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