I am always wary of being critical of vegan establishments, because there aren’t many of them in Chicago and I’m always happy when a new one pops up. However, we at Second City Vegan feel that food should not be praised just because it’s vegan, it should be praised because it’s good. That being said, Life on Mars has some very tasty offerings, but there are several things they could improve upon. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering they haven’t made it to the one year mark yet.
On Saturday, Nick and I stopped by Life on Mars (LoM from here on out) for lunch. I’ve been there a handful of times since they opened and Nick has been there about twice as many times as I have. When Nick & I first went to LoM back in February it was a small establishment which served take-out only. There was a small bench in the corner and the rest of the floor space was empty save for a counter stacked with flyers and such. The menu was basic, consisting of six hot bar items and a couple of cold case items. Since our first visit they’ve added several cafe tables and the counter of flyers is now empty and has several stools lined up along it. There are three blackboards up on the wall. The first one lists the hot and cold case items which change on a daily basis (the labels in the case are color coded to indicate pricing), the second one lists sandwiches (which are a mere $5.50) and the third lists both hot and cold beverages they offer. They also offer different desserts every day.
I’ve sampled several of LoM’s hot bar dishes and some of them aren’t very impressive, but the ones I’ve liked I’ve enjoyed a lot. Among them are: Tofu Saag, Sweet and Sour Seitan and the Coconut Greens.
On Saturday, I got the Mock Chicken Salad sandwich. Until then I’d only had hot bar items, but Nick recommended I try I sandwich and when we asked the employee what his recommendations were he suggested we get the Mock Chicken Salad or the Tuna Salad, so I went with the Mock Chicken on a roll. I also got a Blue Sky Orange Cream soda, sweet potato chips ($1.75) and a chocolate chip cookie ($1.50).
Unfortunately, the best parts of my meal were the sweet potato chips and the Blue Sky Orange Cream soda. The sandwich was underwhelming.The Mock Chicken Salad was cubed tofu mixed with celery and mayo, though I couldn’t taste the celery. This was topped with lettuce, tomato and onion, however, all I tasted was mayonnaise and a hint of onion. The lack of variety of flavor made me wish I’d had some of the hot peppers I’d been offered added to the sandwich. The chocolate chip cookie was also disappointing. It was small, slightly greasy and one of the edges was burnt, so I felt cheated for having paid as much as I did (especially since I can get a big, delicious, vegan cookie from ABC cookies at W Grocer for at least ten cents less).
Nick and I asked to eat our meal at the restaurant and it was served on paper plates and unfortunately there was no recycling bin for us to dispose of our pop cans.
I like that the staff at LoM is always very friendly and willing to answer questions. I also think that the addition of seating was a smart move. However, it would be nice if they acquired some small plates to serve sandwiches on as opposed to paper plates in order to be less wasteful. Adding a recycling bin for soda cans and bottles would be nice, too. I also like that LoM will let you sample any of the hot bar items before you decide on what you’d like to purchase, that way you don’t get any unpleasant surprises.
Though, I don’t visit LoM often, I do like that it exists and that it’s so close to where I live. It’s where I stop whenever I don’t feel like cooking and I want something hot, healthy and reasonably priced that’s vegan.
I’ve visited Life on Mars three times in the last month, which is essential in order to do a thorough review of LoM as it’s a multi-faceted eatery.
My first visit this autumn involved me popping in during the afternoon. The woman behind the counter was extremely enthusiastic and answered all of my questions. After mulling over my options I elected to forgo the hot bar take-out items and instead got a Mock Chicken Salad Sandwich on a kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato, and onion. The sandwich was huge, and with a $5.50 price tag, I was impressed. Unfortunately it was sort of bland. To wash it down I got a Black Cherry Vanilla Shake. I like that they give you the option of soy or rice milk but I was underwhelmed by the shake itself. This was actually my 3rd shake from LoM (the other 2 were Chocolate Shakes) and all of them have been runny and thin. Unfortunately they also lack all of the little details you get at Pick Me Up, Earwax, and the Chicago Diner like syrups, toppings, etc. Overall it was kind of a boring meal even if it was healthy, filling, and inexpensive.
A few nights ago I was biking home from a friend’s place who lives a couple blocks from LoM and I was feeling kind of hungry so I decided to stop by. It was very close to closing time and despite that I got no feeling of being rushed out the door. I was waited on by the owner and he was extremely friendly and in good spirits. He answered all of my questions and allowed me to read ingredients when I asked. I love that sort of accommodating service – and that it was at the end of the night to boot was excellent. I was on my way home so I elected to get a hot bar item as take out. I bought the Seitan with Mushrooms and Peppers. I think this is where you get the most out of LoM. This was an item the really belonged on pasta or rice, so I took it home and put it on rice. For $4.50 I had enough Seitan and Mushrooms for two large plates of pasta and even though it wasn’t the most highly seasoned food, I was at home so I was at liberty to heavily spice with black and red pepper. By the way, I washed this down with a Blue Sky Root Beer that I purchased at LoM and it is some tasty root beer.
I returned to LoM on Friday with the intent of getting the full LoM experience for this review. Once again I was greeted by pleasant courteous staff. I asked the young woman behind the counter what she would get. She recommended the BBQ Rib sandwich on a kaiser roll. I elected to supplement it with the Peanut Stew from the hot bar and another Blue Sky Root Beer. Like the Mock Chicken Sandwich, it was a hefty sandwich for $5.50. The BBQ sauce was flavorful but the ribs themselves were kind of nondescript. It was just an okay sandwich. I followed this up with my Peanut Stew which had a texture more like gravy than stew – like it was thickened with flour. It was more seasoned than some of their other items but I still ended up shaking Nutritional Yeast, Black Pepper, and Salt into it from their condiment station.
Finally, on Saturday I ordered the Tempeh Tuna Salad sandwich and another Blue Sky Root Beer. The tempeh was slightly better than the mock chicken, since it had a bit more texture to it, but the sandwich was still underwhelming. I enjoyed Lisa’s sweet potato chips, despite their lack of salt and as always the service and my root beer were great.
I love that LoM is an all vegan eatery and that it’s really close to home without being packed into one of the two main areas for vegan food – Wicker Park or Lake View. I like their affordable prices and their unique niche as a take-out place with a revolving menu. I think their greatest weakness is a light hand when it comes to seasoning. I know that some people come from the school of thought that by under-seasoning the individual can then season to taste and you can appeal to a greater number of palates. Personally, I’d rather someone go heavy handed with the spices so that my food is teeming with flavor and run the risk of being alienated by dill or parsley overload. Sometimes less isn’t more, it’s just less.
All of that aside, if you’re heading home and you just want something to put over rice or pasta without going all out, Life on Mars is the place to stop.
To find out what Life On Mars is offering on any given day check out their website (http://www.mars-takeout.com/) or follow them on Twitter.
Life On Mars
2910 W Armitage