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.
Inspired by Kenji's recent foray into veganism, I decided to check out Native Foods Cafe, an all vegan restaurant that recently opened up by my office building. Native Foods has a dozen outposts across the US, and there are three in Chicago. I'd been meaning to try it for a while to see if a regular meat eater like me could enjoy vegan food.
Unlike a lot of die-hard meat eaters that I know, I am totally open to eating vegetarian meals. I just prefer being a carnivore, and I get the feeling that being a vegan can be tough, especially considering many restaurants don't offer those types of choices, and if they do, the food is typically an afterthought.
I was particularly hungry that day, and so a few coworkers and I ordered two appetizers, including the Native Chicken Wings ($6.95). The name "wing" is a little misleading, considering these look like fried zucchini sticks, but hey, it's all going in your mouth anyway! They offer either buffalo or ranch dipping sauce, so we opted for both. When I took my first bite, my eyes got really big and I stared at my piece of "chicken" for about a minute.
Holy crap! I don't have a lot of experience with fake chicken, but for a second, I was totally fooled. The flavor was, well, like chicken, and the texture was a lot like those frozen chicken nuggets you get at the grocery store. After a few more bites I could start seeing and tasting the soy protein, but that wasn't a bad thing.
But was it good? Yes! Dipped into the sharp tangy buffalo sauce, the fried vegan chicken tasted just like a buffalo wing. The ranch dressing was also great, tasting like ranch should.
The Saigon Rolls ($5.95) come with lemongrass tofu, pickled daikon and carrot, brown and jasmine rice, cucumber, cilantro, basil, all wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla, and a peanut-ginger sauce for dipping. These were a little more straightforward. The flavors were bright and fresh, with just the right amount of pickled vegetables and cilantro to balance the starchy rice and tortilla wrapper. I think I would have preferred a rice-noodle exterior, but once I dipped it into the sweet peanut sauce, I didn't mind the tortilla as much.
The Chicken Run Ranch Burger ($9.95) is made with the same vegan chicken as the wings, just in a larger patty. It's fried crisp and it comes on a spongy whole-wheat bun that held up nicely. It's also topped with carrots, romaine, tomato, shaved red onions, and ranch dressing. By the time I started on the sandwich, I knew what to expect, and it was a solid fried chicken sandwich. My advice would be to order more ranch dressing on the side, as I didn't get nearly enough. If you're missing the zing, try buffalo sauce on it too.
The Chicago Dip ($9.95) was the sandwich I was most curious about. My prior experiences with seitan left a lot to be desired. In fact, I hate seitan (or as I like to call it, "Satan"). Any food that sounds like the Prince of Darkness is a bad idea to begin with. There's not too much to the sandwich; it comes with seasoned seitan, fresh giardinera, and au jus for dipping.
Overall, it was okay. I'll admit the seitan was a lot better than the terrible versions I had before, but still not my favorite thing, being sort of mushy. And the giardinera was a little weird, because it was pretty much just pickled vegetables like broccoli and carrots without the awesome spicy oil in our Chicago version. The au jus was also respectable, but it wasn't much more than soy, a bit of seasoning, and water. I could understand the intent of trying to hit the umami flavor of savory beef broth, but it just didn't cut it. This is one of those examples of vegan food pretending to be meat, and in this case, it just didn't work all that well.
What's a trip to a vegan restaurant without eating tofu? The Rockin' Moroccan ($9.95) is a bowl of quinoa covered in grilled vegetables, currants, almonds, and tofu. The flavors were bold, with cumin, nutmeg, coriander, and the almonds and currants added texture and sweetness. The vegetables were roasted well with that same Moroccan seasoning.
Unfortunately, the tofu was the least delicious part of the bowl. It came out somewhat cold in the center and just seemed like an afterthought. The rest of the bowl was surprisingly delicious and full of flavor, but the tofu left a lot to be desired.
I'd always wondered if vegan cheesecake ($2.95) tasted anything like the real thing, and I can happily report that it tastes damn close, and I'm definitely eating it again. I was astonished at how closely the flavor of the cheese mimicked that of dairy, and I'm not quite sure what goes in it. But it's really good, especially when topped with the sweet blueberries.
I'm definitely going back to try the rest of the Native Foods menu. They advertise that every single item is made in-house, including the seitan, which is impressive. For someone who was a little skeptical (but hey, optimistic), Native Foods Cafe is a great spot for a vegan lunch.