Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Almost vegan in Chicago 2.1

Earlier this month, Matt and I took a weekend road trip to Chicago to see a concert. We left on Thursday after work, drove a little more than halfway, and stayed the night at a questionable Motel 6 in Iowa City. The next morning, we had breakfast down the street at Bruegger’s Bagels, a chain that actually JUST came to Kansas City but which I had not yet tried. I got a whole grain bagel (plain, toasted) and a Rainforest Nut coffee (brazil-nutty and delicious!). While waiting in line, I spied a kind of peanut butter I’ve never seen before, Sunland Dark Chocolate. It was all-natural, vegan, and just a couple bucks more than a side of PB off the menu, so we picked up a whole jar.

We drove the remaining few hours to Chicago and arrived at our hostel in Greektown shortly after 5pm. That’s right—I spent five weeks in Europe and didn’t so much as see a hostel, and then I go on a simple little road trip and wind up in one; go figure. (Really, though, with its downtown location, $39 per person, per night rate for a private room, and $5 parking nearby, we didn’t need much convincing.)

As in Los Angeles, Matt put me in charge of food. Even though Greektown was rife with thick aromas of gyros and spices, I couldn’t resist the chance to eat at Karyn’s on Green, a stylish all-vegan restaurant a mere 3-minute walk from the hostel.

Within seconds of being seated, we were offered fresh bread and whipped herb butter. What a treat it was to dig right in without having to ask or even wonder if the "butter" is vegan!

We ordered a Macabeo (Spanish white wine) and a Tempranillo (Spanish red wine) to share, but before we knew it, our food was already coming out. Matt ate the barbecued seitan meatloaf with escarole and roasted fingerling potatoes. I was quite hesitant to try it, given my abhorrence of BBQ sauce, but it’s a good thing I had a bite anyway, because it wasn’t at all what I expected. Rather than being smoky and cloyingly sweet, the sauce was mild and tomatoey, with a hint of cumin. Matt, a committed omnivore, loved this dish.

Although a great deal of the menu was enticing, I had to take the opportunity to try something I’m not likely to find at home—raw pasta. The spiralized zucchini noodles were tossed with cherry tomatoes, teensy enoki mushrooms, and a cashew basil pesto which was thick and salty enough to disguise the slippery sweetness of the “noodles.” Though not my favorite meal of the trip, it was surprisingly satisfying, and I’m very happy I tried it.

Of course we had to have dessert. I couldn’t resist the strangely-yummy-sounding chocolate terrine—compressed pear, salted cashew mousse, raspberry sorbet, and cocoa nibs. The pear was a bit odd, but the chocolatey sauce and the rich raspberry sorbet made a fantastic pair.

Matt and I walked to the House of Blues that evening for the H.I.M. show we’d come to see, taking the subway back to the hostel afterward.

The next day, we headed down to Belmont Avenue for some killer shopping (The Alley was especially awesome). Once we’d worked up an appetite, we walked the short distance to the renowned Chicago Diner. Even though it seemed busy inside, we were seated right away.

Despite my lack of predilection for comfort food, I was so excited to eat here! I mean, come on, it’s famous. Plus, their menu has a great selection of ethnic-food-inspired options, which is more up my alley. Naturally, though, I had to start with a coffee with soymilk. Matt uncharacteristically opted for a beer, but I’m glad he did. See, I’m a beer hater, but upon cautiously taking a sip of his Peak Organic espresso amber (teehee) ale, I found myself taken aback—I didn’t loathe it! How can this be?! I took an other drink to make sure, and yes, it was true! The beer was mildly flavored and only lightly carbonated, with a truly pleasant suggestion of espresso in the background, and no nasty beer aftertaste. Yay! At long last, I may have found a beer I actually enjoy! Of course, for all I know it’s not even available in Kansas City. Oh well; victory nonetheless!

I fully expected Matt, as a comfort-food-eater, to like the Chicago Diner as much as, if not more than, I did. He was indeed a fan of his lunch, the Diner Burger, a "100% Angus-friendly seitan patty with special sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion, and cheeze on a toasted harvest roll," with a side of mashed potatoes.

I chose the Shawarma sandwich ("Shawarma sweater, it’s cold out" – inside joke, sorry), which had sliced gyro-style seasoned seitan (!), fried cauliflower tossed in tahini (!!), and hummus on toasted whole grain ciabatta. Oh.my.god. Fake gyro meat?! I died and went to heaven (then ate my side of sweet potato fries dipped in the spicy harissa sauce).

I loved this so much, there are just no words. I couldn’t even finish it all (but was more than happy to eat the leftovers cold on the drive home the next day), and thus had to make the probably-wise choice to forgo the vegan cheesecake for dessert. Next time! I must come back someday (and in the meantime buy the cookbook). Me + Chicago Diner = happy camper.

Coming up later this week: part two!

If you like this, you might also like...
Los Angeles, parts one, two, three, and four
Europe, of course
Denver 2009
Dallas 2008 and 2009
Mexican cruise, parts one, two, and three
Chicago 2008 (my first-ever post!)

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  1. Vegan gyro?! Oh my gosh, I need to try that. I love gyros, but my tummy doesn't. I wonder if I could find a recipe online...

  2. I always love looking at how restaurants serve food. So prettyyyy

  3. Ah, I'd been wondering what Matt's food "status" was. :P Ahh! Salted cashew mousse and nibs? Definitely up my alley (funny, though, that I thought 'I'm not too keen on the pear', and then it was the part that was a bit odd in your opinion too).

    P.S. You look gorgeous :)

  4. I am so jealous of the vegan places in the US. And the fack you can buy vital wheat gluten in the supermarket.

    It all looks great!

  5. Oh my gosh, I am so jealous of all that food! I really wish there were some great vegan restaurants here!

  6. McKella—I KNOW, right?! I’m planning on one of my next cookbook purchases being the Chicago Diner cookbook, and if that recipe is in there, you better believe I’ll be making (and posting about) it.


    Hannah—Matt was a self-professed full-blown carnivore, but I’ve "complicated" that somewhat. He (jokingly) tells me I’m a bad influence—since we’ve been dating he has, for example, switched to soy mochas, and lowered his overall meat intake, and I’ve even caught him (shh) ordering tofu at restaurants a few times. Is that cute, or what?! :P
    Hehe, funny we agree on the pear. With the exception, sometimes, of raspberry, I tend to prefer my chocolate and fruit flavors separate.
    P.S. Yer too sweet ::blush::

    Helen—I did eat some great vegan food in West Kensington, London :] But I too am jealous of the restaurants in cities other than my own.
    You know, Hannah and I have discussed doing an international bloggie food swap. Perhaps you and I could exchange some vegan goodies across the pond sometime? I could include vital wheat gluten in yours.

    Aimee—I know how you feel; the Midwest is not exactly a vegan mecca! I have had some good veg food in Denver, though.

  7. Well, it's hard to debate someone on the merits of a meat-based diet when they have volumes of knowledge about how it causes long term health issues. Amber has the equivalent of a doctoral degree on this stuff. I will say that I had no idea that vegan food could taste as good as it does sometimes. So I don't mind her influence TOO much. ;)