Handlebar Chicago serves up a tony Chicago-style tofu sandwich featuring pesto tofu, house-made giardiniera, garlic aioli, arugula, tomato and celery salt on focaccia bread. | Rich Hein ~ Sun-Times
Updated: January 9, 2012 2:50PM
A new year, a new you. Turning over a new leaf. Wipe the slate clean. We’re bombarded with inspiring adages — and a treadmill-riddled onslaught of commercials — this time of year. Frankly, it’s depressing.
Is there such a thing as new beginnings? Successful dieting? Of course. But, during an already desolate seasonal stretch, self-deprivation feels extra-dreadful. At the same time, there’s something appealing about eliminating some post-holiday pudge.
Prevailing thought tells you meat substitutes are the answer. Ask any true food enthusiast, though, and you’ll likely get another answer: plain-good, meat-free meals.
“What do most traditional diets — from the Mediterranean Diet to the Latin American Diet to African Heritage Diet — have in common?” asks Kyle Potvin of food and nutrition nonprofit Oldways. “They are all mostly plant-based diets.”
Potvin goes on to note that eating ancestral foods based on whole grains, vegetables and healthy oils may be the secret to good health — and to lowering occurrences of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
In other words, skipping sucky mock meat isn’t just possible: it’s completely plausible. Find proof — and pleasure — in these meatless meals around town.
At the Wicker Park outpost of vegan chef and author Tanya Petrovna’s Native Foods (1023 W. Belmont, 773-549-4904, and 218 S. Clark, 312-332-6332, nativefoods.com), tofu-type stuff runs rampant. So do more curious chili “meats,” and dishes ranging from a peppered “gyro” to fried “chicken.” But a salad of crunchy, raw kale with shredded cabbage, apples and avocado tossed with maple orange dressing has catch-all appeal. Topped with currants, almonds and a creamy tahini drizzle ($8.95), it’s enough to leave meat-eaters hooked.
Wicker Park’s Mana Food Bar (1742 W. Division, 773-342-1742, manafoodbar.com) is another wise choice, given its flavor-forward options, like spicy potato-pea curry over coconut basmati rice with cilantro relish ($7 for a small, $13 for a large) and chilled sesame noodles, swathed in spicy sesame-peanut sauce and loaded with shards of peapods and carrots ($6 or $11). Throw in some just-squeezed juice, a smoothie or, heck, a glass of sake and you’re golden.
Generally speaking, the city’s ethnic enclaves and eateries hold plenty of intrigue for folks forgoing meat. Devon Avenue, for example, offers a bevy of options, starting with Arya Bhavan (2508 W. Devon, 773-274-5800, aryabhavan.com) or Uru-Swati (2629 W. Devon, 733-262-5280, uru-swati.net). Then again, you could head to rather unfortunately named Mysore Woodlands (2548 W Devon, 773-338-8160, mysorewoodlands.info) for brow-mopping, spicy-sour rasam soup ($2.99) and crepe-like dosai ($6.99 and up).
You should also consider a trip to Argyle Street, where herbaceous Vietnamese eats burst with bracing flavors. Take Pho 777 (1065 W. Argyle, 773-561-9909), for example. It gets props for its hearty, brooding namesake soups, though it also does preps like papaya salad ($10.50) and craklingly crisp hu tieu xao chay noodles, tangled with tofu and veg ($9.75).
Of course, you might veer in another direction — namely a detour to Sultan’s Market in Wicker Park (2057 W. North, 773-235-3072, chicagofalafel.com) for its killer salad bar ($5.99 per pound) and moist, crumbly falafel sandwich, topped with fresh, crunchy Jerusalem salad ($3.75). Or, hightail it to Edgewater for Ethiopian at Ras Dashen (5846 N. Broadway; 773-506-960, rasdashenchicago.com), where a vegetarian sampler can yield chilled, tangy injera salad with vine-ripe tomatoes, garlic, red and green onions and green peppers or ground chickpea balls cloaked in singeing berbere sauce ($12.95 and up).
Meanwhile, with its lo-cal bent, Bombay Spice Grill & Wine (450 N. Clark, 312-477-7657, bombayspice.com) — the health-minded Indian adjunct to Roka Akor — does waist-watchers a solid with lentil cakes topped with diced tomatoes, onions, crispy noodles and a drizzle of sweet-tangy sauce ($5.95), not to mention wholly satisfying, steak-like seared eggplant with tamarind sauce and chaat masala ($5.95).
Then again, it turns out more than plant people dig funky Bucktowner Handlebar (2311 W. North, 773-384-9546, handlebarchicago.com), where a strong, microbrew-driven beer list and wee-hours vibe pervades. The real draw, though, is the food. Choices include a Chicago-style, pesto tofu sandwich topped with house-made giardiniera, garlic aioli, Dijon, tomatoes, arugula and celery salt between focaccia ($8.75). More substantial offerings can be had, too, including a ground peanut stew with sweet potatoes, zucchini, kale, brown rice and toasted coconut ($9).
If you prefer something a bit more refined, however, Green Zebra (1460 W. Chicago, 312-243-7100, greenzebrachicago.com) will never let you down — especially on Tuesdays, when an ever-changing, four-course tasting menu may reveal compressed Honeycrisp salad with shaved celery root and toasted hazelnuts, enveloped in maple-infused yogurt dressing. Come any day of the week and know you won’t be slumming it, though. Proof comes in the form of hen-of-the-wood mushroom pate with date mostarda and pumpkin seed brittle accompaniments ($11) as well as comforting mustard-caraway spaetzle stroganoff, dotted with hon-shimeji, smoked cipollinis and dill in a rich, creme fraiche-based sauce ($12).
And while SushiSamba Rio’s (504 N. Wells, 312-595-2300, sushisamba.com) kaleidoscopic setting is enough to distract from the Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian flavors at play, bold plates, such as a palmito salad of frisee with jalapeno-shallot dressing and pink peppercorn ($12) and robata-grilled zucchini yakitori ($7), keep the focus clear.
All of that said, don’t rule out less obvious choices. These days, many a buzzed-about chef rocks out veg. For example, there’s pork-lover’s paradise The Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan, 312-464-1744, thepurplepigchicago.com) for shaved Brussels sprouts with Pecorino Noce and Parmigiano Reggiano or charred cauliflower with toasted breadcrumbs, cornichons and parsley (both $7). Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat (809 W. Randolph, 312-492-6262, girlandthegoat.com) is another winning choice, right along with slim, wood-walled avec (615 W. Randolph, 312-377-2002, avecrestaurant.com) in the West Loop. It’s cool. Real cool. And so are dishes like roasted butternut squash crostini with Parmesan-saffron cream and watercress ($11) and sprightly burrata with marinated chickpeas, pistachio and golden raisins ($12).
Granted, if these dishes don’t spark skipping the seitan — and, yes, strip steak — it’s doubtful anything will.
Jennifer Olvera is a local free-lance writer.