Lunch in the Loop: Protein Bar

Lunch in the Loop

Reviews of restaurants in the Loop.

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.

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[Photographs: Dennis Lee]

Happy New Year, clowns! Just kidding, I don't think you're clowns, I love you all very much. I spent my holiday getting fat, hating myself for getting fat, then eating more to drown my terrible sorrow about the fatness. It's a vicious cycle. Now I have a serious question for you: Is it still called a "double-chin" if you have like, say, eight of them?

Unfortunately, this season's holiday eating has weighed heavily upon me, literally and figuratively. Due to my overwhelming guilt, I had to pick something healthy for my first post of the year. And so I found myself at Protein Bar.

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This is the chili "bar-rito" ($6.80), made with Protein Bar's beef chili. You have a choice between vegetarian, chicken, or beef chili. It comes with quinoa, cheddar cheese, and what they like to call their "Super 6 Salad Mix," which is romaine, spinach, broccoli, carrots, red bell peppers, and red cabbage.

As you can see, this is a lot of quinoa. So much, in fact, that I thought I was going to hate its guts. I hate rice in my burritos, and so naturally I thought I'd hate the massive amount of quinoa crammed into the whole-wheat wrap. But you know what? I actually liked it! The chili was bold, well-seasoned, with a bit of kick, and the terribly named "Super 6 Salad Mix" made the whole thing taste fresh.

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This is the buffalo "bar-rito" ($7.25), made with chicken or tofu. This one is chicken with vegan house-made buffalo sauce, blue cheese, quinoa, and the same salad mix. And again, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. The buffalo sauce gave the chicken and otherwise plain quinoa some much needed vinegar and spice, and the fresh vegetables brought a welcome crunch to contrast the soft ingredients.

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I was curious to see how their vegetarian chili ($2.95) stood up, and again, I found myself liking it. Instead of meat, it contains that textured soy-protein stuff, and the soy actually didn't bother me one bit. The flavor was deep with the standard cumin and chili blend and was satisfying. The serving was pitifully small, though for a health food place I sort of expected it.

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I felt obligated at least one item containing tofu, so you're looking at the spinach and pesto bowl ($6.30), with your choice of chicken or tofu, fresh spinach, basil pesto, parmesan cheese, and—you guessed it—more quinoa! This one wasn't as good—there wasn't enough pesto to coat the quinoa, the plain fresh spinach felt out of place, and the tiny cubes of grilled tofu made the whole thing sort of weird.

You probably figured it out by now, most of the menu contains quinoa, so if that's not your thing, you might want to power-walk yourself to another place down the street. And just so you know, if you're in a rush, this place gets packed at lunchtime with lines nearly out the door. With all those people with the New Year's resolutions to eat healthier, I bet the lines are going to be even longer.

Protein Bar

235 S. Franklin St, Chicago IL 60606 (map)
312-346-7300
proteinbarchicago.com