwiches, along with sides, desserts, and snacks. But make your way all the way back and up the stairs, and you'll find the cafe, where they're whipping up lunches left and right.
There's always a daily special, and the one on the day we visited was tofu tacos ($6.50). I had my doubts until I took a bite. The marinated tofu is a little spicy, but not overwhelmingly so, but the real surprise are the bits of meaty pineapple in the mix—think al pastor but with tofu. The fresh crunchy slaw on top adds a nice contrast of texture, and guacamole adds rich fat to an otherwise light combination. Overall I was impressed with them, though I admit, I may have set my expectations at crotch level.
Ratatouille ($6.50) is a hard word to spell, but a lot easier to eat. The zucchini is cooked to the point where it retains its structure and some bite, but is still full of juice. It's cooked in a tangy tomato sauce, which is thick to the point where it's almost tomato paste. The brown rice it's served on has some good carby chew to it to contrast the softness of the vegetables. My coworker loved it, but I'm not convinced I'd be full for very long, even after that big plate.
There's a whole selection of paninis on the menu, and upon the suggestion of the cook up front I picked the Forrester ($6.50). It comes with an option for dairy or vegan cheese (I opted for the dairy), and the multigrain wheat bread is lined with shiitake mushrooms, portobello mushrooms, pepper jack cheese, fresh tomatoes, and tomato tapenade. Unfortunately, there are too many soft and wet ingredients in the sandwich, and the bread becomes soggy from the inside out. The flavor is overwhelmingly that of the tapenade, which is like tomato paste (I see a theme here), and it's hard to taste anything else, even the distinct shiitake mushrooms.
The raw vegan mac and cheese ($3.99) has neither macaroni, nor cheese. Instead of pasta, it's rocking some yellow squash cut up into the shape of spaghetti noodles, and is soaked in a "cheesy cashew nutritional yeast sauce," according to the description on the lid. It doesn't taste like macaroni or cheese, but the sauce has a velvety texture thanks to the cashew blend. It's a little buttery, a little tangy, but it's not cheesy. It's actually a decent side dish, if you can forgive them for the inaccurate name, grrr.
About a third of the menu is dedicated to specialty shakes and juices, like the Velvet Nectar ($4.49, 16 oz), which is a mix of raspberry juice, coconut nectar, and ice cream. In theory, it sounds tasty, but the shake is thin and not particularly sweet. I'm not a fan of cloyingly sweet drinks, but it needs a big boost of sugar and ice cream for me to consider it a shake. The juice is a blend of a lot of vegetables and fruit, including beets, carrots, and celery. Even though it's deep red, the main flavor is celery, which is a little off-putting if you're expecting a sweet drink with your lunch.
Personally, I'm on the fence about the food at Kramer's Health Foods. Those tacos are something I'd definitely return for, and the variety, quality, and price is definitely a good bet. I'm a much bigger fan of Native Foods Cafe, but for you dedicated vegetarian and vegan eaters, this is definitely a place to check out.
Kramer's Health Foods
230 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, IL 60604 (map)
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.