Chicago's Plant-Based Bucket List

When I tell people that Chicago offers incomparable vegan food, I often get side-eye or smile-and-nod responses.

You mean the city with a hot dog under its namesake? The city whose deepest dish is cheese- and meat-riddled pizza? The muckraked, meat-packing Jungle itself?

Yes, yes and absolutely. I love Chicago's approach to cruelty-free palates because it is one of contradictions. This city doesn't preach, but it won't apologize. Instead, it surprises with unbeatable comfort food and Chicago classics, all free of animal products.

Where to start? Fear not and read on. It took nearly six years and an impending Seattle move to curate, but here you have it: my Windy City Plant-based Bucket List (#PBBL).

The Chicago Diner
Obviously. I call the cookie dough peanut butter shake at this world-renowned "meat-free since '83" diner a religious experience, and that's putting it lightly. Even veal and Velveeta lovers adore the menu. With two locations in Lakeview and Logan Square and yearly showings at Pitchfork Music Festival, this place defines Chicago veganism. Cozy up in a black pleather chair and dig into a dining experience as hip as your waiter and water: chill, no ice. Don't worry, Sriracha's already on the table.
#PBBL must: Gyro and CDPB shake
#PBBL budget: $$

Hema's Kitchen
You know those times -- say, Christmas Eve -- when your family shows up to Restaurant That Shall Not Be Named with a confirmed reservation only to find lights off and chairs up? Hema's will save the night with unforgettable Indian food in the heart of Lincoln Park (they're on Devon, too). Take it from chef and owner Hema Potla: "I'm not afraid of spice." Hot okra? Fried Greens? This menu packs a punch (a cruelty-free knockout, of course).
#PBBL must: Bhendi masala (extra spicy) and spinach pakoras
#PBBL budget: $$

Dimo's Pizza
Pizza because, Chicago. Dimo's vegan 'za tastes as fierce as their Instagram 'grams. Hawaiian? Philly? Mac? "Artichoke Heartthrob"? I'll take it. I'll eat it. I'll love it. (The menu also makes for great Tinder description inspiration.) No meat? No cheese? No problem: Chorizo seitan, a slew of table-side sauces and crushed red pepper flakes make for a hot slice that stops you in your tracks.
#PBBL must: Hawaiian, any vegan special and, if it's Tuesday, a $2 PBR tallboy
#PBBL budget: $

Medici on 57th
I don't solo dine often, but when I do, I take myself on a #selfdate to the Medici just east of UChicago's campus. And then I realize I'm not alone. Fellow diners sit solo, as if to say: "Fun didn't die; it's just shy, but you can find it here." You can also find a continuously rotating statue, spectacularly spiced vegan soups and a dairy-free café au lait of Kickapoo, the city's best coffee (by way of southwest Wisconsin). I kid you not: The city's. Best. Coffee.
#PBBL must: Moroccan ragout and multiple cups of Kickapoo
#PBBL budget: $$

Speaking of caffeine, it's time for a...

COFFEE BREAK
If there's one thing this vegan is more addicted to than peanut butter, it's coffee. Chicago teems with caffeine and cruelty-free creamers. At delicious, you'll find wonderful chai, tasty scones (that texture, tho) and my favorite kombucha (Arize's ginger and black pepper brew confirms that there's no such thing as too spicy). Dollop sits a hop, skip and a jump away from The Chicago Diner, roasts Metropolis and boasts local vegan baked goods. Sol Café's baristas make me feel welcome as a vegan (dare I say expected?) with blueberry cornbread and cardamom-spiced coffee in the heart of Rogers Park.

Mug down -- back to the menu.

Original Soul Vegetarian
"Served with cornbread and a fresh smile" tops my list of possible memoir titles and favorite entree descriptions at this soul food restaurant on Chicago's South Side. Here, food is social. Food is medicine. Food is over 30 years strong, family-owned and family-operated. This place creates comfort food that cares for mind, soul and stomach. With plant-based BBQ and an in-house juice bar, Soul Vegetarian proves "your health is your wealth."
#PBBL must: Down Home Greens
#PBBL budget: $$

First Slice Pie Cafe
The first time I saw this gem, I drove by so fast that I just barely grabbed the cross street. "Ashland and Balmoral, remember that!" Its stunning bay window grabbed my attention, and its patio, ridiculously well-stocked salad selection (beets on beets and mango jicama, all '70s-style) and vegan-izable everything stole my heart. The best part? First Slice's flavor reaches far beyond the plate: It fights hunger in Chicago by providing local, organic meals to the homeless.
#PBBL must: Black bean and mushroom tamales (just order them without queso fresco!)
#PBBL budget: $

Ras Dashen
I love Ethiopian food, but I'm obsessed with Ras Dashen. Why? Because it's positively vibrant. Jewel tones throughout. Plum wine. Pumpkin in berbere sauce. Extensive and clearly labeled vegan options. I consider food a true-and-tried Chicago staple if it tastes delicious in every season, and Ras Dashen meets the mark: spicy, pureed shirro stew has me sweating during unforgiving winters, and chilled, tangy yeqaysur salata saves me from the August heat.
#PBBL must: Pumpkin (Dupa) Wat and Misserana Bowmia
#PBBL budget: $$

Green Zebra
When I hear "flavor of love," I think of Green Zebra (fine, and a little Flavor Flav). All it takes is one slice of their flatbread, and you'll want to replace all marinara and cheese with crimson lentil dahl, curried eggplant and roasted cauliflower. The menu's seasonings have me head-over-heels for seasonal ingredients. Plus, the walls are plum. Palate and palette on point.
#PBBL must: Foraged maitake mushrooms and country flatbread
#PBBL budget: $$$

I also adore Upton's Breakroom, Urban Vegan, The Growling Rabbit and Green Corner. What's on your plant-based bucket list?