We spent a day in a half in the Windy City last week, where we racked up meals & sampled vegan food Chicago.
We dined at Chicago Diner for their famous reuben, vegan donuts at Stan’s, fast food at Veggie Grill & Native Foods, and nachos at Kitchen 17.
Plus, the Chicago Riverwalk, Cloud Gate, and Lake Michigan.
David and I went to the Windy City for a brief visit last week. He had a business conference, and it had been a while since I’d been to Chicago so I decided to tag along.
We arrived after lunchtime, and David needed to get straight to work. Luckily, there was a downtown Veggie Grill location just a few blocks away, where I could pick up lunch for us and bring it back to the hotel.
Veggie Grill started in California, and it has since popped up in Illinois, Oregon, and Washington. It’s a fast food establishment that’s entirely vegan.
I picked up a Santa Fe crispy chickin’ sandwich for David, his standard order, and one of their new specials for myself.
I got the Steakhouse Burger with a Beyond Burger, non-dairy provolone, steakhouse sauce, VG bacon, and non-dairy blue cheese dressing.
The sandwich was tasty, but I couldn’t help but compare the preparation of the Beyond Burger to the way they make it at Zombie Burger, an Iowa fast food chain. Zombie Burger gets it just right – a little crispy around the edges and on a warm, fresh bun. Zombie Burger is still winning this round.
Also, it had just said “VG bacon” on the menu and didn’t specify it would be tempeh bacon, which is never my first choice. Team Seitan all the way.
Our hotel overlooked the Chicago River. So I used to the opportunity to head down to the riverwalk and meander along the water.
It’s one of my favorite places in Chicago, because you can still admire the architecture and inherent beauty of the city without having to contend with honking motorists and a swarm of frazzled pedestrians.
On the occasions I’ve been there, it’s been slow moving and serene – people walking with dogs, boats setting sail on architecture tours, and exercisers going on their daily jogs.
You can take the riverwalk to Michigan Avenue and then head upstairs to the Magnificent Mile, or you can continue on all the way to Lake Michigan.
Once David was finished for the day, we took a Lyft to the Logan Square location of Chicago Diner. We sat at the bar and enjoyed some wine.
While we were there, David noticed they had a VHS copy of Twin Peaks amongst their collection. Ever the fan, he asked if he could look at the case. Before long, the bartender had popped the well-worn copy into their VCR without prompting, and I knew that meant we’d be eating dinner at the bar.
It’s not even a question what I ordered. Obviously, it had to be the reuben. The Radical Reuben is one of my favorite reubens anywhere.
The seitan is sliced beautifully thin and marinated in seasonings before going onto rye with non-dairy cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing. It’s so generous in size, I took half home to reheat in the air fryer once we got back to Iowa.
And as much deserved attention as the reuben gets, let’s not forget about the flashed greens that I got as a side. They come in a little cup, but I could eat so much more of them. They have a hint of ginger, a bit of smokiness from a hot skillet, and a buttery edge.
David ordered one of the specials – tofu tikka masala with basmati rice. He was very happy with his dish; although, I’m sure that was influenced to some degree by getting to have Agent Cooper as his dinner companion.
The next morning I was looking for a breakfast spot, but I found it challenging to find a vegan breakfast that’s open early on weekday mornings, especially anything close to downtown.
(Chicago Diner makes an amazing brunch, but they don’t open until 11. I would be crazy hangry if I waited until then to eat.)
So I revisited Lyfe Kitchen, which was only a 10 minute walk from the hotel. I got the morning tofu wrap, which also comes with a side of potatoes topped with chipotle mayo.
The wrap is stuffed with tofu scramble, roasted mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, quinoa, chipotle aioli, and a side of salsa fresca.
The wrap is vegan as-is, and so it’s nice you don’t have to make any substitutions. Although, I did ask them to leave off the quinoa. I’m just not a fan. The potatoes were the best part of this plate – especially with that chipotle mayo.
Since I was out and about early, I thought I’d use my time wisely by finding some vegan donuts. As I’ve mentioned before, vegan donuts in Iowa are MIA. So whenever I’m in another state that has them, vegan donuts are a top priority.
I’d heard that Stan’s Donuts, a chain in Chicago, has one vegan donut on offer. However, you have to get there early, because they’re prone to selling out.
There are locations all over the city, but I hit the new Stan’s Donuts on Michigan Avenue. I got the last 4 vegan donuts they had. The fried donuts are glazed and topped with a cinnamon sugar coating. The donuts are yeast raised; however, they’re still on the dense side.
Be aware, the donuts are fried in the same oil as the non-vegan donuts they sell. This isn’t a deal-breaker for me, because I don’t see veganism as a way of achieving personal purity. I’m vegan, because I don’t want animals to be harmed. If donuts are cooked in the same oil as non-vegan ones, it doesn’t change the amount of animals harmed. However, if a person has an allergy or a different mindset, it’s good to be aware of this possible cross contamination.
It was getting close to David’s lunch break, and so I took the donuts back to the hotel, so that we could have one together.
I had some time on my hands before David was done for the day. So I walked down to Cloud Gate.
It’s such a simple design – a metallic bean. However, the way it reflects its surroundings makes you appreciate the striking beauty of the city even more in its reflection.
It’s also a fun place to people watch as groups of family and friends interact with the piece.
Afterwards I walked down to the water and listened to the birds call. I was in a contemplative mood and enjoyed the serenity of the place.
Then I walked along the riverwalk, back to the hotel.
I’d worked up a little appetite, and so I went to Native Foods for lunch. It’s another vegan fast food chain that started in Southern California and has since branched out to other cities.
I ordered the soul bowl, which came with vegan fried chicken strips and vegetables on top of rice. For seasoning, there was a drizzling of barbecue sauce & ranch dressing.
However, on this occasion the soul bowl was underwhelming. The vegetables were simply steamed, which didn’t add anything in terms of flavor. The whole thing was kind of bland.
By then, David was off work, and so we did some meandering around the city. Once it was time for dinner, we headed to Kitchen 17. I’d never been to Kitchen 17, but I’d heard good things about it.
Kitchen 17 is a super relaxed, BYOB, order at the counter-type restaurant. The vibe is more of a lunch place, but they don’t open until 3 pm on weekdays. In the bathroom, there are marker drawings on the wall. Not graffiti. It seems like that was their design choice.
We placed our orders and they gave us hand painted numbers to wait for our order to be delivered to the table.
We got nachos to start, and as soon as we saw it, we knew more napkins would be needed. They were very sloppy with puddles of vegan cheese, splashes of chili, and mounds of spring lettuce mix.
(Side note: I don’t really get spring lettuce mix on nachos. Not only is that never anyone’s favorite nacho topping, it’s also impossible to scoop onto a chip. It’s cheap, I suppose.)
I noticed our dinner order coming out of the kitchen. Then the waiter dropped the plates off at a different table and scooted right back into the kitchen. There wasn’t any staff in the main part of the restaurant or behind the counter. And I wasn’t sure if that couple had happened to order the same thing.
They started looking confused and whispering to each other. I heard the girl whisper to the guy, “Don’t eat it!” We caught eyes, and they said, “Is this yours?” So David and I walked over and took our plates from them.
David got the Big K Burger, which was topped with sauce, non-dairy cheddar, onions, and tomatoes on a sesame bun.
They were a bit overzealous with their sauces. Many napkins later, David gave up, because it was so hard to manage.
I got the gyro with seitan and topped with onion, tomatoes, cucumber, and ranch dressing on flatbread. It was okay, but really overstuffed and hard to eat.
As a whole, I’d say that my experience at Kitchen 17 was that the food & the experience just wasn’t very thoughtfully considered. In general the food wasn’t bad, but there are so many other places in Chicago I’d like to try or revisit, I wouldn’t rush back.
Home again, home again
The next morning we got back on the road, homeward bound. And of course, as soon as I got in the door, I cuddled Avon and popped the leftover reuben in the air fryer. A delicious end to a quick trip to the Windy City.