Cost: $15 per person
I've always been fascinated by people's dietary habits. That doesn't necessarily mean that I'm understanding of them, just that I'm intrigued. I have no qualms with vegans or vegetarians, but I typically despise any attempt to make mock food items (i.e. tofurkey).
Quick Interjection: I think this distrust and distaste of fake food comes from my many years of celebrating Passover. It's always a big challenge to make seemingly every day food out of kosher for passover ingredients. I've had k for p brownies, cookies, muffins, cakes, and even bread. I don't really understand why there's this need to fill certain food voids. I'd be perfectly happy eating fruit for dessert for 8 days.
For that matter, I don't see the absolute need for there to be fake meat products when people who want to be vegetarian or vegan can get protein sources elsewhere. Does it really have to look like a sausage patty or a chicken nugget I do have to say though that Morningstar Farms has this down pretty well (the taste is great, but it's my absurd set of principles that's the problem). I'm also a little bothered by vegan baking (if you can't use eggs then I don't think I want to know what chemical substitute is holding those gooey brownies together). That being said there are two creative girls in my class that are constantly trying to prove me wrong and have made some really delicious dishes (despite how mysterious the ingredients may be).
After what seemed like weeks of trying, my friend Renee (vegetarian/audiologist) finally got me to head out to one of her favorite spots in the city to change my mind on all this fake meat business. So after a busy day of boards studying we packed up our books and headed north to Lakeview to hit up The Chicago Diner.
The diner's set up with a bunch of booths lining one wall, a small counter bar, and a bunch of tables in between. It's not too big of a place, and unfortunately they don't take reservations (it's cool though because the website clearly states "sorry dude"). We went on a Wednesday at 6:30 and got in no problem. I think a few people were waiting when we left.
The waiter was really helpful in our decisions which was really important since I was pretty unfamiliar with all of the choices. They've got a great feel for the nutritional value and source of their food too which is a plus. Almost all of his recommendations were spot on (except for the kale).
The price is alright considering it's more expensive to prepare fake meat than real meat. Most of the main items hovered around $11 with beers and shakes in the $5 range and appetizers near $7. The portions are pretty large as well. One thing to beware of is the inevitable indecisiveness that will come about from any vegetarian or vegan person you're dining with. The way Renee put it was that she's so used to only having one or two options on a regular restaurant menu that she was overwhelmed with choices (I on the other hand was just whelmed).
We got the ball rolling with an order of the Nachos. They were covered in a smooth guac, seitan chorizo, cheeze (not a misspelling, it's vegan cheese), and large jalapeno chunks. I think seitan can hold up a little flavor wise but that texturally it's not the same as meat. That being said, the chorizo got lost in the other ingredients, but the super fresh veggies came through strongly. With all of the jalapenos it was definitely one of the spicier nacho platters I've had lately.
Next Renee got the "Bacon Cheeseburger," and I got the "Reuben." Essentially I think seitan can be flavored any which way you want, but the texture comes out much closer to bologna. In my Reuben, that came through a bit, but otherwise the sandwich was fantastic (I'd take it over the one I had at Grahamwich for sure). The sauerkraut and dressing were properly proportioned and carried crisp flavors. Renees burger was solid throughout, and I was mostly impressed by how the "bacon" was able to hold it's flavor against the other pseudomeat and toppings. Still I think it'd be nice if it looked more like bacon and less like beggin strips. Renee got the sweet potato fries for her side which I thought were pretty standard. Per the server's suggestion, I went with the flashed greens for my side. I probably shouldn't have gotten this since I'm not the biggest kale fan, but it may be right up someone else's alley.
The Bacon Cheeseburger
Finally we went for dessert. They make their own peanut butter in house for a bunch of their dishes, but that's not really Renee's cup of tea. Instead we went for the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Milk Shake. It was amazing. Then I found out it was made without any dairy products, and I was blown away. I was always under the impression that dairy free ice cream was absolutely horrible (thanks Ken's Diner), but this shake changed my mind.
The Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Milk Shake
Well they turned a skeptic into a believer. For vegetarians and vegans this place is a must eat. For everyone else, this place is no joke. You may not get real meat or dairy products, but the fantastic preparation carries their food. As someone who'd never had seitan before, I'm glad this is where I got to try it. I'm giving the Chicago Diner 4 out of 5 Pearls.