Category Archives: Reviews

Special Valentine’s Day Treat from Bethlehem, PA!

This past Valentine’s Day I treated Nick and a few of our friends to some yummy cannoli from Vegan Treats in Bethlehem, PA. They made me lament the fact that Bethlehem is so far away.

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For those who don’t know, Vegan Treats started offering their cannoli online for Thanksgiving/Christmas in 2013. They also sold cookie boxes for Christmas and boxes of awesome looking chocolates for Valentine’s Day.

An order of cannoli includes a dozen cannoli – 6 plain and 6 dipped in chocolate. I was a big fan of the plain, while Nick preferred the chocolate. The filling is creamy and sweet and the pastry was delicious and flaky.

The box arrived the day before Valentine’s Day via the US Postal Service and each half dozen was packaged in these cute little boxes:

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They also came with a couple of postcards:

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The cannoli are pricey ($48 for a dozen or $50 for a gluten free dozen), but definitely worth it! After all if I can’t get to Bethlehem, PA every year, at least I can get something delivered right to my door! I’m hoping they do something cool for Halloween and even though I don’t celebrate Easter, I wouldn’t mind another opportunity to get more goodies!

 

 

On the Road: Grand Rapids

It’s been 6 months since my last post and while I find that a bit embarrassing and have chastised myself often about it, I’ve decided to shrug it off and move on since it couldn’t be helped. However, for those of you looking for an explanation lets just say the past 6 months involved 3 job changes, lots of 12 hour work days, a few computer meltdowns, the birth of a puppy, quite a bit of freelance work, fleas, a bit of  home reorganizing, some super secret plan brainstorming with super secret people and a couple of short vacations, the last of which was a day trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The trip was sort of my last hurrah for the summer, since I started my new full-time position as a children’s librarian today. No more 12 hour days for me = more time for blogging, cuddling with dogs, taking pictures and pursuing my other interests!!!

Why Grand Rapids? Well, I’d been hearing a lot about the wonders of the Megabus and their cheap fares, so I decided to see where it would take me from Chicago. I was limited to day trips since a) I had about 3 million things to do before starting the new job and b) I felt bad leaving the dogs with a sitter for longer than a day, since Nick was on tour in the Pacific NW with his vegan straight edge band, Poison Planet.  Grand Rapids was perfect, because it wasn’t terribly far, I knew they had good vegan food (or so I’d been told, since this was my first visit) and I had 2 coupons for free sandwiches from Bartertown Diner thanks to Nick’s contribution to their Kickstarter last year. I texted my friend M and asked her if she’d like to join me and next thing we knew we were being dropped off in a parking surrounded by warehouses in Grand Rapids.

The first place we went was the Bartertown Diner (6 Jefferson St SE, Grand Rapids, MI – (616) 233-3219). Bartertown is a vegitarian/vegan/raw, worker owned and operated diner. According to their website, their goal is to: “promote fresh, local ingredients along with a positive, fair working environment.”

Bartertown is a casual place with tables made from old doors and a counter made from reclaimed wood and old window panes. They have revolutionaries painted on their walls in red and black and several figurines gracing the counter next to an assortment of hot sauces, like a Ric Flair action figure and this pig:

At first glance, the menu appears a bit Spartan, with it’s 2 appetizers, 5 sandwiches and 4 entrees, but when you stop to think about the fact that they only use local ingredients that are in season, it makes sense. Plus, they had a couple of daily specials up on a board above the counter.

M and I got excited when we saw that they had locally made sodas, so she ordered a Black Cherry Soda which they served up in a mason jar and I ordered a root beer, which unfortunately the were out of 🙁

Black Cherry Soda

As I mentioned before, our coupons were for sandwiches, so we both ordered the Deluxe Chickpea Melt, which featured a patty made from mashed chickpeas, diced veggies, and vegenaise topped with tempeh bacon, lettuce and tomato served on delicious bread toasted to perfection. I opted for the side of baked beans, which tasted more like chili without the meat or veggies than the sweet beans from a can that I’m used. They had a slight kick to them that went well with the sandwich and I was very pleased with my choice.

M opted for the curried coleslaw as her side. I’m not typically a fan of slaw, but it was surprisingly good with the slightly sweet curry they added to it.

As you can see they don’t skimp on the portions. Both M and I left feeling more than satisfied. We also got a piece of raw chocolate cheesecake from their dessert case to go, which was delicious, but I failed to photograph.

We spent the majority of the afternoon wandering around downtown Grand Rapids admiring the architecture, hanging out by the river and reading magazines in the periodicals room of GR’s beautiful library.

Our initial plan was to get dinner at Brick Road Pizza (1017 Wealthy St, Grand Rapids, MI – (616) 719-2409), which we’d heard great things about from several people, unfortunately they are closed on Mondays though, so we had to come up with a plan b.

We walked a few store fronts down to visit Tree Hugger (947 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids, MI – (616) 454-8733), a package free grocery store (though I’d call it more of a general store than grocery store) just to see what it was all about. Walking around the store made me wish there was something like it in Chicago. Tree Hugger is very environmentally conscious. Not only do they sell package free groceries, they also sell upcycled and recycled items AND they have a recycling center.

The way the grocery part of the store works is you either a) bring your own container in or b)buy a mason jar from them and fill it with everything from laundry detergents to Bragg’s Liquid Aminos to Daiya to grains and more, which is rad!

The rest of the store had eco-friendly items for every occasion. There were several Preserve products, compost bins, bamboo kitchen items, grocery totes, clothing, stationary, purses, soy candles, bath and beauty products and more! I was really impressed how every business we visited in Grand Rapids seemed to be all about eco-friendliness and buying local.

Once we left Tree Hugger, we got onto Vegan Grand Rapids to figure out what the nearest option was for us that would keep us in the area or take us back in the direction of our bus. We ended up settling on The Green Well Gastro Pub (924 Cherry St. SE, Grand Rapids, MI – (616) 808-3566), which seemed like the antithesis of Bartertown Diner. Unlike Bartertown, the Green Well serves meat and unlike Brick Road Pizza, they don’t have a dedicated vegan menu. Instead there’s lots of meat, cheese and wine. The clientele reminded M and I of something out of The Stepford Wives. There were women in pearls and skirt suits and lots of middle aged men wearing polo shirts. Needless to say I felt a little out of place in my jean shorts with the ink stain and a tank top. There were cloth napkins and the sinks in the bathrooms looked like something you’d find in a spa.

Our waiter was friendly, though, he seemed a little taken aback when I used the word “vegan” while ordering. He came by frequently to re-fill our waters and see how things were going. M and I both decided to go the safe route and order the Pad Thai, since it was the only thing the folks at Vegan Grand Rapids recommended that didn’t require us telling him to omit anything. We were both pleasantly surprised by what he brought us. It wasn’t traditional Pad Thai, instead is was rice noodles in a sweet and slightly spicy curry sauce with seasonal local vegetables topped with peanuts and it was delicious!

Like the other businesses we visited, the Green Well Gastro Pub was not only concerned with sourcing ingredients locally, they are also  located in an LEED certified building and offer locally crafted beers. They were a little on the pricey side for me and the ambiance was far too formal, so I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat there again, but it’ll do in a pinch.

All in all, it was a nice affordable day trip filled with good food and great company and I look forward to doing it again sometime.

Bleeding Heart West Town Review

This past weekend, Nick and I went to check out the new Bleeding Heart bakery in West Town, which unlike other Bleeding Heart locations has a cafe which serves brunch M-F from 7am -4pm and 57 straight hours starting on Friday at 7am and ending on Sunday at 4pm.

The cafe’s menu includes 7 vegan entrees. Nick ordered the Housemade Vegan Biscuits and Gravy and I had The Roots skillet.

The Roots

At first I wasn’t blown away by the skillet, because I was eating every vegetable on it’s own. The skillet consisted of potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets and seasoned tofu. However, when I started eating the tofu with the veggies I discovered that all of the flavors blended together really well. I left feeling more than satisfied since the bowl was big and the root veggies were filling. My only complaint is that I wasn’t given any vegan margarine or jelly or anything to go with my bread, which was pretty dry.

Vegan Biscuits and Gravy

The biscuits from the biscuits and gravy were probably the fluffiest biscuits I have ever had! Normally I don’t get biscuits because more often than not they’re hard or mealy or too dense, but these were perfect! They also came with seasoned tofu, which was the only disappointing part of the dish. It would have been nice if it was a tofu scramble with a few veggies thrown in, like onion and tomato or it they were served with Upton’s Naturals sausage instead of tofu and some roasted poatatoes. Then the Housemade Vegan Biscuits and Gravy would be AMAZING! As they are now, they’re just good.

Vegan Sweet Potato Pie

For dessert I took home a mini vegan Sweet Potato Pie, which was good, but I’m not sure it was $7 good. I did love the toasted Dandies on top, though! I will have to try to replicate this at home.

Overall it was a pretty good meal. I’m looking forward to going back and trying some more of their vegan offerings. Beware if you go late on a Saturday morning, though, because the place was bumping, so we had to wait about 20 minutes and I’m pretty sure there were only two waitresses working, so we didn’t get the best service.

 

Manna Organics Bread Review

Recently we were asked to review Manna Organics breads*. Manna Organics is a family owned and operated organic bakery in Lisle, IL which specializes in sprouted, yeast free organic bread without salt, oils, sweeteners or leavening agents.  We received a free variety pack from them and started sampling right away. Our pack included the following breads: Millet Rice, Carrot Raisin, Banana Walnut Hemp and Sunseed.

Manna breads are very moist and dense since they’re unleavened. I wouldn’t recommend you buy them to make sandwiches, but they’re great as accompaniments to a meal or as a meal in and of themselves since they are rich in protein and fiber.

The first bread I sampled was the Millet Rice bread and both Nick and I agreed it was our favorite. It has a slightly sweet taste, so it was delicious on it’s own, as well as, topped with margarine. I served it with Trader Joe’s Meatballs and pasta for dinner the night I received my shipment and I was very pleased with how it complimented the dish. I could see it going really well with soups or stews. The idea of pairing Manna Rice Millet bread with split pea soup is literally making my mouth water.  Our roommate, Tyler, was also a big fan of this one!

Manna Organics Millet Rice Bread & Pasta with Meatballs

The Banana Walnut Hemp came in at a close second. It’s more of a breakfast bread and is good served both cold and warm, with or without margarine. I was alone in my enthusiasm for this one, because Nick’s not a big banana fan. I liked that it was sweet, but not too sweet. I was also pleased to see that it contained flax and hemp seeds, which are a great sources of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

Beware, this bread is a bit sticky, so be sure to follow the cutting instructions on the back of the package.

Banana Walnut Hemp Bread

I’m not a big fan of Rye Breads, and though the Sunseed isn’t a rye bread it has a slight rye bread taste. It’s the kind of bread I only eat if it’s coated in margarine, but it can also go well with soups and stews, though it wouldn’t be my first choice and everyone else in my house seemed to feel the same way.

Sunseed

Finally, there was the Carrot Raisin bread. This one was not something I’d seek out. I like carrots and I like raisins, but I didn’t like the pairing of the two. The raisins stood out and the carrots were flavorless. Since the carrots were shredded they gave the bread an odd texture, almost as though it contained shredded coconut and I don’t like shredded coconut . Out of all the breads we received, this one was the only one that didn’t get finished before it went bad.

Carrot Raisin

Manna currently offers 9 varieties of Sprouted breads, as well as Sourdough and Wheat Free breads.  You can find their breads in the frozen section at most Whole Foods locations nationwide and in Canada, as well as at independent health food stores and on their website: http://mannaorganicbakery.com

I definitely plan on making split pea soup with Millet Rice bread in the near future and I’m very curious about their Cinnamon Date bread.

Check back tomorrow to enter our Manna Organics give-away!

*We treat all solicited reviews as non-solicited reviews, ensuring that you get our honest, unbiased opinions.

Cousin’s Incredible Vitality

At some point last year I bought a $20 Groupon to Cousin’s Incredible Vitality (3038 W. Irving Park Rd, Chicago 773-478-6868) and Nick and I finally cashed it in last month. Cousin’s is both entirely raw and entirely vegan.

We weren’t really sure what to expect when we went in. Neither of us have a lot of experience with raw food, but the little bit of experiece we do have has been pleasant. Still, we were both a little nervous.

The place itself has simple decor and the tables are arranged cafeteria style, so on occasion you may find yourself seated next to a complete stranger, but I’m ok with that. However, it took a while for us to be seated and for someone to come take our order. When our server did stop b she was friendly, and brought us a carafe of water.  This was a pleasant surprise; reviews we had read online said they normally don’t bring water until you received your meal. Plus, lately its felt like we’ve had to chase down waitstaff at other establishments for water or appropriate it ourselves. Cousin’s, however, provided us with ample water. The wait to place our orders was longer than one would normally expect, but at least we did have plenty of time to peruse the menu.

We ordered the RAWmazing Antipesto ($7) as a starter, which consisted of zucchni frittes, onions rings, fakin bacon, bell peppers, tempura with olive and pumkin seed cheese.

It was not what I expected at all, but it was good. The olive and pumpkin seed cheese dip was excellent and I probably could’ve just eaten that stuff by itself, but it complimented the rest of the appetizer well and it was all gone long before our entrees came out.

For my entree, I ordered the Sushi Maki ($10) – 5 rolls of Nori rolled sprouts, almond pate, avocado and greens served with soy sauce on a bed of romaine lettuce.

I was dissapointed in my entree. The rolls didn’t stay together very well, they were dry and they didn’t have much flavor. They also weren’t served with any wasabi paste and the soy sauce they were served with was incredibly salty. I was glad they were served on a bed of romaine lettuce cause that helped cut some of the salt. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll be ordering this entree again.

Nick ordered the Portabella Melt ($10) – A marinated portabella mushroom stuffed with seed cheese and avocados, topped with sprouts and a tomato sauce, served with a side salad of broccoli, cauliflower and spices.

We both agreed that he got the better of the two entrees. The meaty consistency of the portabella mushroom made you feel satisfied and it’s filling was flavorful and went well with the mushroom. The side salad of veggies and spices was also very good. I would definitely order this again!

We finished dinner off with a piece of raw strawberry cheesecake topped with banana. As far as cheesecakes go it was alright. We did both leave the restaurant satisfed though.

Since this is a raw organic restaurant the prices are a bit higher than places I traditionally go, especially when taking portions into account. However, there were a lot of items I was curious about on the menu, which I would like to try, so I’ll definitely be back. I feel like Cousin’s is the perfect place to go when you’re looking for something light and healthy, especially on those hot summer days when you don’t feel like cooking, but want something a bit more elaborate than a salad.

They also offer a detox program for those who are interested and raw cuisine classes.

On the Road: Portland, OR Highlights

So as you all know we went MIA around the end of August, right before we went to the first ever Vida Vegan Con in Portland, OR; which was supposed to inspire more blogging and it did (I have so many notes and ideas – many of which will come to fruition this month if all goes according to plan), except life got in the way.

First we’ll go with the conference highlights (Lisa was the only one able to attend the conference itself) :

  1. I got to meet lots of cool and inspiring vegans from all over the country and put faces to names of locals we’ve followed for a while, like Vegan Milwaukee and Snarky Vegan.
  2.  I got to learn how to make meringue (!!!) from Hannah Kaminsky and delicious chocolate delights from Fran Costigan.
  3. I learned a lot about marketing , review writing,  photography and more!

Now onto Portland itself:

1. Sweet Pea Bakery, 1205 SE Stark, Portland, OR.

Sweet Pea is located in the vegan mini mall, so you can get your pastry fill either before or after checking out Food Fight (Portland’s vegan grocer), Herbivore or Scapegoat, the vegan tattoo shop. Among their offerings are delicious danishes with sweet creamy filling, the likes of which I haven’t had in ages:

Decadent chocolate mousse pie:

And the Charlie Brown, a classic pairing of peanut butter and chocolate:

Not only were their pastries delicious, many of them were vanilla extract free, which made Nick happy!

2. Homegrown Smoker, SW 4th and Hall, Portland, OR.

The Homegrown Smoker is a vegan food cart with a southern twist. They have delicious macaroni and cheese and I highly recommend the Portorrito (smoked portobello slices, macnocheese, smoked soy curls, grilled peppers, onions, two cheeses and chipotle aioli wrapped in a warm tortilla). Nick got the Reuben with sweet potato fries, it was not Portorrito, but it was good, too.*

*Edge folks: Ask about their BBQ sauce before ordering any BBQ items – I believe I saw something on their sign about it being bourbon based.

3. Sizzle Pie, 624 E Burnside, Portland, OR.

Though Sizzle Pie isn’t entirely vegan, they offer quite a selection of vegan pies both with and without vegan meats and cheeses (including our very own Upton’s Naturals!). You can either buy it by the slice or get an entire pie. The slices are pretty big, too!

This slice was my favorite:

It’s the vegan Angel of Doom, which is topped with Daiya mozzarella, jalapenos, pineapple, almonds and fresh cilantro. Something about the jalapeno paired with the creamy Daiya and the pineapple makes this special. It definitely has kick to it, though – you’ve been warned.

Other pies we tried were the Spiral Tap, which is topped with caramelized onion spread, marinara and nutritional yeast:

And the Steve Caballero which is pepperoni, Italian sausage, green peppers, white onion, and Daiya:

Other places you should check out if you have the time are Voodoo Doughnuts, which offers a wide selection of vegan donuts, including the Old Dirty Bastard (right corner, front):

And Prasad, if you’re looking for something healthy after stuffing yourself with junk, like this curry bowl with red rice and kale:

Native Foods

Two weeks ago, Native Foods Cafe, hosted a series of promotional complimentary dinners. The chain, which is based out of California has opened a location in Wicker Park (1484 N Milwaukee Ave. 773-489-8480) and will be opening locations in Lakeview (1023 W Belmont Ave. 773-549-4904 -Opens Aug. 30) and the Loop (218 S Clark St. 312-332-6332 – Opens Oct. 1) in the next few weeks. Nick and I were lucky enough to get to try it during one of these events.

While we were waiting in line, a Native Foods employee came around to answer questions and give suggestions. She informed us that everything on their menu was vegan and encouraged us to try a little bit of everything, so we did as she said and went all out. The restaurant itself had that clean, polished, uniform look of any chain establishment. Dark wood tables, outdoor seating, colorful chalk drawings on the wall, the decor brought Flat Top Grill to mind, as well as a recipe or two on the wall/table tents.

Lisa:

I ordered the Sweet Potato Taquitos, the Native Soul Bowl, the Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger, a Lavender Lemonade and a Strawberry Shortcake Parfait.

Sweet Potato Taquitos

The Sweet Potato Taquitos were 3 small deep fried tortillas filled with mashed sweet potatoes, topped with a Chipotle sour cream and accompanied by a scoop of guacamole. I wasn’t very impressed by these. The flavors were very mild and it seemed to be more deep fried tortilla than anything else; though I liked the guacamole, at $6.95, I don’t think I’d order these again.

Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger

The Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger was comprised of thinly sliced seitan (not a patty), melted cheddar, caramelized onions, fried pickles and bacon on a bun with lettuce, tomato, carrots, onions, and ranch dressing. The menu also lists it as being topped with bbq sauce, but mine was not or if it was, it wasn’t enough to notice, though I think bbq sauce would make an excellent addition to this sandwich. The sandwich came with a choice of sides* and I decided to go the traditional route and get fries.

Out of everything I ordered, this was my favorite item. The cheese was cashew based and it was pretty much what I was expecting. The burger was huge! I had to use a knife and fork to eat it. The seitan was tender and I liked the addition of fried pickles. I would have liked some bbq sauce to add to it, because I wasn’t very impressed by their ranch dressing, which was runny and lacked bite. I also wasn’t very impressed by the Native Seasoned Potato fries, which were shoestring fries topped with a tiny bit of seasoning. I like my seasoned fries to be covered in seasoning, like the ones they serve at Quesadilla or my shoestring fries to be just a little greasy and salty, like Handlebar fries. I guess next time I’ll have to try out their Sweet Potato fries. At $9.95 it was probably the best deal and comparable to something you’d get from the Chicago Diner.

Native Soul Bowl

The other entree I ordered was the Native Soul Bowl, which consisted of Native Chicken served atop a bed of steamed veggies, redbeans, and rice topped with ranch and bbq sauce. It was also supposed to be accompanied by a piece of cornbread, but unfortunately they were out of corn bread when I visited. Like the burger, it also came with a side, so I chose the side salad.

I was underwhelmed by the Soul Bowl. I really, really, liked the Native Chicken strips, but I felt the Soul Bowl was something I could have just as easily made at home and it wasn’t really worth $9.95 to me, so like the Sweet Potato Taquitos, I’ll probably skip it next time.

Mini-Greens Salad

However, I was very impressed by the Mini-green salad that came with the Soul Bowl*. The balsamic vinaigrette dressing was rich and delicious and the salad itself consisted of greens topped with beets, carrots, sprouts, yum!

Strawberry Shortcake Parfait


Finally, for dessert I had the Strawberry Shortcake Parfait, which was moist vanilla cake layered with almond cream and fresh strawberries. This was a refreshing and delicious way to end the meal. The dessert was sweet, but not too sweet and desserts priced at $2.95 mean I’ll definitely be getting dessert again.

Although it’s great that Chicago’s vegan options are growing, it’s unfortunate that the growth is in the form of a chain. Chain establishments tend to lack variety and imagination, since their goal is uniformity and predictability. I like that places like the Chicago Diner and Handlebar change their menu on a regular basis and offer a wide variety of specials, though the establishments themselves are not vegan. I feel the need to support local independent businesses; though, obviously supporting entirely vegan businesses is also necessary. Ah, if only I could have the best of both worlds – lots of local independent vegan joints with variety in their menus. So, though I probably won’t be a regular customer at Native Foods, the Wicker Park location is within walking distance of my home, so I know I’ll be back soon.

*Addendum: I’ve been back since the promotional event and discovered that sides are only included with sandwiches which are on special on any given day, otherwise they’re extra, so in reality if you’re getting a sandwich and a side expect to drop $12 or so.

Nick:

I ordered the Native Chicken Wings, the Gandhi Bowl, the Super Italian Meatball Sub and a Watermelon Fresca. The Watermelon Fresca was the first thing I got to sample. Normally I only drink water at meals but since this meal was a freebie I decided to go all out. Honestly, I have never had a natural watermelon beverage so when I walked in and there was one I figured I’d try it out. It was so delicious and refreshing I ended up going for 1 or 2 refills.

Native Chicken Wings

The Native Chicken Wings were served with your choice of ranch or buffalo sauce for $6.95. I chose the ranch dressing, though being from Buffalo originally I have to point out that the rest of the US has it wrong; you serve bleu cheese with wings, not ranch dressing. Its an insanely common failing, and one that no one outside of Buffalo realizes is wrong (Which then brings the question: has anyone developed a vegan bleu cheese?) That being said, it complimented the wings well. In fact, the Native Chicken Wings were my favorite part of the meal with a great flavor & texture without going the creepy route involving a fake bone. They’re a bit pricey, but I could order them alone as a light meal or split them with a friend and feel good about it.

Super Italian Meatball Sub

The Super Italian Meatball Sub consisted of sausage seitan meatballs, marinara sauce, caramelized onions, roasted sweet peppers, pumpkin seed pesto and ranch dressing on a baguette, served with a side of  your choice, I chose fries. This was a fairly disappointing sandwich, but strangely meatball subs always are. They’re one of those really simple vegan conversions that just never seem to fully translate. Do yourself a favor and pick something else as its just mediocre enough that you’ll be coveting your neighbors food.

Gandhi Bowl

I also ordered the Gandhi Bowl, which was blackened tempeh on a bed of rice, topped with steamed veggies, curry sauce, cranberries and green onions, accompanied by a handful of endamame pods. Out of all the entrees that Lisa and I ordered between us, this one was the best. The tempeh was tasty and had its own unique flavor. The curry sauce was just okay but the star player of this entree was surprisingly the cranberries. I am not the biggest fruit fan. I like vegetables, legumes, and grains. If I’m going to have something sweet I go for the chocolate option every time. That being said though, sometimes I love the salty and sweet combo in a meal and they nailed the contrast between the two perfectly on this one.  Out of the 4 entrees I got to try this was the only one I’d order a 2nd time.

Which brings me to a couple of points worth discussing. As excited as I am for new vegan options, I have a great distaste for chains coming in and homogenizing an area. One of the greatest joys of being vegan is that it made me step outside the box when it came to dining out. Rather than showing up to a new city and seeking out the nearest chain restaurant for what was familiar, I’d look for the cool local vegan/vegetarian place knowing full well that I’d never know exactly what to expect.  Each city I’ve been to has a vegan/vegan-friendly restaurant, some better than others, but they are all unique and different. They have their own menus, their own take on different popular dishes, and their own look, feel, and personality. On a personal level its one of my favorite parts of traveling – knowing that there is some new place out there with a whole new menu for me to plunder and experience. It made me appreciate the unique differences between local establishments, as opposed to the sameness of chain operations, with their predictable menus, highly polished dining environments, and uniform staff. Also, running a small business is difficult and supporting those businesses invested directly into our communities is important. Its fantastic that Tanya Petrovna aka Chef Tanya has built a successful business model out of an all vegan restaurant, but growth for growth’s sake makes me uneasy and dropping 3 new locations into one city seems to fit that bill. Walking into Native Foods you immediately get the chain vibe, like walking into Pizza Fusion or Flat Top Grill. Each restaurant may be a different shape and in a different neighborhood, but everything else is the same and everything has a polished professional presentation that is sterile and bland.

Watching the commentary come through on Facebook as all of my friends tried Native Foods out these first 2 weeks has been very interesting. Some people have loved it and some people have hated it, but one of the comparisons that has come up consistently has been to the Chicago Diner. The two restaurants have a lot of overlap in the types of dishes especially the sandwiches. A number of people hyped up on a shiny new place to chow down are decrying the once beloved Diner. Personally I think the Chicago Diner has superior sandwiches and more personality, but Native Foods has that “new and exciting” buzz combined with the fact that it is all vegan. One of my favorite aspects of the Chicago Diner is that they have been evolving over the last 2 years with their menu that changes every few months, their constantly shifting specials, their experimentation with new vegan products like Daiya cheese, Upton’s Seitan, and Breaded Teese Sticks, and their constant fund raising for various causes. I think a lot of the negativity stems from the burnout one experiences when they’ve had the same meal one too many times, but maybe that’s just how I see things. With their willingness to adapt and evolve, hopefully they’ll see the example set by Native Foods that an all vegan business model can be successful and make that move themselves, because personally, that’s the only edge Native Foods has on the Diner.

Definitely go check out Native Foods and give it a chance, but don’t forget to support your local stalwarts like the Chicago Diner and Handlebar.

New Vegan Eats in Chicago: Urban Vegan

I finally got a chance to try Urban Vegan (1605 W Montrose, 773-404-1109) last week with my friend, Dusty. Urban Vegan is a Thai restaurant that has been on the Chicago scene for about a month now.  They offer standard Thai fare, a few burgers, wraps and all sorts of tempting beverages on their menu.  They also offer both lunch and dinner combinations/specials, and have wheat free menus upon request.

It took a while to decide what we wanted. After all we had a whole menu to choose from. How often does that happen? I wanted to try everything, but I restrained myself. Instead, we each ended up ordering an appetizer and a dinner special.

I got the Steam Curry Dumpling as an appetizer and Praram’s Plate from the dinner combination menu.

Steam Curry Dumplings

The dumplings are filled with veggies and topped with green curry. They were light and the curry sauce was sweet, though not very spicy, which was disappointing, so I don’t know that I’d order them again. But, if you’re not a fan of heat, these are a good starter ’cause they aren’t very filling, which means you’ll have plenty of room for your entree.

Praram's Plate

The Praram’s Plate dinner combination consists of steamed brown rice, a salad, 2 spring rolls and soy chicken pan fried with peanut sauce and spinach. The plates were beautifully arranged and my meal was delicious! The peanut sauce was creamy and not too oily, the rice was moist and had a nice nutty flavor to it that complemented my entree well and the salad was fresh and came with a really tasty dressing. There wasn’t anything exceptional about the spring rolls, but they weren’t bad.

Dusty ordered the Spicy Seafood Soup as an appetizer and the Green Curry dinner special with peppersteak.

Spicy Seafood Soup

She asked that the soup be prepared at medium heat, since she wasn’t sure how hot they make their food. It seems like they tend to err on the side of caution, so if you’re looking for Spicy Sea Food soup be sure to ask for spicy, because medium was more mild than medium. The soup consisted of soy fish, soy shrimp, veggies and herbs in a lemongrass broth. All of the ingredients in the soup were fresh and despite it’s lack of heat, the soup was very good. It was my first experience with soy fish and soy shrimp. I was never a seafood fan pre-veganism, but I actually enjoyed the soup quite a bit. She also approved, except she didn’t like that there were inedible pieces of lemongrass and other herbs in the broth.

Green Curry

She also ordered the green curry as medium, so it was mild. She felt the rice also complemented her entree very well. It’s rare to find a good brown rice paired with Asian food, usually most brown rice seems to be too dry or the flavor doesn’t complement the flavors of the other foods it’s with, but this one is very good. The pepper steak was a good addition to the curry.

Both of our dinner specials also came with a small bowl of tofu soup, which like the spring rolls, was nothing to write home about, but was a nice addition.

I can’t wait to go back and try some more dishes at Urban Vegan, as well as a smoothie and some dessert!

Follow Urban Vegan on Facebook.

Loose Leaf Lounge Vegan Menu Premieres Tonight

Mercy for Animals has done it again. Loose Leaf Lounge (2915 N Broadway) will be premiering their new vegan menu tonight starting at 5pm!  The vegan menu includes a Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Daiya, tomato and onion, a Ground Seitan Sandwich with avocado, peppers, spinach and Veganaise, a Chorizo Seitan Wrap with avocado, cilantro, and tomato, Vegan Cookies, and more!

These items are being added to their menu permanently, so if you can’t check them out tonight, do so soon! I know I will.

*Note from Facebook Event Invite regarding tonight: Since Loose Leaf Lounge is a small cafe, seating is not guaranteed and they do not take reservations. To increase your chances of getting a seat, arrive promptly at 5 p.m., after 8 p.m., or come for carry-out!

Vegan Desserts: Sumptuous Sweets for Every Season is No Ordinary Cookbook

I must admit that when I first flipped through Hannah Kaminsky’s latest book, I was a little skeptical, despite it’s enticing cover and photographs. Avocado in a pie? Basil in cookies? Olive oil ice cream?!? I was mildly terrified, but decided to be adventurous and chose 4 recipes to test – 3 adventurous ones and 1 safe one; just in case the rest failed. I went with the Avocado Creme Pie, Mexican Chocolate Creme Caramel, Sweet Basil Shortbread Cookies, and my safe choice was the Marbled Chocolate and Zucchini Bread. I lined up several recipe testers: my friends Dan & Amy, Nick, our roommate, Tyler, and, of course, myself  and spent a weekend baking.

Avocado Creme Pie

I was pleasantly surprised by the results. The Avocado Creme Pie was cool and creamy and the avocado flavor wasn’t overwhelming (which was a plus in my book, because I’m not a huge avocado fan so I only eat it in small doses), the Mexican Chocolate Creme Caramel was incredibly rich, the Sweet Basil Shortbread Cookies were a unique twist on an old favorite and the Marbled Chocolate and Zucchini Bread was moist and absolutely delicious!

Sweet Basil Shortbread

I had all of my testers try every dessert, but the Mexican Chocolate Creme Caramel, because half of it was a failure and half of it came out great, so there wasn’t enough for everyone. The common consensus (3 out of 5) was that the Avocado Creme Pie was “Amazing!” Tyler was so into it he probably could have eaten the entire pie by himself! The second most popular item was the Marbled Chocolate and Zucchini Bread (recipe after the interview with Ms. Kaminsky!), which was my favorite. The Mexican Chocolate Creme Caramel was only tested by Nick and myself; we both thought it was rich and delicious, though a little grainy (perhaps I need to blend the tofu longer next time). The underdog was the Basil Shortbread Cookies, I enjoyed them, but no one else was a fan. I must admit I was forced to use dry basil in them because I couldn’t find any fresh basil anywhere, so they had a vague tea-like quality. I want to give them another chance and try them with fresh basil, like the author intended.

All of the recipes I chose were from the Spring section of Vegan Dessert: Sumptuous Sweets for Every Season. I can’t wait to try out recipes from the rest of the seasons. Summer includes recipes like Mean, Green Pistachio Ice Cream; Raspberry Cheesecake Popsicles (yum!); and Red, White and Blue Layer Cake. Autumn features favorite fruits and veggies of the season, like pumpkin and apples in recipes like, Candied Apple Cookies; Cranberry Custard Pie; Stuffed Cider Donuts and Pumpkin Butter Cookies! Winter includes Chestnut Muffins; Marzipan Tea Cake; Meringue Kisses (vegan meringue?!?); and Triple Ginger Cheesecake. Winter is followed by Components and Accompaniments, which includes recipes for Canine Cookies; Lady Fingers, Whipped Cream and more!

Ms. Kaminsky’s instructions are clear and concise and she uses ingredients that are fairly easy to find. All of the recipes are accompanied by stunning photographs that make your mouth water, taken by Ms. Kaminsky. The book includes an ingredients glossary, troubleshooting tips, a regular index and a food allergy index, which has the recipes broken up as gluten free, peanut free, soy free and tree nut free, which is very helpful. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking to break out of traditional baking and explore all of the flavors and tempting treats each season has to offer.  I was so happy with the results of my test that my curiosity was piqued, so I did a short interview with Hannah Kaminsky:

SCV: What inspired you to use ingredients more commonly found in savory cooking, like avocado and basil, in your baking?

HK: I think that there are so many wonderful flavors and ingredients that are simply underutilized when it comes to desserts. So many fruits and vegetables that we might not think of as “sweet” actually have very powerful sweet flavors when coaxed through cooking and seasoning properly. It seems a shame to overlook these unique tastes, just because they’re not as familiar! There’s also that ever-present sense of seasonality that I take with me into the pastry kitchen, that pushes me to use what I have and what’s at its prime in that moment, rather than reaching for the mealy apples from cold storage in summer for example.

SCV: This book focuses on the seasons. When it comes to baking, do you have a favorite season? Why?

HK: Now that’s an easy one: Summer! It seems like everything is ripe and delicious all at once, with an abundance of berries, stone fruits, and so many other delicious ingredients that are practically self-contained desserts withough any further tinkering necessary. Savory chefs get more excited about Spring, what with the wild greens and baby vegetables that it brings, but summer is the height of seasonal baking in my eyes.

SCV: You wrote your first cookbook (My Sweet Vegan) at an early age (she was in high school!) – how long have you been baking/cooking?

HK: It’s curious to look back through my blog archives, because it ended up unintentionally chronicling my journey as a baker. As I started sharing my sweet creations about 5 years back, I started getting more and more experimental, writing my own recipes and sharing the resulting successes and failures. I was never formally taught, so it’s been a great learning experience just through trial and error, and the feedback through the blog. Cooking is in my blood though; my mom and both grandmothers are quite accomplished cooks and even before I realized that food was my passion, I was working at a vegan/vegetarian restaurant, Health in a Hurry, at age 16. It was my first job…and I still have it actually! Now I’m helping develop recipes and consult on marketing more often, but I still throw down in the restaurant kitchen at least once or twice a week these days.

SCV: So far both of your cook books have focused on sweets, any plans to write a book focusing on savory recipes?

HK: No solid plans right now, but I’d certainly love to explore my savory side more sometime in the future! For the time being though, I do frequently post main dishes, sides, salads, soups – you name it – on my blog. You can get all of those recipes for free, too, so be sure to check out the recipe index at http://bittersweetblog.wordpress.com/recipes-a-z/

SCV: I couldn’t help but notice that you included a dog treat recipe. I have yet to bake for my dogs (Ian and Harlow), but can’t wait to try it. Do you have a furry friend? If so, what’s their favorite treat?

HK: Yes, I make a point to always include at least one treat for our canine friends in each of my cookbooks! My constant companion is Isis, a sweet little Basenji, who is always willing to “help” clean up my edible messes, so it seems only fair that I reward her with a little something special every now and then. She’s not terribly picky, but some of her favorite morsels are actually cucumbers – stems, peels, pieces, anything! I guess I’m lucky she has such healthy preferences.

Marbled Chocolate and Zucchini Bread

6 Tbsp Non-Dairy Margarine (I used Earth Balance)
1 cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 cup Dark Brown Sugar, packed
1 2/3 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Tsp Baking Soda
1/4 Tsp Baking Powder
1/2 Tsp Salt
1 Tsp Ground Cinnamon
2 cups Shredded Zucchini (2 small zucchinis did the trick)
3/4 cup Non-Dairy Milk (I used almond)
1 Tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Tsp Vanilla Extract (I used Frontier’s non-alcoholic vanilla)
1/4 cup Cocoa Powder
1/2 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips or finely chopped chocolate (I used Whole Food’s brand regular sized vegan chocolate chips)

Preheat oven to 350 F and grease a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan.

With your stand mixer, cream the margarine and both sugars together thoroughly. Mix together the flour, baking soda and powder, salt, and cinammon in a separate bowl. Slowly add in the dry mix, giving the mixer time to catch up and incorporate the new ingredients. Mix until mostly smooth, but don’t go crazy and overdo it; a few lumps are just fine. Squeeze the shredded zucchini lightly to remove some of the excess water, and add that in along with the soymilk, vinegar and vanilla.
Divide the batter, pouring half into a separate bowl. Add cocoa powder and chocolate chips to one half and mix so that it’s smooth and homogeneous. Add alternate dollops of the plain and chocolate batter into your prepared pan until both are used up, and then run a spatula through the whole thing to lightly marble the two together.
Bake until wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50-60 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning out and moving to a wire rack.

Makes 10-12 servings.

Vegan Desserts: Sumptuous Sweets for Every Season
By Hannah Kaminsky
Skyhorse Publishing Hardcover
On Sale: May 20, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-61608-220-8
Price: $17.95