Saturday, January 9, 2010

Vegan Meat (American Style)

In general, creATE is not a restaurant review site, but last week I had such a great meal while vacationing in Chicago that it quickly became clear that the Chicago Diner would warrant a blog entry.  The Chicago Diner opened in 1983 by a former Chicago Board of Operations commodities trader and his partner with the goal of creating a vegetarian restaurant that had a down-home American feel, serving “meat and potatoes” comfort food in the vintage diner atmosphere of vinyl seats, laminate tables, old photos, and neon signs on the walls.  Although the diner had many skeptics in the 80s when it opened—including hecklers and robberies—it has since received Readers Choice awards from Vegetarian Times, VegNews, The Chicago Reader, Timeout Chicago, and The Windy City Times.  Celebrities such as Madonna, Kevin Bacon, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have dined at the Chicago Diner, and the restaurant ships its vegan baked goods to Whole Foods stores around the Midwest. 

Despite its awards and guest visits, the diner maintains its humble atmosphere and the staff members were friendly, earthy, and knowledgeable.  The diner’s menu is completely vegetarian, with most items vegan or can be made vegan.  The diner serves brunch until 3:30PM daily, which includes options ranging from vegan scrambled eggs, French toast, and pancakes.  Appetizers include wings, vegan nachos, and taquitos.  For lunch and dinner, guests can choose from over twenty vegan entrées and sandwiches such as country fried steak, meatloaf, burgers, and cheese steak sandwiches.   Desserts are complete with cheesecake, vegan milk shakes, cookies, and cupcakes.  Seasonal microbrews are also served.  Prices are very reasonable, with entrées from $8.99 to $12.99 ($4.99–$9.99 for brunch).  Adventurous cooks can also purchase the Chicago Diner’s cookbook to make diner food at home.

Shortly after a co-worker who frequents Chicago often recommended the Chicago Diner to me, I read an article about it in VegNews, so needless to say, when my boyfriend Cody and I arrived in Chicago on Monday, the Diner was the first place we visited.  From downtown, it was an easy ride up the Redline train to Belmont street and a few blocks walk from there.  Curious to try something “meaty”—and also craving a hot meal after walking through Chicago in early January—I opted for the “Eggstatic Sandwich,” an egg-blt with fried tofu “eggs,” soy cheese, tempeh bacon, lettuce, tomato, and sprouts, served on sourdough bread with Creole mustard.  Cody chose our server Jeff’s recommendation of the Philly Cheeze “Steak” sandwich: sliced barbeque seitan, sautéed onions and peppers, melted soy cheese, all on top of a hoagie bun.  Cody and I had high hopes of ordering a vegan milkshake or slice of cheesecake for dessert, but we were too full and opted for a chocolate chip cookie, which tasted much better than most vegan cookies I’ve had.  Here are some pictures of our delicious lunch.

I must confess that until recently, I have been skeptical of vegan substitutions for meat products, enjoying the earthy beans, grains, and veggies quality of vegan life.  In a few words, the sandwiches were delicious, surpassing every expectation.  Maybe I just got hungry, but it tasted good to have a hearty American meal, and one containing no animal products to boot.  Our meals contained no trans-fats or high fructose corn syrup, two ingredients that make meat and dairy and sugar substitutions easier.  As vegan lifestyle becomes more common in America, I’m starting to think that vegan “meat and potatoes” options and innovations will follow. 

Consider, for example, vegan chef Tal Ronnen’s, new cookbook, The Conscious Cook.  Similar to the Chicago Diner’s owners, Tal Ronnen is a vegan that enjoyed the concepts of a vegan lifestyle but always craved meat and dairy.  His latest cookbook outlines reasons for going vegan in a simple but convincing manner, includes interviews with guest chefs, and includes recipes for such delectable and “meaty” meals including “Gardein ‘Steak’ Sandwiches,” “Tomato ‘Mozzarella,’ and Pesto Panini,” and “Pine-Nut-and-Basil Seared Gardein ‘Chicken’ with Lobster Mushroom Beurre Blanc, Braised Kale, and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes.”

I’ll be trying some of Ronnen’s recipes in the next few weeks and experimenting with my own.  If you have any suggestions for “meaty” meals you’d like to see made vegan, thoughts on vegan substitutions, or comments on anything else, please don’t hesitate to post.  Thanks again for reading!

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