Friday, August 26, 2011

Hoo-rah! Native Foods Cafe hits Chicago

Native Foods Cafe, Wicker Park - (c) Native Foods Cafe

Hello, Chicago Veg'Heads! However you happened upon this site-- whether it be morbid curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, or a happy accident-- welcome! I've created this blog as a means to compile an up-to-date and helpful database of vegetarian/vegan resources within the city of Chicago (and surrounding areas, if I ever make it outside of my college-kid budget bubble).

It's also a personal project to document my journey through vegetarianism-- a lifestyle change that is relatively recent for me (I've restricted my meat consumption to seafood since roughly a year ago). However, since making the change, I've never once looked back. In fact, I can safely say that going vegetarian (technically "pescetarian," but working towards the former) has opened my mind to the exciting variety and creativity of the vegetarian culinary world.

With that, I bring-- with a heralding of trumpets (or at least the overjoyed cheering of veggie Chicagoans everywhere)-- the news of Native Foods Cafe opening its doors in Chicago! Set to launch a total of three locations (with the first one already open in the Wicker Park area), Native Foods offers an exclusively vegan menu with options such as the "Super Italian Meatball Sub" and the "Chicago Dip Au Jus." They also offer a range of vegan desserts, including cupcakes and pies. Its laid-back, casual dining design-- customers place their orders at the front counter and wait for food to be brought out to them-- place it up there with Panera Bread in terms of ease and affordability. What couldn't be wonderful about this place??

Super Italian Meatball Sub- (c) Native Foods Cafe

I recently went out to eat at Native Foods with a couple of veggie friends, and our level of anticipation on the bus ride there ranked up with the giddiness of a couple of kids headed to Disney World. Nothing will make a bunch of veggies more excited than the prospect of eating some good, hearty vegetarian "meat"-- choruses of "Man, I need a good veggie bacon cheeseburger" resounded across the board. I won't pretend that I don't on occasion miss the sensation of sinking my teeth into layers of tender, yielding meat; but it's a good kind of missing-- like reminiscing of an ex-boyfriend, with the bemusing knowledge that things wouldn't have worked out anyways.

The line snaking through Native Foods was long. Long, and slow-moving-- the staff at the register were definitely still learning the ropes. However, we were presented with free drink samples (Watermelon Fresca and Lavender Lemonade) and given the chance to ask questions to servers along the line. The atmosphere was very friendly and welcoming, with large-scale artwork spanning the walls and vegan recipes provided at the tables. I ordered the Meatball Sub-- after receiving the recommendation of one of the waitstaff, there was no looking back-- and my friends ordered the Baja Surf Taco and the Chicken Run Ranch Burger. Orders of the Chocolate Love Pie, Peanut Butter Parfait and Strawberry Shortcake Parfait were also in the mix. Native Foods offers a nifty promotion wherein, upon signing up for the Native Foods Rewards Card, guests receive a free first-time drink order-- so I got some of the lemonade.

Our orders were brought out shortly. Our table oooh'ed and ahhh'ed over our respective dishes, and then rotated to give everyone a taste of each-- and we could not stop raving! My order, the meatball sub, was presented on a crispy baguette and loaded with hearty, spicy, meaty seitan meatballs. The marinara sauce was abundant without getting the bread soggy. My only complaint was the meager side-- a couple of limp, sad-looking soybean pods strewn across the side of the plate. The plating of my friends' orders were more thoughtful in their presentation; but taste is always #1 in my book, and in that regard I was not disappointed. It was also immensely filling-- I saved my dessert to eat the next day (excepting the nibbles that occurred while waiting for our entrees). The peanut butter parfait, upon consumption was good-- but somewhat sub par in comparison to the rest of the meal. Perhaps it's because I'm used to dairy in desserts, and could taste something a bit "off" about the lack of the former, but I was pleased overall.

The "native chicken" was almost eerily similar to chicken in texture and taste (but deliciously so), and the battered fish tacos were a success even to me (a fervent fish-eater). All three of us went home clutching our stomachs in weary elation-- it was hard to stop eating! Sometimes I can think of nothing more desirable than making like a cow and having multiple stomachs. The Native Foods experience lived up to expectations, and more. It'll be interesting to see what type of crowds it draws out over time-- is there a market for carnivores in a vegan restaurant? I would certainly hope that they would be willing to give it a try. It's positively worth it.

Native Foods Cafe
Service: 3/5 (can't wait til that line becomes more streamlined!)
Taste: 4.5/5
Veggie-friendliness: 5/5
1484 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois - Wicker Park location