At one point during my meal at Taxim, there were four fetas on the table. An impromptu taste test suggested that among the portions of salty, crumbly cheese within arm's reach (crowning four different vegetarian Taxim dishes), at least two distinct varieties were represented—and both were delicious in their own way. Any place that traffics in Greek cheeses this good, and takes the extra step of parsing between different styles of fetas to complement specific dishes, is my kind of place.
'The Vegetarian Option' on Serious Eats
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?
Judging by the long line of lunchers who queued up for the opening of the Mezza Mediterranean Grill last week in the food court of the Merchandise Mart, I was not alone in my eagerness for the latest branch of this Chicagoland chain to debut.
I won't go so far as to say that the Publican provides enough meatless dishes to make a big meal for the vegetarian diner. It's just not that kind of place. But I'd argue that it's worth a visit, say for a beer and a few plates, when you're hunting more for flavor than fulfillment.
Vegetarian sushi doesn't begin and end with the cucumber roll. Take the menu at New Tokyo, where there are no less than nine varieties of meatless, seafood-free sushi rolls. Not only is New Tokyo more accommodating toward vegetarian diners than most sushi joints I've been to in Chicago, the humble little Lakeview BYOB eschews the overblown theatrics common to more upscale Japanese restaurants.
Take the menu at Lebanese BYOB restaurant Kan Zaman, which delivers on all the familiar staples of Middle Eastern cuisine while also offering the opportunity to sample a few less widely known dishes.
The Whole Foods Market on Huron Street in River North does a brisk lunch business, thanks to a big soup and salad bar, a prepared-food department, and a station serving pizza by the slice and made-to-order sandwiches. It was there, at the sandwich station, that I encountered the delicious vegetarian bánh mi ($5.99).
In a crowd of tortas featuring fillings like pork carnitas, chorizo, braised short ribs, and the like, the woodland mushrooms and vegetarian black beans manage to more than hold their own. Every Xoco fan—herbivore or otherwise—should give this torta a spin.
Is everyone who's eating this stuff, deep down, really just hankering for a good, old-fashioned steak? Basically, does it warrant consumption in it own right? I visited Karyn's on Green to find out.
Udupi Palace serves a completely meatless menu, so the vegetarian diner has free rein to explore. That said, avoid over-ordering appetizers—not that the vegetable samosa, pakora, and vada at Udupi aren't tasty, you just run the risk of filling up on these fried, carb-laden items before making it to the main event, which for me is the delicious selection of curries.
Step into any of the five Protein Bar locations slung across downtown Chicago, and it is easy to realize you've ventured into health-food country. But it's OK, proceed not with caution—the food is good.
When I think of the city's cozy, neighborhood restaurants, Jane's immediately comes to mind. Don't go expecting culinary fireworks—just fresh, flavorful, and comforting food.
For being as encased-meat-centric as it is, Bangers & Lace strikes a close, favorable accord with the vegetarian eater. For every hot dog preparation on the menu, you can sub in a veggie dog for a buck more. And the ratatouille-smothered veggie sausage is delicious...not to mention, it goes great with beer.
For the meat eater, the menu at The Purple Pig reads like poetry—if not the pages of an anatomy textbook. So should the vegetarian diner keep his distance? The short answer is "no." The only slightly longer answer is "hell no." Because there's far more to feast on than just flesh.
I felt it was time to dip into that deep well of affection and bestow some on a plate of vegetarian tacos that, I think, can satisfy and delight even the most devoted meat eater. I'm referring to the Hongos tacos ($10.50) at Mercadito.
In some ways, the challenge of eating vegetarian is hardest when doing it in a fast-food context. Enter Wow Bao—Lettuce Entertain You's chain of Asian bun stands, which in the past few years has expanded to include five locations in Chicago and the Bao Mobile, a roving bun truck.
I'm a Ruxbin Kitchen evangelist. Since my first dining experience at the restaurant, shortly after it opened a year and a half ago, I've been talking up its many virtues and pleasures to friends, family, even the occasional stranger. And the menu always includes a selection of veggie-friendly apps and at least one vegetarian entrée.
I always feel good after a meal at Mana Food Bar, even when I overdo it. It's like trying to o.d. on vitamin C pills or beta carotene—the worst that happens is, what, you ward off a cold? Your vision improves?
If you've had your eye on the Vegetarian Option column thus far, you'll know that SE Chicago editor Nick Kindelsperger has gotten off to a promising start, but I'll be taking over for him in the search for delicious vegetarian eats here in Chicago. Nick and I held the torch-passing ceremony in suitably swank digs: the dining room of the recently refurbished and reopened Pump Room, in the Gold Coast's Public Hotel.
Green Zebra's menu is basically all small plates, with dishes being arranged from lightest to heaviest. Instead of focusing on a specific cuisine, it pulls inspiration from just about everywhere. My meal jumped around from Japanese, Italian, and German without blinking an eye.