To celebrate VegNews naming the Top 10 Best Vegan Cities in America (found in our May+June 2017 issue), we asked our favorite vegans to explain why their winning town should be atop every meat-free traveler’s list.
Chicago is a metropolis of interesting contrasts. A burly, unpretentious city immortalized by the late Studs Terkel through his captivating oral histories and described by Carl Sandburg as the “City of Big Shoulders,” the Windy City is also home to an awe-inspiring skyline and is bordered to the east by Lake Michigan. With fascinating neighborhoods, a rich art scene, great ethnic and cultural diversity, gorgeous architecture (this is where Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright got their starts), Chicago is never boring, and today the city is also home to a flourishing vegan scene and vibrant vegan community.
Top 3 vegan eateries
1. Amitabul: With bright, earthy flavors, a focus on nutritious, vegetable-centric dishes, and a peaceful space, this vegan Buddhist restaurant is an unforgettable, beloved treasure.
2. Urban Vegan: While Thai food can seem vegan-friendly, we have to be wary of fish sauce, oyster sauce, and other decidedly not-vegan ingredients that are common in the cuisine. At Urban Vegan, you can get all the wonderful Thai dishes you love without any worries. Even if it weren’t vegan, it’d still be the best Thai restaurant in town.
3. Original Soul Vegetarian: A jewel on Chicago’s South Side, the celebrated Original Soul Vegetarian’s menu is abundant with hearty, savory comfort food that bursts with flavor.
Top 3 non-vegan restaurants with vegan options
1. The vegan high tea at the Peninsula Hotel: For a beautiful and unique meal in a gorgeous setting, I recommend the surprisingly affordable high tea at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel. The tea—which is served along with elegant tiered trays full of sweet treats and dainty sandwiches—almost takes a backseat to the sumptuous setting, which boasts gorgeous views of downtown. Pro tip: to get the vegan high tea, place your order at least 24 hours in advance.
2. La Cantina Bar and Grill: This South Loop eatery has an extensive vegan menu full of traditional Mexican comfort food that incorporates plant-based proteins and cheeses in quesadillas, chimichangas, enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. I am partial to their juicy Grilled Veggie Fajitas, while my son loves the Chorizo Enchiladas with Salsa Roja.
3. Pick Me Up Café: A foul-ball’s hit from Wrigley Field, Pick-Me-Up Café has a menu that’s great any time of day, but is especially made for late nights or when you’re hungover. With the massive Banana Nut French Toast, you’ll be effectively carbo-loaded for the day (you can stretch out in one of their big, comfortable booths), but healthier dishes such as the Vegan Tofu Scram also hit the spot.
Favorite vegan item in Chicago
The Kimchi Noodle Soup at Amitabul will have you sweating … in a good way! The dish is full of savory, tangy flavor, tangles of noodles, and veggies galore. Plus, the meal is a large enough to take a bath in, though you’d probably do best to keep leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.
Ultimate vegan meal
I’d start with the mind-blowing weekend brunch at Amazing Kale Burger. From there, I’d head south to Wicker Park for some crispy Fried Pickles with house-made ranch dressing at Handlebar. After that, I’d have one of the phenomenal Zesty Salads at Ground Control (that cancels out anything fried, right? Right.) Then, I’d be produce-powered enough to justify heading to Upton’s Breakroom for Al Pastor Jackfruit Tacos (if you don’t eat gluten) or the Bacon Ranch Cheeseburger (if you do). Then, I’d spend a few hours walking around The Art Institute of Chicago (especially the Modern Wing), and when my mind is overflowing with brilliance, I’d go to Arya Bhavan for their amazing Saturday night vegan Indian buffet. Do I still have room? Of course I do, so I’m popping over to The Chicago Diner for Chocolate Peanut Butter Shakes. Then I’ll sleep like a baby.
First-stop for a visiting vegan friend
No question—the legendary brunch at The Chicago Diner. If a friend visits when it’s warm out (which they will because they are sensible), we will dine on their patio, and we’ll linger there over mimosas, dreaming up a tipsy, fun-filled vegan revolution.
Top three vegan desserts
1. Pie, Pie My Darling: Until their brick-and-mortar bakery opens late this summer or early fall, you can try Pie, Pie My Darling’s gorgeous baked goods at Kitchen 17, Handlebar, or Paulie G’s (or by ordering online).
2. Alice and Friends’ Vegan Kitchen’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Bar: How can you go wrong with chocolate, peanut butter, and crushed pretzels?
3. Milkshakes at The Chicago Diner: Any shake will do. Seriously.
Favorite non-food activity
A morning at Chicago’s celebrated Green City Market for a bounty of fresh local produce to eat picnic-style with friends while enjoying free live music at Millennium Park. Wear shorts so you can splash through Crown Fountain, too.
Vegan king and/or queen of Chicago
I’d pick author/activist Robert Grillo of Free From Harm to be vegan king because he works tirelessly for all the animals, but especially those woefully maltreated chickens and roosters. For queen, I’d pick Natalie Slater of Bake and Destroy fame because she is a tattooed pixie goddess who is hilarious, dedicated, and very talented.
One amazing vegan thing in Chicago every city should have
Chicago VeganMania (taking place September 23) is a free, day-long celebration of vegan culture, commerce, community, couture, and cuisine. Now in our ninth year, we work hard to keep our event free so everyone can come, which is reflected in the diversity of our crowds. With speakers, cooking demonstrations, panels, live music, a massive food court, and dozens of vegan vendors, Chicago VeganMania is like being transported to a bustling plant-based oasis for the day. If there were a Chicago VeganMania in every city, the world would understand how delicious, accessible, and wonderful veganism is.
Marla Rose is co-founder of VeganStreet.com and a VegNews contributor.