The Chicago Diner rocked my taste buds!
Honestly, Chicago had never been on my radar. I don’t know why, maybe because I’m from New York—who needs the Second City when you hail from the First? But now that I live in the culinary wasteland that is South Florida, Chicago was just what the doctor ordered this Labor Day weekend!
My fiancé and I got in too early to check into our hotel, so we headed straight over to the Chicago Diner. Wow, less than a year outside New York and already I’d forgotten what it’s like to have an entire menu at your disposal! And now that the boy is vegan, Chi Di’s offerings made him realize just how deprived we are down here. So we made a feast of it: We started off with the nachos, piled high with black beans, seitan chorizo, chopped tomato, jalapeños, black olives, cheddar Daiya, guacamole, sour cream and salsa—and holy crap, were they good! We didn’t have room for much else, but I was determined to stuff down as much as I could while I had the chance. So I had a French Vanilla Soy Shake and the Avocadonnaise Cheezeburger (half of which made the trip home and doubled as lunch on Monday), and he had the Philly Cheeze “Steak.” He’d been having residual cheese cravings and was hearing the siren call of deep dish pizza, but that Cheeze “Steak” was apparently so good—better than most of the ones he’d had when he ate meat—that the subject never came up again.
For dinner we went to Karyn’s on Green, which was upscale, modern and a little too brightly lit, if you ask me (though eventually they dimmed the lights). We started off with two mocktails, the Blueberry Mint Fizz and the Chairman’s Cobbler—a kind of virgin mojito with raspberries, and quite possibly my favorite part of the meal—and the Aged Raw Cheese Plate. The dish was elegantly arranged, with raw crackers, pear relish, super-thin grape slices, flourishes of agave and four wedges of cheese. (Sorry for the lack of pictures—we were too busy eating.) Now, I’m pretty sure this was an assortment of Dr. Cow’s cashew cheese: original, Brazil nut, dulse and crystal algae. But I love Dr. C’s and can’t find it down here, so that was fine by me. For the main course the boy had the Fra Diavolo (whole wheat pasta with a mildly spicy sauce), and I had the Chicken Legs. Think three sugarcane drumsticks, without the sugarcane but covered in a sweet barbecue sauce instead, accompanied by sweet potato hash and swiss chard. Yum!!! The portions weren’t very big, but that was okay because it left room for dessert: Chocolate Terrine, a deliciously dense chocolate cake with a side of strawberries, raspberry coulis and raspberry sorbet (a little tart for me), and a pot of Golden Jasmine Black Tea, whose flower unfurled as the tea steeped.
Mouthwatering French toast at Handelbar!
Sunday morning we went to brunch at Handlebar, a cute little biker (as in bicycle) joint. This was the most exciting part of the weekend for me, because it’s so damn hard to eat breakfast or brunch well when you live outside of vegan civilization! At our waiter’s suggestion we got the Fried Pickles, which were salty and battered and all kinds of delicious. (And what a sad statement that they made me think of Snooki…) The boy loved his Buffalo Chicken Wrap, while I scarfed down as much as I could of my French Toast (amazing!) AND Vegan Diablos With Avocado—two corn tostadas, seitan chorizo and cubed tofu (though the menu called it scrambled) covered in chipotle sauce, with a side of beans, rice and avocado (I apparently have a hollow leg when it comes to good vegan food). Delish!
The sideshow-loving Earwax Cafe
For an afternoon snack we went to Earwax Cafe, which was covered with Coney Island banners and bathroom wall tags telling the local hipster scum to fuck off and die. From our super-ornate, colorful, birdcage-like booth, we checked out the inked-up patrons and waitresses, and I wondered, between Earwax, Handlebar and the streets of Wicker Park, was I the only clean canvas in Chicago? But back to the food. Always a purist, I had the Vanilla Soy Shake—not as thick as the one at Chicago Diner and without the whipped cream (which I don’t like anyway), but just as delish—the boy had a Soy Chai Latte, and we shared the Buffalo Wings. They were tasty and just a little too spicy, kind of like the wings at Kate’s but denser, and they looked more like faux boneless spare ribs. I really wish we’d had time to go back because there are a bunch of other things I want to try there. But unfortunately, our trip was almost over.
An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink shake at the Chicago Diner
For dinner, our final meal in Chi-town, we went back to the Chicago Diner because the boy just HAD to have a Reuben. This time we went straight for the entrées: Sweet Potato Quesadillas With Avocado for me (as unbelievable as it sounds) and the Radical Reuben for him. Again, he said it was better than most of the ones he’d had when he ate meat, and to prove it, he made quick work of his sandwich, wearing a huge grin as he ate and not leaving a crumb behind. We ended up pretty full even without appetizers, so we went for shakes instead of full-on desserts. Or so we thought: Those shakes pack a wallop! I had French Vanilla again, thick and creamy and delicious, and the boy had what our waitress called “the shake that’s meant for the Reuben”: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough-Peanut Butter. Pretty much a meal in itself, it tasted like a blended peanut butter cup and was way too thick for one little plastic straw to handle—only a metal spoon would do! Needless to say we left very, very happy.
So what have we learned, boys and girls? Lesson 1: Never move from a vegan mecca to culinary Siberia. Lesson 2: Two days is definitely not enough time to eat your way through Chicago! We never even made it to Sweet Cakes Bakery, Sprinkles Cupcakes, Soul Vegetarian East or Karyn’s two other restaurants. Not to mention the places our very cool waitress at Earwax recommended: Pick Me Up Cafe, Flying Saucer, Victory’s Banner and Green Zebra (high-end and more vegetarian than vegan, but I’m intrigued).
What are your favorite veg haunts in Chicago? Any to add to the list for next time? Because there will be a next time, and it definitely won’t be for just two days!