Tag Archives: restaurants

Healthful Fast Food

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I really like Mark Bittman. His cookbook  How To Cook Everything Vegetarian taught me how to make eggplant that is not too chewy, slimy, mushy, or oily (dry fry it whole until the flesh collapses!); applesauce ideas (add savory flavor like garlic, cumin, or pepper!); and so much more. I regularly refer to his 2009 article “101 Simple Salads”. So of course I was happy to read his current NY Times Magazine article  “Yes, Healthful Fast Food is Possible. But Edible?”.

I’ve been thinking about the differences in fast food restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, which I never go to, and places like Chipotle, Potbelly’s, or Panera Bread, which I go to on occasion. I don’t have the illusion that the latter restaurants are healthful, but they do seem to be better than the former. (Plus they have vegetarian options on the menu). It was interesting to read the categories these restaurants fall into- quick serve, fast casual, premium fast casual…

I agree that food does not have to be vegetarian to be healthful, and that minimally processed foods are better options than imitation meats. I disagree, though, with his vegan friends’ argument that Americans aren’t ready for rice and beans, or chickpea and spinach stew. I think that a fast food restaurant, I mean, a fast casual or premium fast casual restaurant, that served quick lunches like that would be a hit! I would much rather have a stew, salad, or casserole made with vegetables, beans, and grains over an imitation meat product.

What are your thoughts?

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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.