Chicagoin’ it Up

WHEW.

That was me giving a big huge sigh of relief. My move is complete! We are safely installed in our new place (thanks in part to some hastily hired movers who hauled our two sofas up to the third floor when we utterly failed to do so ourselves)! I can now settle in and enjoy living with two of my favorite people, S and Moria. Yes, Moria is people.

I’ll talk a bit more about that settling process eventually, but for now let me take you back in time. In the midst of our moving preparations, S and I escaped to Chicago for a weekend to visit some friends who moved there a couple months back. I really enjoy Chicago, especially when I’ve got a place to stay right in the city and I’m hanging out with folks who have done all the touristy things already. This trip was pretty relaxed – we saw a movie, went suit-shopping for our friend Aaron (and helped him select one snappy number!), waxed nostalgic at the American Girl Store (I had Addy and Molly, and I loved them both to bits), and just hung out and enjoyed each other’s company. We also ate food. Duh. Half the reason I travel is to try new vegan eats. ;)

First, we headed to Standard India Restaurant for a late dinner on Friday night. I didn’t take pictures (mostly because I wasn’t feeling well at that point), but let it be known that this restaurant is incredibly vegan friendly. The servers are courteous to a fault (seriously – the service was a hair overbearing) and know exactly what vegan means. They typically bring out a small starter soup before your meal, and our server exchanged the non-vegan soup for a delicious chana masala for S and I without our even prompting him. Then, when my pakoras took longer than the rest of the food to arrive, the server gave me a samosa on the house to tide me over.

We all ordered from the a la carte menu rather than do the buffet or thali meal, and I only had the pakoras because I’d actually already eaten dinner. S enjoyed samosas, while our dining companions had something meaty. :) I wish I’d been hungrier, though – the buffet had clearly labeled vegan options that looked fantastic. The food was delicious, perhaps even more so because the restaurant is BYOB and our server kept our wine glasses filled at all times. ;) The only slightly unpleasant aspect was the very irritated reaction a server had when we asked if he could prioritize running our credit cards because we were running late for a movie. I think it was because the restaurant is fairly traditional and prides itself on its slow, impeccable customer service, and he perhaps felt offended by our rush to leave. Still, his knee-jerk look of irritation was off-putting. Beyond that, though, it was a pleasant experience with good food and attentive service.

The next morning, we broke our fast at Handlebar, a vegetarian and very vegan-friendly hipster-tastic establishment with a great variety of sandwiches, breakfast foods, and traditional (and not so traditional) bar food (fried pickles?!?). I enjoyed a cup of coffee and these melt-in-your-mouth tender slices of French toast:

Toast-tastic.

This was remarkably filling, for being only two triangles of toast! It was actually a side order, and I complemented it with a side order of breakfast potatoes. They were perhaps the least memorable part of my meal, because the toast was just so delicious and the potatoes were pretty average. I love that the French toast came with pure maple syrup, too. So yummy. S also wholly enjoyed his breakfast – biscuits and gravy:

Vegan Bloody Mary in the background!

That seitan sausage gravy was a savory, meaty treat! I’ve never really encountered biscuits &andgravy before, but now I see why so many people love this meal – more on that later! S thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to consume a veganized version of this meal, and I felt the same way about my delicious French toast. If only Handlebar had a location in Madison – I’d be brunchin’ it up all the time!

Because we brunched around 11:00, we didn’t have a full lunch. Instead, we stopped at Big Bowl after finishing our suit shopping for some refreshing drinks and appetizers. A couple of them are vegan; S and I shared summer rolls and… something else I can’t remember. But we ate light because we were saving our appetites for dinner. We’d intended to head to Karyn’s on Green for a fancy-pants meal, but the timing didn’t work out so we decided to hit up Native Foods instead. I never say no to Native Foods!

My stomach wasn’t terribly happy by the time we got there, and I knew I needed something loaded with veggies. The Soul Bowl was the perfect choice. It’s a big gigantic bowl of brown rice, red beans, steamed broccoli & kale, ranch sauce, BBQ sauce, and a couple pieces of Native Chicken. And by “a couple pieces” I mean one normal piece lying atop the bed of veggies and one skewered, BBQ-slathered piece proudly standing tall like a fake-meat tower:

A majestic sight.

Insane, right? And a HUGE amount of food! I barely got through half this bowl, which meant I had lunch ready for work the next Monday. Win! It was just what my upset tummy ordered – veggie-rich and delicious. I could’ve done with a little less ranch sauce, but I’m a big weirdo who’s not actually very fond of ranch.

S and one of our dining companions ordered the Portobello and Sausage Burger, which happened to be the special, so S enjoyed a free side of sweet potato fries. We all shared the Native Nachos as an appetizer, and they were fantastic – the Native Chipotle Crema and Native Cheese made for an appropriately cheesy platter, and the entire dish was loaded with guac, veggies, black beans, and taco meat. Perfection.

S and I rounded out our meal with dessert to go – a Peanut Butter Parfait for S and a Double Delight Brownie for me. We saved them for later and enjoyed them while watching a movie. The brownie was nothing to write home about, but it was certainly worth $2.95. I very much appreciate the accessible prices at Native Foods – no $7.00 desserts there!

The next morning, we all brunched at The Chicago Diner before S and I headed back to Madison. I was extremely excited to finally eat there – it’s a veggie institution, but in all my visits to Chicago I’ve never made it there! (Although S did bring me back a treat that one time.) We all sat in their semi-outdoors back patio area, which is fully covered by a yellow tent. Hence the lack of pictures – the tent gave my pictures a hideous, radioactive mustardy glow that made all the food look very unappetizing. However, it was very appetizing indeed. I stuck with my brunchy theme of ordering sides and had a bowl of fruit and a small plate of biscuits and gravy. Y’all, I’m totally sold on this biscuits and gravy dish – it’s so perfect! It’s got a carby element that’s undeniably welcome at breakfast time, it’s savory and filling, and it’s incredibly satisfying to mop up that salty gravy with a flaky biscuit. S also had the biscuits and gravy, and rated them on par with those at Handlebar.

After our meal, S and I got two cinnamon buns to go, and we stickily devoured them on the drive back. They were melty, sweet, soft, and totally perfect. Chicago Diner, I think I like you.

For a two night, one point five day stay in Chicago, this trip was full of noteworthy eats. Our hosts were incredibly gracious in accommodating our veganism, never once complaining about being forced to eat mostly meat-free for a weekend. Our friend Aaron remarked a few times that the non-meat in his meals was good and not really noticeably fake, and I think both our hosts enjoyed all our meals. So hooray for Chicago and its omni-friendly veg eating establishments!

Where have you traveled lately? How do your omni friends react to eating at veg restaurants?

Windy City Weekend Eats: Part 2

Welcome to Part Two of my Chicago eats recap! Part One featured vegan diner food and fantastic pho, and Part Two only gets better. :)

After slurping pho for lunch, S and I switched to forks for our dinner experience. The next restaurant on the docket was Karyn’s on Green, where we transitioned from a fast-casual lunch to a fancy-schmancy sit-down dinner. I dined at Karyn’s Cooked last year, so I knew I could expect delicious, delicious eats from a Karynian establishment, and I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t have a photo, so you’ll just have to trust me. S ordered a pizza with arugula, caramelized onions, potatoes, and a cheezy topping, and he graciously let me share, so I can vouch for its deliciousness. I chose the Sweet Pea Risotto, which features white truffle oil, sweet peas, and pea pods. I’m not sure I can adequately describe how fantastic this was. Perfectly creamy, the entire risotto was infused with a delicate sweet pea flavor, turning it a gorgeous shade of light green. The crispy pea pods were a perfect textural counterpoint to the otherwise creamy dish – it was very well-balanced. It was also quite filling; S had to help me finish it. I’d absolutely love to recreate it, but I’m not sure I could do it justice!

Beyond its amazing food, Karyn’s had fantastic customer service. Through some oversight or miscommunication, S and I weren’t given menus for about ten minutes after being seated (we did have bread with an herbed butter to munch on, however), and our server was extremely apologetic and offered us a round of free drinks on the house. We both chose the specials of the night; S’s featured muddled watermelon and other things I can’t remember, and mine was a minty, chocolaty affair that was a rich, creamy delight. We rounded off our meal with a to-go dessert, a chocolate-peanut butter pie that I might have eaten for breakfast the next morning. Maybe. I can’t say for sure. Overall, our experience at Karyn’s was fantastic, and I still dream about my risotto.

Our final eating destination was a new-to-Chicago establishment, Native Foods. The Wicker Park location opened in early August, and it seems like it’s already gained a fan following. We just beat the lunch rush on Sunday and sat outdoors munching on a meatball sub (S) and a chicken-ranch burger (me). This is the type of thing I’d never make on my own, so I loved the opportunity to try it!

I swear it wasn't this neon IRL...

Native Foods does faux-meat really, really well, so it makes total sense that their new location was hoppin’ on a Sunday afternoon! My chicken-ranch burger was the special of the day, so I got a free side. Obviously I chose the sweet potato fries, and they were crispy, sweet, and salty perfection. I also got a lavender lemonade, which hit all the right notes – tart and tangy with the slightest floral flavor.

And that’s all she ate! Despite trying four fantastic vegan-friendly restaurants, our Google doc has many more options yet to be tasted. I resolve to one day try the famous Chicago Diner, Handlebar Bar & Grill, the Loving Hut, the Green Zebra, and one (or two… or three) of the vegan-friendly bakeries in Chitown.

Windy City Weekend Eats: Part 1

Although I didn’t spend last weekend in Portland with all the cool vegan kids, I’ve had my fair share of adventures this summer, including an action-packed weekend trip to Chicago with my manfriend, forthwith to be known as S. We had a great time, and I’m breaking up my recap post into two parts because it’s just too darn long (twss)!

So, Chicago. S and I have both done most of the standard Chicago touristy activities, so instead of taking photos at the Bean or buying overpriced mass-produced souvenirs at Navy Pier, we chose events that appealed to our interests. We took an architecture boat tour of the city (#protip: If you take the 8:00 AM tour, tickets are 50% off), visited the Museum of Science and Industry (agriculture [read: dairy] exhibit, gag!), marveled at the Baha’i Temple, checked out Ikea (my first time!), and ogled cute animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo.*

And, of course, we ate. Weeks prior to our trip, I created a Google doc with a list of possible eateries, so when we felt rumbly in our tumblies, we pulled the document up on my man’s phone and found somewhere nearby to eat. (Incidentally, I have almost been convinced that smart phones aren’t the devil now that I’ve learned how frakkin’ easy it is to navigate public transit with one. You basically say, “Oh, I would like to take the bus to Destination X; tell me how!” and the smart phone is all, “Yes, my liege! beep boop beep Here are step-by-step instructions on how to reach your destination! It will take you this many minutes and this many stops and, also, feel free to watch your progress via this small blue dot moving along this map! Have a great trip!” For those of us prone to travel-induced anxiety, it’s a godsend.)

Anyway, we ate. On Friday night, our first stop post-Madison and pre-Chicago was Ravinia Park, where we watched Fellowship of the Ring on a huge open-air screen while the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the soundtrack live. Oh yes. It was as awesome as it sounds, despite the fact that we were 4,395 miles from the screen and had to perch atop a picnic bench to be able to distinguish Sauron from Saruman. After the movie ended, we hightailed it to – wait for it – a vegan-friendly 24-hour diner. 24-hour diner, y’all. Pick Me Up Cafe is located in Lakeview and has some amazing vegan options. It took me ages to decide between french toast and tostadas; I couldn’t decide if I wanted brekkie food or dinner food at 1:00 in the morning! S had less trouble deciding and chose a seitan-based sandwich, the details of which I cannot remember because I was waffling back and forth between my two options. Ultimately I went for the french toast, and I did not regret it:

Toast of the French!

Pardon the crappy colors, but it was late/early, the diner was dark, and I wanted to get my toast on! This is French toast like I remember it from my pregan days, thickly sliced and super filling. And our waitress even let me know that the butter on the side was vegan! Rapture! I also shared a creamsicle milkshake with S, and it was sweet and cool and delicious. Diner food at its finest.

Our next meal of note was a first for me. I’d never had pho before, but S is a bit of a pho connoisseur and has sung its praises repeatedly. So we were thrilled to discover that Chicago has at least one vegan pho option, Bon Bon Sandwiches in Wicker Park.

Phantastic!

This was the perfect meal on a rainy Saturday (it cleared up later, never fear!), and I really enjoyed the variety of flavors in each spoonful/chopstickful. S said the broth was not as flavorful as its beef-based kin, but adding various sauces and spices helped. I’d love to try to make this some time!

And that’s all for part one. I’ll finish up soon, I promise. And in the meantime, let me know if you have any tips for making homemade pho!

*Re: zoos. Zoos aren’t very vegan. As an institution, I feel pretty darn uncomfortable with them. Keeping animals in captivity for the sake of keeping them in captivity is ethically wrong. But I do think zoos can do some good when they promote breeding in species that are endangered because of something good ol’ humankind has done to them or their environment. And I also think they could conceivably foster awareness in visitors, particularly children, who might have that “aha!” moment when they realize that the cute animals they’re seeing in zoos are not so different than the cute animals that are butchered and cooked and served up for dinner. For me personally, any interaction I have with animals, at a zoo or elsewhere, reminds me why I’m vegan and reinforces my belief that I’m making the best choice I can. In my ideal, vegan-friendly fantasy world, zoos would be replaced by centers for the rehabilitation of injured animals and the breeding of endangered animals, and they’d be open to the public in an educational capacity so families could come and learn about our multi-legged friends. A girl can dream, right?!

Vegan on the Go: O’Happy at O’Hare!

DUDES. I discovered the most amazing thing in O’Hare airport this morning! Check it:

O M G!

Initially I was a little confused as to why that banner was there – it was on one of those closed-off, in-construction type areas where they were obviously building a new eating establishment, so originally I thought it was saying that this was a “coming soon” type of thing. But then I realized that it was right across from the actual/current location of Cibo Express, so I realized it was an advertising tactic. Anyway, it worked – I could not resist investigating a vegan option! Not being a Portland native with vegan options hitting me in the face every time I turn a corner, I still get giddy and excited whenever I see the word VEGAN in the rEaL wOrLd.

And OH MY WORD! I was so thrilled to discover that Cibo had tons prepared, ready-to-eat, veg foods! Fruit cups, [various types of] sushi, packages of hummus and veggies, even [an admittedly tiny] KALE SALAD! And sandwiches GALORE, all explicitly marked as vegan! They had a jerk tofu one that looked particularly good, along with more varieties that I can’t remember. I think all the sandwiches are made in a local Chicago restaurant and then sold at the airport, which is cool. And there were tons of yummy organic and healthy drink options, too. There were also some non-veggie items, but we won’t talk about that. ;) Here’s what I ended up getting:

Hey there, vegan yumminess!

I purchased this at 7:30 in the morning on my layover in O’Hare, thinkin’ I’d eat it on my flight from Chicago to Madison. For some reason the idea of a “chicken” salad sandwich, as boring as it might seem, was really appealing; since it was early, I didn’t want anything too spicy. But the Chicago-Madison flight is so short – and I was so busily knitting – that I didn’t end up eating it until I was back home, maybe around 10:45. Still, it was reallllly tasty, totally like the chicken salad of yore. My only complaint was that the bread was a little soggy, but maybe that’s because it was sitting in my giant purse for two hours. Oops. The iced tea was also delicious; I’d never seen that brand before but I enjoyed it; it was subtly flavored and very refreshing.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled to know that decent vegan eats exist at O’Hare; you can find Cibo Express between terminals 1 and 2, by the big plane that’s sort of suspended in an odd corner in some sort of display (clearly I wasn’t awake enough to absorb any more detail than that). I’m also thrilled that my company will reimburse me for this meal. ;)

Anyway, that’s all for the moment – I’m quite exhausted after this trip!* I still have one more on-the-go type post to share, but I’ll save it for later. And now I need to catch up on all the awesome MoFo posts I undoubtedly missed during the past few days – don’t be surprised if y’all receive boatloads of random comments tonight!

Have you ever found a surprise!vegan option at an airport or similar travel-type location?

* Proof: I originally typed “O’Hair” instead of “O’Hare” in this post. The Irish version of Hair, perhaps? Now I’m picturing lots of freckly redheads running around nakie and singing hippie songs. Hee hee hee.

First Times: Karyn’s Cooked

I had three big firsts a couple weeks ago – I am now no longer an eating-at-a-wholly-vegan-restaurant/eating-alone-at-a-restaurant/photographing-food-at-a-restaurant virgin! This is Big News.

(A warning – this is a lengthy post. Feel free to skip to the photo, cuz that’s where I actually start talking about things that are remotely interesting.)

I spent three and a half days in Chicago for work, and after suffering through some less-than-stellar meals with coworkers and at the customer site, I ventured to Karyn’s Cooked on my second to last night in the Windy City. It’s funny – I’ve always considered myself the type of person who’d be more than comfortable eating alone, but as I walked the three quarters of a mile from my hotel to Karyn’s, I realized that this was about to be my first such experience. It was also the first time I’d eaten at a restaurant that’s self-described as vegan – the Green Owl in Madison and the Garden Grille back in RI both feature lots of vegan options, but they mostly promote themselves as being vegetarian, not vegan. Needless to say, when I realized that Karyn’s Cooked was so close to my hotel, you can bet your pretty vegan butt I wasn’t going to pass up the opporunity to dine on gourmet vegan fare in a classy establishment.

And I needed it, too. For one, my trip was actually a big let-down. I’m a writer at my company, but I went on this trip as a “learner;” officially it was an “immersion trip” for me. But there was actually nothing in which I could immerse myself, because there was nothing for me to do. I halfheartedly tried to help one customer who was working on some documentation, but she didn’t actually need much help. Sigh.

And then there was the unfortunate food situation. On my first night in the city, I accompanied a couple of coworkers to dinner at a Chicago-style pizza joint. After learning that their marinara sauce contained cheese, I begrudgingly fell back on that most clichéd of vegan meals, the house salad. Snore. While nothing to write home about, the salad was at least decently sized and filled me up pretty well, especially since we ate a late dinner.

I lucked out the next day at lunch, when the catered meal at our customer site feature make-your-own tacos. Between the rice and the veggies, I managed to get a fairly satisfying meal, although the vegetables were kind of odd for tacos – carrots and cauliflower?! Whatevs; I’m a cauli fan! The salad, unfortunately, contained bacon, which is super lame. Boo to that.

Dinner that night had potential – I met up with some Chicago pals and we headed to Flat Top Grill, a local-ish choose-your-own-adventure style stir fry chain. It’s supposed to be very allergen and dietery restriction friendly, with a separate cooking space for people who want it. One of my friends, L., has severe nut allergies, so she and I both marked our bowl of stir fry ingredients with a white stick to indicate that we wanted our meals cooked separately. When our bowls arrived, all seemed well, and we hungrily dug in. And then I discovered something white, flaky, and horrifyingly fish-like in my bowl. Umm. Both L. and my other friend had fish, so I wasn’t sure where it came from, but when L. discovered some edamame in her stir fry, we realized that the edamame had come from my bowl of ingredients and my fish from hers. So, it became apparent that any bowls marked for separate cooking are actually cooked together – because cross-contamination couldn’t possibly be a problem between people with allergies, right?! Everyone’s allergic to the same things! …yeah. It’s a good thing I didn’t include peanut sauce in my bowl, or the night could’ve taken a turn for the dramatic. What the eff, Flat Top. Anyway, aside from the fish, my stir fry was pretty unexeptional, but I think that’s probably because I couldn’t resist the temptation to add seitan, tempeh, *and* tofu, and my flavors were just out of control. Ah well – at least the company was good. :)

Lunch at the customer site the next day was pizza, but luckily another coworker dislikes pizza and asked if I wanted to go elsewhere for lunch. We headed over to the French Market, which – and I quote – “[f]eatur[es] dozens of individual vendors in an authentic market environment.” I settled on a wrap called the Vegetarian, from Saigon Sisters, and it totally surpassed my admittedly low expectations – the combination of teriyaki tofu, roasted red peppers, thinly-sliced cucumbers and cilantro was ridiculously tasty.

However, the dinner I had that night at Karyn’s was even more ridiculously tasty. At the restaurant, I opted to sit right in front of the window, facing the street. I felt a little odd sitting there alone (especially when the waiter poured water for me and for the glass at the seat next to me, heh), but I wanted to people-watch. The restaurant itself felt warm and welcoming, classy yet not at all snobby. The waiters were perfectly friendly, which is always nice. When it came time to order, I perused the menu for way too long, drooling over the choices. I considered getting the raw dish, but I figured I’d save that for the next time I ate at Karen’s Raw. :) Eventually, I settled on a dish that is sort of out-of-character for me: the flautas. Here’s the description:

A tofu and carrot mix stuffed inside a corn tortilla and fried to perfection. Topped with a soy version of sour cream and a healthy scoop of homemade guacamole. Complimented with a bed of pico de gallo, mixed greens and refried black beans.

I’m not a huge fried food fan, and I don’t think I’ve ever had flautas before, but for some reason the thought of guacamole, pico de gallo, and crispy corn tortillas called to me. And, oh, I’m so glad it did.

Flautas, flaunting their fl...a... I got nothin'.

This was so freakin’ yummy. The flautas were not overly greasy, which I appreciated. I found the filling tasty and satisfying without being heavy, which – again – I appreciated. The soy sour cream was runny and didn’t add too much to the dish, but the guacamole… oh, the guacamole. It was perfection on my tongue, a perfect blend of velvety smoothness and small, soft bits of avocado. Between the guacamole, the pico de gallo, and the tasty green sauce, every bite was different as I mixed up the flavors. Even the refried beans were special, smoother and creamier than any refried beans I’ve had previously. I polished off this entire dish with no trouble whatsoever, which is a rarity for me – I can usually count on getting at least two meals out of any entree I order in a restaurant.

Then, I got dessert. I ordered the raw carob-mint cake, and got it to go so I could have a snack later on. I felt a little bad about getting dessert, since I’d be submitting my receipts to payroll to get reimbursed by my company (and the company, ultimately, by the customer), but then I thought about how my coworkers talk about taking customers to steakhouses and easily spending $30 a head, and I felt a whole lot less guilty.

Later that night, after working out in the exercise room on the 27th floor of my hotel (!), I broke out the cake and dug in. It looked like an enormous brownie, really, and for $6 it was a pretty good deal – I’ve seen tiny slices of raw cheesecake or the like go for much more. And, oh my gosh, this was so good. It was your standard date-nut-carob blend, but the mint and the creamy frosting took it over the edge. I’m a sucker for anything with the chocolate+mint flavor profile, what can I say. I fully intended to save some of my cake for the next day, but then… I ate it all. And I did not regret it, not one bit (although I will say that my tummy felt a little unhappy the next morning).

So, Karyn’s Cooked? Two enthusiastic thumbs way up. I’m quite happy I got to offset a rather boring on-site experience with a rather amazing gastronomical one, and I’m also happy that I have – finally! – conquered my fears and taken a food-photograph in a restaurant. Double win!