Weekend Guide to Eating Vegan in Chicago
 

As Chicago is known for its Italian beef sandwiches; deep-dish style pizza (four inches thick with cheese and Italian sausage), and all-beef hot dogs, it may not be completely intuitive that this city is a treasure trove of delicious vegan gems. However, the Windy City, with the third largest population in the United States, is packed with amazing things to do, see and eat, with the full gamut of restaurants from heavy metal dive bars to old-school diners and family-run hole-in-the-walls with the best soul food your stomach has every laid eyes on. Growing up in here, I go back frequently to visit family and friends, and I never fail to be delighted (and completely stuffed) by the city’s food offerings. There are so many places to choose from, but here is my weekend guide to all of the best that Chicago has to offer.


For Breakfast

Handlebar

2311 W. North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

Monday through Friday- 10-1 AM; Saturday through Sunday- 9-1 AM

This bicycle-themed restaurant, in the hipster haven neighborhood of Wicker Park, looks more like a grungy place you’d sling back Stags at 2 in the morning rather than somewhere you’d have a mind-blowing culinary experience. While Handlebar is perfectly suitable for the former activity, it is not an exaggeration to say that it also has some of the best breakfast dishes I have ever encountered. Better yet, if you were getting weird somewhere into the wee hours the preceding night, breakfast is served until 3 pm every single day, giving even the latest of risers plenty of time to get their morning munch on.

Its menu features a range of pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan options, with a heavy Southern soul food and Tex Mex twist. While the offerings are relatively straightforward breakfast fare (think breakfast burritos and tofu scramble), Handelbar lovingly curates its ingredients for these dishes, heavily relying on non-GMO, organic, and locally-sourced produce as much as possible. The menu is clearly marked for various dietary restrictions (including our gluten-free friends) and our server seemed knowledgeable and happy to provide dish recommendations for our vegan diets.

Amidst our plentiful options, my husband, Justin, and I selected the vegan country fried portobello and vegan chimichanga. Both dishes were plated beautifully; I honestly would have never guessed that such gorgeous disheswould have been prepared by an establishment that has the word “bar” in its name. The amazingly juicy country fried portobello, smothered with a seitan sausage gravy, studded with blackened tofu, and served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes and tender collard greens, tasted straight out of your Southern grandmother’s kitchen (it made me nostalgic for many, many meals shared with my grandma at Cracker Barrel, except, you know, with exceptionally better food) and probably ranks as my favorite breakfast dish ever. The chimichanga was covered in an impossibly creamy, cheesy cashew-based queso and zesty guacamole and, at essentially the size of a newborn baby or slightly deflated football (putting even the heftiest Chipotle burrito to shame), was stuffed with the perfect mix of spicy seitan chorizo, tofu, peppers, black beans, and rice. The portion sizes are comically enormous, but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll wind up basically licking your plate clean due to the sheer tastiness of the dishes. Better yet, the food is reasonably priced for Chicago- for our two entrees, I believe we only walked away $24 poorer (while at least 8 pounds of chimichanga heavier).

If you can’t make it by Handlebar for breakfast, fear not- they have an equally impressive lunch and dinner menu served after 3 pm, featuring classic vegan options such as sloppy joes and grilled cheese. Keep an eye out for fun specials (on Tuesday nights, you can get a two avocado tacos, a shot of tequila and a beer for $11- my kind of taco Tuesday!) and I would highly, highly recommend enjoying eating out on its cozy patio whenever Chicago’s weather affords you the chance- one of my fondest memories in the city involves sharing a shepherd’s pie sandwich (a nightly special!) and beers with Justin whilst watching participants of the World’s Naked Bike Ride randomly whiz past in the alleyway behind the patio.

Laidback vibes and unbelievably tasty (and reasonably priced) eats makes this eatery a must-stop during any Windy City visit.

Stan’s Donuts

Multiple locations; times vary by location

You may know from my previous posts, but I’m something of a donut aficionado. There are few things that make me happier than kicking off the day with a piping hot cup of coffee and its trusty sidekick, a fluffy, sugary donut. While vegan donutsare certainly becoming more common, it’s still an unexpected treat when you can locate a shop that sells them. Chicago has two regional chains that sells vegan options, Do-Rite Doughnuts and  Stan’s (with both chains offering gluten-free varieties as well). Since Justin and I typically make a stop at Do-Rite when we’re in Chicago, we decided to give Stan’s a try this time around.

The location we went to (located in the Streeterville neighborhood 259 E. Erie St. Suite 100, Chicago, IL 60611) looked intentionally designed for an Instagram post, with colorful Kitchen-Aid mixers, installed into shadow boxes as wall-art, and pink neon and white lacquered finishes occupying every available nook and cranny. This seems like the perfect place to catch up with an old friend, with sweet young families and friends crowding the available tables, happily licking frosting off their fingers and generally looking content with the world.

The storefront we tried had only one vegan option, a cinnamon-sugar cake donut, although their menu indicates they serve a sugar variety as well. If those aren’t really your flavors, I’d recommend checking out Do-Rite, which has three cake doughnut options daily (in our experience, these flavors have been olive oil-orange, birthday cake, and spiced maple chai). What Stan’s lacks in unique flavor options, it makes up for in texture- the insides of the donuts were crumbly and moist, like a delightful muffin and perfectly contrasted the grainy cinnamon-sugar dusted on top of the pastry.

In my experience, breakfast has always been the most challenging meal for veganism, with limited options for quick, take-away foods and a reluctance in most breakfast places to adopt veganizable offerings. While I certainly have had more interesting donuts elsewhere (Team Yeast Doughnuts, for life), I think Stan’s and Do-Rite are fabulous for providing a quick, easy, and of course, delicious offering in multiple locations around Chicago Between Do-Rite and Stan’s, you have some ten storefronts across the city where you can stop in and get your plant-based carb/sugar fix in minutes. And that, my friends, is something worth celebrating (even with a doughnut, perhaps?).


FOR A PRE-DINNER APPETIZERS

Lost Lake

3154 W Diversey Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

Monday through Friday: 5 pm- 2 am; Saturday: 4 pm-3 am; Sunday: 4 pm-2 am

I usually include fun bars on my “What to Do” post about a city, but this tiki hotspot has enough Asian-inspired vegan items clearly marked on its menu that I thought it deserved a mention on this list. As I’ve previously written, I love me a good tiki-themed bar and while Lost Lake has some stiff competition in Chicago (if you’re also a tiki enthusiast, Three Dots and a Dash is not to be missed during your stay), this spot is probably the most cleanly-executed tiki bar I’ve been to, perfectly balancing the 1960’s atomic, kitschy aesthetic with more modern, natural touches. With its intimate setting, attractive staff (did I just discover that “tiki bartender” is officially my type?) and laidback, funky vibe, this is the perfect place to kick off an evening in the Windy City with a couple of stiff rum-based cocktails (they have a whopping 275 varieties of rum available!) and some light appetizers.

From looking at their Yelp page, it looks like their menu may rotate occasionally, but when we went, they had several vegan options, including two noodle-bashed dishes (one with sesame chili tare, rapini, fermented black beans, and tofu and the other with marinated tofu, crispy shallots, and a chili-lime dressing); a tofu banh-mi sandwich (make sure to ask for it with no mayo); and a green chili dip, with fried wonton crisps, chilled sweet potato, and hunks of breakfast radish. Trying to stave off our hunger until we headed over to dinner, we ordered the green chili dip to snack on, which seemed to appear instantaneously after ordering it. The chili dip had just the right amount of kick and was reminiscent of the chili and cilantro chutney that accompanies many Indian dishes. I surely have never said this before, but lord, they used some tasty turnips, with a soft earthy taste and satisfying crunch with every bite. This was the perfect amount of food for two people to munch on to help off-set the heavy pours of rum and other spirits that you surely will imbibe during your stay here.

Beware, this cozy place gets CROWDED. The drinks here are pretty pricey (about $15 or so a pop) and definitely strong, so it seems like once people order a round, they wind up hunkering down for a couple of hours. Justin and I went around 5 pm on a Saturday and still had to vulture for seats at the bar. Pop in around their 4 pm opening time, sip down a fruity cocktail, and get ramped up for what’s surely to be a delightful Chicago dinner.


FOR LUNCH AND DINNER

Chicago Diner

2333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647 or 3411 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60657

Monday – Thursday 11am-10pm; Friday 11am – 11pm; Saturday 10am – 11pm; Sunday 10am-10pm

No Chicago vegan guide would be complete without listing this vegetarian mainstay (with its catchy slogan of “Meat Free since ‘83”), The Chicago Diner. To be fair, I may be biased as this place holds a special place in my heart- I had my first ever “intentionally” vegan meal here (many, many moons ago with a college boyfriend); Justin and I celebrated the night we got engaged by stuffing our face at the Logan Square neighborhood location; and our wedding cakes were even catered by its bakery. Restaurant favoritism notwithstanding, this casual diner should be at the top of your Chicago must-eats list- every single menu item is vegan or veganizable and this restaurant has some crazy good classic diner options (I’m talking chocolate chip cookie dough milkshakes, y’all).

The Logan Square (another enclave for well-to-do hipsters) location has a slightly more upscale vibe, with expansive booths made of warm wood and its proud (and very Instagrammable) marquis sign proclaiming “MEAT FREE”.  On the other hand, the original location in Boystown, the epicenter of Chicago’s LGBTQ nightlife, has retained a bit more of the unpolished charm of a typical diner, with its Formica countertop, crowded tables, and bright neon signs. Both locations have one of the best hallmarks of a diner- an impressively lengthy menu featuring diner stalwarts, like gyros, reuben sandwiches, and taco salad.

Much like an old married couple, Justin and I have our go-to dishes pretty much every single time we eat at Chicago Diner. Justin sticks with The Cuban sandwich, with juicy seitan, crunchy yucca chips, pepperoncini, melted cheese, and mustard, stuffed between a toasted, buttery ciabatta bun. The texture of this savory sandwich is out of this world, from the crisp satisfying crunch of the chips, to the gooey cheese and the succulent seitan. On the side, he gets the brussel-sprouts, glazed with balsamic olive oil and roasted to crispy, tender perfection.

I, on the other hand, feel the need to pay homage to Chicago’s hearty Polish heritage (did you know that Chicago has the world’s second largest Polish population, after Warsaw?). I’ve previously mentioned my staunch lifelong love affair with pierogies, so it should be no surprise that my go-to dish is the Pierogi Quesadilla. This dish, which I may categorize under my “so crazy, it just might totally work” file, consists of a tomato-basil tortilla stuffed with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, and cheddar, sprinkled with fresh green onions and a creamy dill sour cream dipping sauce. If you’re ever suffering from a break up, need to shake off the Chicago winter cold, or just strangely hankering for a food-induced coma, the cheesy, carby wonderfulness of the Pierogi Quesadilla is sure to meet your needs.

If you’re a more respectable human being than me and are seeking lighter fare, they also have a variety of healthier salads and vegetable-forward bowls and sandwiches. Alternatively, if you want to go full-on indulgent, Chicago Diner boasts a broad array of locally brewed beer and seasonally-inspired cocktails (this winter, I had an extra decadent, super creamy Mexican hot chocolate, complete with the toasty taste of mezcal and coconut whipped cream). Or, if you somehow have room after your main dish (you, beast, you), this restaurant has some killer desserts, from the pies and cakes in the nostalgic display case behind the counter, to my personal favorite, Donnie’s Peanut Butter Puck, a peanut butter cookie stuffed with creamy peanut butter and topped with chocolate ganache.

Pro-tip, looking for another breakfast option? Chicago Diner also serves breakfast every day until 3 pm, with offerings like cinnamon roll French toast, potato hash, or my personal favorite, the Monte Cristo, with fried tofu, meaty slices of seitan, and Creole mustard, all stuffed between slices of French toast. Chicago Diner, making me proud (and a glutton) since my introduction to it in 2006.  

Original Soul Vegetarian

203 E 75th St, Chicago, IL 60619

Monday through Thursday- 11 am-8 pm; Friday: 11 am-10 pm; Saturday: 8:30 am-10 pm; Sunday- 8:30 AM- 8 pm

While I have long heard about this somewhat misleadingly named all-vegan restaurant, I am almost ashamed to admit this trip was the first time I had actually eaten here. Located about a 15 minute drive south of the Chicago’s Loop area, this eatery is definitely located off the beaten path for most tourists, but is well worth the Uber ride here (if you’re short on time, they also have a hot bar, named Vegan Now, located in the more centrally located and tourist hotspot, the French Market).

This storefront operates on so many levels- there’s a display case packed with grab-and-go lunch and dessert offerings, like jerk tofu and chicken fajita wraps and pineapple-upside down cupcakes, perfect to pick up for a picnic lunch; there’s a cold case with standard deli offerings (think coleslaw and potato salad) to bring to your next barbecue; or there’s a full-service sit-down restaurant. Located in a decidedly non-hipster, working class neighborhood, my favorite thing about this place was how obviously well-loved the establishment is by its culturally and ethnically diverse clientele. On our visit, their patrons were patiently lined up out the door waiting for their turn to eat the restaurant’s food, which is carefully crafted to reflect the establishment’s mantra of “food as medicine”.

This place has a casual and definitely eclectic vibe- during our visit, I marveled at the beautiful art works from local artists that hang on the restaurant’s walls, while an entire twenty-foot-high wall of our dining room served as a makeshift projector screen for a frenetic bean bag toss/ cornhole/ whatever-you-regionally-call-it tournament. Your voyage here is not going to be about the ambiance- instead, it should be focused on the warm community feel and amazingly tasty soul food. As a prime example of this, our waitress was so sweet and friendly and, upon our bewilderment at the expansive menu, provided us awesome food recommendations- an Italian beef-inspired sandwich and a creole blackened tofu-based dish.

Admittedly, our food came out at a leisurely pace, so if you’re in a rush, I’d recommend sticking with their grab-and-go case or French Market location. That being said, it was well-worth the wait. Neither of the selections our waitress recommended would have been one of my go-to-choices, but she most definitely did not lead us astray. The Italian V, a buttery hoagie stuffed with juicy house-made (crazy good) seitan slices marinated in au jus and topped with giardiniera and the creamiest soy cheese I’ve ever put in my mouth, was unbelievably delicious. With its Italian beef inspiration, this dish is about as iconic to Chicago as Mike Ditka (in my opinion, the stand-out star of the meal). The blackened tofu dish, with creole spice-rubbed slabs of tofu cooked to perfection and served on a bed of brown rice and hunks of roasted garlic, tender peppers, and spinach, tasted straight out of New Orleans. Rounding out our ambitious meal is a not-to-be-missed bowl of tender collard greens, sprinkled with just the right amount of fresh onions and tomatoes; a huge hunk o’ dense yet sweet cornbread; and lip-smackingly cheesy macaroni and cheese. While I somehow have been missing out on Soul Vegetarian the past thirty years of my life (which is how long this restaurant has been running!), I can assure you it will now be in steady rotation during my Chicago treks.

Kuma’s Corner

Multiple locations; hours vary

This dark, heavy-metal bar, with its screeching guitar riff soundtrack and massive beef burgers named after rock legends, had long famously brandished its menu with a warning that “There are no vegan options on Kuma’s menu.” With the Impossible Burger’s emergence unto the food scene in late 2017, however, it changed the error of its ways and issued a statement on its Facebook page, indicating that it had been “creating burgers for and with bands for over 10 years now. We set out to pay homage to the world of metal music to the best of our abilities. Under many circumstances, members of these bands are vegetarian and vegan. So, to properly honor everyone involved, Kuma’s will offer our first vegan-friendly burger option…" What’s more, it doesn’t just offer the Impossible Burger with little vegan-friendly accoutrements, like some other meat-based restaurants (looking at you, T.G.I. Fridays)- Kuma’s went all in, creating burgers with vegan cheese, mayo, and other sauces.

Wanting to try our hand at this new offering, we went to the original Kuma’s location (located at 2900 W. Belmont Street), which looks like a goth teenage boy’s man cave, full of pentagrams, moody lighting and a whole host of beers, which hilariously appear to be selected by their EPICALLY HARDCORE names (on current rotation as I write this, there are options such as Space Station Middle Finger; Satan’s Slacks, and Mark of the Yeast). I’ve read that the lines here can be insane (like, hours and hours of waiting insane), but we found a mostly empty bar during our 11:30 pm visit. Our waitress, who apparently missed the whole Prince of Darkness memo, was incredibly friendly, bubbly, and happy to chat about the new vegan additions to the menu. The two Impossible-based burgers are plainly marked on the menu here: a pretty basic cheeseburger with vegan cheddar, lettuce, and tomato or the Convergence, featuring an Impossible patty topped with cherry tomato jam, avocado mash, cheddar, roasted garlic mayo, and arugula.  

We choose the Converge (obviously) and were pleased with its preparation. I’ve probably had the Impossible Burger at around a dozen or so establishments, and it is crazy how much the taste and texture can differ based on how the patty is cooked, ranging from a perfectly meaty mouthfeel to a hard and rubbery finish (i.e. definitely not what you want to do).  Kuma’s nailed it, cooking the patty to have a lightly charbroiled outside with juicy inside, bursting with umami flavor. Even their fries, which are usually pretty indistinguishable, were just to my liking- skins on, slightly browned, perfectly salted, and paired with their house-made ketchup, concocted with a slight giardiniera kick.

Next time I’m feeling extra moody and having a desperate hankering for an almost uncanny mock-meat alternative and Satanic-themed brew, I know where I'll be headed.

 
 

 

Hopefully, my recommendations above will keep you sufficiently sated during your Chicago stay and I promise to return with even more Windy City must eats in the future. While I have my eye on several restaurants to try (Kal’ish, Alice and Friends, and 90 Miles Cuban Cafe are on my list for our next trip), I’m always looking for recommendations or tips for other places. Do you have any favorite Chicago vegan eats? Can anyone recommend a good Polish restaurant with vegan options (my beloved Teresa II Polish Restaurant & Lounge closed a couple of years ago and my world has never been the same again)? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!