Tag Archives: chicago

Colorful Birds’ Nests, Coming Soon to Chicago’s North Side

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Leave it to Lisa at Sifu Design Studio to come up with a fun way to recycle yarn scraps and beautify the neighborhood at the same time. Lisa has been giving out little cages meant to be used as suet bird  feeders, but instead of stuffing them with suet, she loaded them with leftover yarn scraps. Birds will still flock to these cages, but instead of a snack, they’ll get some colorful building material for their nests.

I think the cages look great just hanging around the neighborhood. Here’s the one I put up in front of my place.

But I especially can’t wait to catch glimpses of color popping up in the nests. If you live in Chicago and want to put up your own yarn scrap bird feeder, stop by Sifu and ask. Best part of all- they’re free!

New York Public Library

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One feature of my trip to Haiti was a 24 hour layover in New York. During that day, I visited the library and toured a current exhibit (through March 4, 2012!) called Celebrating 100 Years. This exhibit included a Gutenberg Bible, a diary and harmonica that belonged to Jack Kerouac, a notebook from Malcolm X, an Audobon bird book (about 4 feet tall!) the Declaration of Independence, handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, Mein Kampf (in German), Karl Marx’s Das Kapital  (in Russian), a first edition print (only 17 in existence) of the Star-Spangled Banner, complete with typo, and much more.

Libraries are important meeting, studying, researching and gathering places. They are an equalizer, allowing everyone free access to books, Internet, and other resources. The New York library is also like a free museum in the architecture and interior painting, decor, and exhibits.

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with libraries. I would go to story hour and check out puppets and books when I was a kid. The first book I read by myself, Fun Wherever We Are, was a library book. I read hundreds of Babysitters Club books when I was a little older. I completed research papers through college and found music for my wedding at the library. I simply would not be the same person I am today without the existence of libraries.

Unfortunately, the Chicago Public Library system has announced that Chicago Public libraries will now be closed on Mondays due to Mayor Emmanuel’s nearly $7 million budget cut for the libraries. This is not something that is unique to Chicago. Libraries all over the country are closing or running on reduced funding and minimal staff. I understand that it is due to the recession; however, in a time where the public has less money, public programs should receive more funding. Libraries support people looking for jobs, trying to pass tests, and struggling through school. I’m not asking people to donate money or for a public outcry. Just a reminder, if you haven’t been to your local library for a while, check it out. You might be surprised. And if you live in New York or will be passing through before the end of March, I highly recommend stopping by to see the exhibition.

Jalapeño Everything?

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Dinner was banh mi from Nhu Lan. These are the best banh mi outside of Vietnam (and maybe even including Vietnam. I’ll have to go there to find out).

Banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich served on French bread. The vegetarian options at Nhu Lan are ginger tofu, lemongrass tofu, and veggie classic (my favorite).

My husband wanted the ginger tofu:

And I got a veggie classic + a cantaloupe avocado bubble tea:

I’m not completely sure what is on the veggie classic, but like the other sandwiches, it includes slightly pickled cucumber, carrots, taro (I think), cilantro, and jalapeño. That is, if you say yes when the lady taking the order asks, “Jalapeño Everything?”

This restaurant is so delicious and so cheap. All the bread is made in-house, and it’s crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The vegetables are flavor packed, and the Vietnamese mayo is just right. Each sandwich is $3.50. The bubble teas are also $3.50 each.

It’s also super small- the ordering/eating/waiting area is approximately 8 feet by 12 feet. Yet there were 16 people there when I was ordering these sandwiches. The only downside is that there have been a couple of times when I wanted to go, but had to skip it because it was so packed, I couldn’t get in the door.

I love taking out-of-town guests there, especially ones who do not generally like trying new foods. Everyone who has gone has been impressed by the quality and taste of the sandwiches.

So next time you’re in Chicago, stop by Nhu Lan. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Chicago Reader Article “Eat Your Veggies”

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The Chicago Reader has a cover story this week entitled Eat Your Veggies. It is a guide to vegetarian dining in the city. They say that they consulted chefs, entrepreneurs, bloggers, dietitians, and artists (emphasis mine), but they didn’t check with me!  My post from just four days ago highlights many of the same places. I shared the same opinion about Chicago Diner relying too heavily on faux-meat products and the same opinion that Nhu Lan banh mi sandwiches are one of the best foods in the city.

Reading this article, especially the section about favorite vegetarian meals at non-vegetarian restaurants made me realize that I prefer non-vegetarian restaurants to vegetarian ones. Non-vegetarian places create interesting flavor combinations without a meat center surrounded by sides. The vegetarian restaurants often borrow from meat-based dishes, replace the meat with tofu, or worse, processed soy proteins, and serve an uninspired meat knock-off dinner. That’s not to say that many of them aren’t delicious. They are, and there are other benefits to the vegetarian places. Mostly the abundance of options. Anything on the menu is an option for me! Ordering can be simpler at a non-veg place, though, because there I may only have one or two choices. Actually, when I tire of people asking me why I chose to be a vegetarian, I have taken to saying, “So that it’s easier to decide when I go out to eat.”

There are tons of reasons why I have eaten essentially no meat over the past 11 years. It’s not one single thing and it’s never a simple answer.

I remember listening to an npr interview with Grant Achatz, the head chef for the edgy, innovative restaurant Alinea. Unfortunately, I won’t eat at his restaurants, not only because I don’t have a spare $250 or so for my dinner, but also because the tasting menus are not vegetarian. But he said something that stuck with me which is that meat loses its flavor after chewing it for a short time. Once the juices are gone, you’re left with a hunk of unflavored texture. Vegetables, on the other hand, retain their flavor no matter how long you keep chewing on them. You could chew on a carrot for several minutes and still taste the carrot. Sounds like a good reason to me!

Chicago Restaurant Review, Volume I

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Here are some vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Chicago. Also, I haven’t gone to any restaurant in Chicago I wouldn’t classify as vegetarian-friendly except for Bubba Gump Shrimp Palace at Navy Pier. But here are some that stick out to me for good or for bad.

1. Chicago Diner. Of course I have to list this one first because this is the restaurant everyone thinks of when you say, vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. It is nearly 30 years old, and nearly always has a wait for tables, especially in colder months when the patio is closed. They have a good amount of comfort food and a fair selection for non-vegetarians (food that “seems normal” like tostadas and chili). My complaint is that they rely heavily on “meat substitutes” like seitan. Expect to pay about $15 per person. The best thing on the menu: peanut butter cookie dough soy milkshake. This is the best milkshake I have ever had, vegan or not. It is unbelivable.

2. Nhu Lan. This is not a vegetarian restaurant, but they have 3 vegetarian sandwiches and a variety of other vegetarian foods. This is a Vietnamese sandwich shop that is so good I want to travel to Vietnam. The tasty banh-mi sandwiches are served on french bread that is baked daily. They also have delicious bubble tea. The only unfortunate thing about this place is that there are only two tables, and the small front room is usually packed with people who have ordered, are waiting to order, or are eating. Expect to pay $5 per person. The best thing on the menu: Veggie Classic Banh Mi. Carrots, taro, tofu, cucumber, cilantro, mayo on crispy french bread. Awesome.

3. Native Foods Cafe. (Purposefully not linking). Great if you like sides of bigotry and racism. Best thing on the menu: leaving without ordering.

4. Quesadilla La Reyna del Sur. (No website- located at 2235 N. Western). This is a great vegetarian Mexican restaurant. It is not pretentious. It does also lean heavily on soy meat substitutes, but has huitlacoche (corn fungus) and nopales (cactus) which are not as commonly found at many restaurants. You have the option of dairy or vegan cheese on the quesadillas. They also have many fresh juice options. Expect to pay $7 per person. Best thing on the menu: not sure yet. I need to go a few more times.

5. Handlebar. If you don’t mind hipsters and love vegetarian comfort food, this is your place. (Also serves seafood). One of the cool things about Handlebar is that, in addition to all the tempting entree and sandwich choices, you can also mix and match the sides to make a dinner of 3 sides as an entree. Expect to pay about $15 per person. The inside can be a little noisy to carry a thoughtful conversation with your dining partner, but the patio is wonderful (weather permitting). Best thing on the menu: sesame broccoli (side dish).

6. I Monelli. It’s Chicago. I had to put in at least one pizza place. See, Chicago is known for deep dish, but it’s also known for very overweight people. Yeah, I like deep dish, but I don’t like how my stomach feels afterward. That’s why when I want pizza, I get it from I Monelli. They have a delicious crust with a touch of cornmeal, not too much sauce, and traditional toppings as well as clever ones. Expect to pay about $12 per person. Best thing on the menu: Potato Rosemary Pizza.

7. Green Zebra. Chicago is also known for some innovative (read: expensive and small portioned) restaurants. Green Zebra is the vegetarian counterpart to these places. That said, it is a delicious spot. The atmosphere is cozy and inviting. The food is good, and may leave you wanting more. The soup appetizer was served in a shot glass. Expect to pay $60 per person. Best thing on the menu: I’ll have to go back and let you know.

8.Opart Thai. Ok, I don’t really know if their dishes are vegetarian or made with fish sauce and I don’t want to ask. This is my go-to Thai spot. The service is great. The decor is welcoming, and there is always a table. We had our rehearsal dinner for about 30 people here, and there was still space for the regular dinner crowd. The menu is huge, but I usually stick with the classics. Expect to pay about $9 per person. Best thing on the menu: Pad See-iew, tofu.

9. Tokyo Marina. Really? A sushi place in a vegetarian list? Yes. Though I’ve heard the fish is great here, I’m into the 14 different vegetarian sushi rolls one can choose from. This place has never disappointed me. It’s not super classy, you don’t need to dress up, they even deliver. The rolls are made to order and the service is great. They start you off with an amazing miso soup, and after the meal, you get orange slices and some other treat. Expect to pay about $13 per person. Best thing on the menu: Kaiware maki- radish sprout, avocado and mayo. I will also admit to having the dragon maki- shrimp tempura, eel, cucumber, mayo and avocado.

10. Heartland Cafe. This is another spot that has been around for over 30 years. The food is good while I’m eating it, but I feel like I get sick after I go there, and I’ve vowed not to go back. They have a cute little general store attached, and a bar attached on the other side. They also feature local musicians and artists. Expect to pay $10 per person. Best thing on the menu: Homemade cornbread.

Check the blog in the future for more Chicago reviews and reviews of other cities.

Inspiration…. or desperation

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Last Thursday was the second to last neighborhood farmer’s market of the season. Farmer’s market season lasts for approximately 5 months, and is my favorite season of the year. During the summer, I’m able to go twice a week, but during the school year, I can only manage to get to the Thursday evening option. It is fulfilling to watch the progression from June through October as the fruits and vegetable options change. The market also changes from somewhat slow in the early season to super busy mid-summer back to the loyal holdouts of early fall.

Realizing I wouldn’t be able to go much longer, I packed my bags with more than I could comfortably carry on the walk home through the misty rain. I was disappointed that there was no fruit to be found this week, but secretly, I wouldn’t have been able to also carry the 15 apples we’ve been getting each week since apple season began. And I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from buying one last batch of honeycrisps. I had to stop myself from buying corn and eggplant because I didn’t want anything to spoil, and there are only two of us, and it’s only a week. But everything looked so inspiring. Or maybe it was a desperate attempt to hold on to summer, to local, seasonal, flavorful food, and to mingling in the open air market.

I will admit this was the first time I bought cheese curds, and only the second time I bought either butter or bread. Here are of my thoughts for upcoming meals. Squash stuffed with carrot, onion, zucchini and quinoa. Mashed sweet potatoes. Or mashed potatoes and parsnips. Radish and gypsy pepper salad. Egg and tomato sandwiches. Red leaf lettuce salad with grilled portobellos. Root vegetable stew. Stir fried onion, broccoli, and red peppers with brown rice and tomatoes. Egg salad sandwiches. Stay tuned to see what develops.