Vegans, vegetarians get new fast-casual spot

November 2, 2011 10:09:53 AM PDT
The holiday season in the Midwest poses two problems.

Cooler weather signals heartier dishes. And holiday parties mean an abundance of rich foods.

But a new, fast-casual option is spreading around Chicago with both vegetarians and vegans in mind.

For decades, vegetarians and vegans in Chicago have had only a few options: The Chicago Diner and the Blind Faith Cafe come to mind. But there's a new player in the fast-casual category called Native Foods Cafe.

There are two important proteins. The first is tempeh, which comes from soybeans and brown rice, although Native Foods uses millet instead of rice. The second is seitan, which is made by kneading wheat until all of the starch is removed. Herbs and spices are added to these two proteins to give them flavor, and thereby, fool your taste buds into thinking they're chicken or beef.

At first glance, it looks like yet another fast-casual restaurant with the usual menu of soups, salads and sandwiches. But at The Native Foods Cafe in Wicker Park, which ironically sits on the site of a former Burger King, there is no meat on the menu. The entire concept revolves around alternative proteins, such as soy, tempeh, seitan and beans. Just look at the Scorpion Burger, which is the most colorful "burger" you'll ever see.

"We use our homemade tempeh, which is soybean-based, we put blackening seasoning on it so it gives it that little kick to it, and then we serve it with a chipotle sauce which gives a little sweet and little spice to it," said Native Foods Chef Kendall Huff.

Then there's the bevy of colorful vegetables, such as romaine, avocado, carrots, onions and red peppers.

There are plenty of salads of course, including the Azteca, which has a base of romaine, crunchy jicama and quinoa, but also benefits from a mango lime vinaigrette and the crunch of currants and pumpkin seeds. The Gandi Bowl also features plenty of vegetables.

"It's got nice, hearty two cups of vegetables in there. Cauliflower, broccoli, carrots; it's got fresh kale - steamed for about 20 seconds, then it's got a nice big chunk of mango on top with a really good curry sauce got a nice little spice to it," said Huff.

The bowl is topped with skewers of grilled tempeh then garnished with dried cranberries and scallions. Among the creative appetizers, there are nachos. At a vegan restaurant? Well, yes, actually.

"We use our homemade Mexican seitan and we ground it up so it gets the consistency like ground meat, and then we also put the black beans on top of there so we have two different proteins goin' on there," Huff said.

Cashew cheese sounds worse than it tastes; it actually goes really well with the fresh guac, corn kernels and finely chopped peppers that engulf the mound of chips. Instead of sodas, there's the always-on-tap choices of watermelon agua fresca, iced tea and lavender lemonade, even desserts are vegan, including cupcakes and puddings. The company's president says customers have been pleasantly surprised.

"They're amazed because they think they just ate a chicken burger or they're having a portobello sausage burger and they're like 'what's in the beef?' No there is no beef here and they're walking out and they're feeling really good too after they eat," said Native Foods Café President Andrea McGinty.

Native Foods also has a location in Lakeview and another set to open in the Loop in December.

And good news for healthy eaters: Native has competition in Chicago. There's also the Protein Bar, with four locations downtown, plus Freshii and Roti, all with menus that have plenty of options for vegetarians.

Native Foods Cafe
1484 N. Milwaukee Ave.
(773) 489-8480

1023 W. Belmont Ave.
(773) 549-4904

218 S. Clark St.
(312) 332-6332
Opening Dec 1

The Native Foods proteins derive their flavor from several sources. Both are plant-based proteins. Tempeh originally hails from Indonesia where it is has been prepared for hundreds of years from fresh soybeans and brown rice. These two ingredients are crushed and formed into patties and then cultured. The Native catch is that instead of using rice, they use millet, which yields a light and flaky texture and a slightly nutty flavor. They blacken and batter the tempeh for their "burger."

Seitan has been made in Asia for centuries and is made by kneading wheat until all the starch is removed and it becomes a pure protein. They knead each loaf more than 100 times and depending on the flavor (7 different kinds) add herbs and spices during this process. After the kneading the seitan is placed in a seasoned broth and simmered for about an hour. After which, it is sliced, diced and marinated further. Then they sear, grill and sauté depending on the dish you order.

also mentioned:

Protein Bar
235 S. Franklin St.
P 312.346.7300

River North
352 N. Clark St.
P 312-527-0450

221 W. Washington St.
P 312-265-0532
M-F 7am-8pm

10 S. Clinton St.
P 312-612-5445

10 S. Riverside Plaza

310 West Adams St.

33 N. Dearborn

200 W. Randolph

984 Willow Rd.
Northbrook, IL

1240 E. Route 45
Vernon Hills, IL

311 S. Wacker
312 435 0311

Water Tower Place
835 N. Michigan Ave.
312 202 9009

200 West Monroe St.
312 269-0994

111 W. Jackson

161 North Clark
312 332 4151

200 W. Randolph

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