When you hear the words: "vegetarian Chicago," do you think: cheese pizza? Hot dog, hold the dog? In a city obsessed with Hot Doug's (closing in October -- get there fast if that's your thing), you may not know that Chicago has a thriving vegetarian -- and vegan -- dining scene.
From organic kale to veggie sushi to ethnic delights, here's where to get your vegetarian fix in Chicago.
Vegetarians Need Love, Too: Date Nights for Vegheads
Mana in Wicker Park is a small plate -- and small in stature -- neighborhood spot featuring vegetarian and vegan food in its purest form. Meaning the menu isn't based on fake meat. Offerings change with the seasons, but you can count on layered complex flavors and dishes where the vegetables are the stars.
For a slightly fancier night on the town, head over to Green Zebra and give thanks that in the days when vegetarians had to go a steak house and build a sad little meal out of sides are over. Like Mana, Green Zebra's fare changes with the seasons. The focus here is on locally sourced produce with a twist. Check out the tasting menu during Restaurant Week or go with friends and share a bunch of plates.
You can't really talk about vegan food in Chicago without mentioning Karyn Calabrese and her three restaurants. Those seeking a more traditional dining experience may wish to skip Karyn's Raw in Lincoln Park and avoid ordering the enzymes at Karyn's Cooked in River North. For date dates and friend dates, hit Karyn's On Green in the West Loop. The all-vegan menu features both reimagined American cuisine and unexpected items like a cheese plate. Without cheese.
Fish Is Not a Vegetable: Vegetarian Sushi in Chicago
Sushi dinners can be rough for vegetarians. First, many people assume you eat fish. And then you feel like a jerk for pointing out that fish isn't a vegetable. Second, when you get there, you often end up with tempura and a cucumber roll.
Get your fill at Wasabi in Logan Square and Coast in Bucktown. Both are BYOB -- four of the best little letters in Chicago dining -- and here for your vegetarian sushi needs.
At Wasabi, try the vegan ramen, the vegan ceviche maki roll (a cilantro and jalapeno-topped special that's rotated in often) and the hot yogi vegan. At Coast, ask for the moo roll, an off-menu vegetarian delight, despite its misleading name. And, the spicy miso soup is legitimately great, not just filler.
When Eating With Meatheads: Always Go Ethnic
Sometimes, you go out for dinner with meat eaters who will not go to a vegetarian restaurant and leave happy. Head north for a wide variety of fantastic ethnic options--note: if you say spicy, people in these restaurants will take you at your word that you can handle it.
Let's talk about Thai food first. Opart Thai in Lincoln Square (there's also a South Loop outpost) is BYO and home to some of the best curry in the city--and we have a lot of curry here. Pro tip: Order the Panang Curry with tofu and add broccoli and green beans--ask for brown rice. You're welcome.
Ras Dashen in Edgewater is one of a handful of great Ethiopian spots in the city, but the atmosphere and delicious Shimbera Asa Wat ("vegetarian fish," aka: ground chick pea dough balls in a rich berbere sauce) make it a top choice. The staff knows how to deal and won't give you side eye if you ask for a separate dish for the vegetarian items.
Devon Street is a wonderland of Indian food. One of the best places offering an all-vegetarian menu is Mysore Woodlands, a restaurant that falls under the "fun to eat and fun to say" category. With a massive menu and most items under $12, this is a totally worthwhile stop on your north side world tour. Up on Devon, lots of the restaurants have unnecessarily bright lights and a banquet hall feel. Wander a bit to find what you're looking for in terms of atmosphere. You are in one of the very few neighborhoods where, as a vegetarian, you can eat happily in any restaurant you wander into.
Stop Looking at Our Buns, Already!
This is only the beginning of what the Chicago vegetarian and vegan scene is all about. There's at least one new place to check out with every new crop of hot spots. So, rest of the world, it's time to get over the idea that Chicago is all about steak, pizza and hot dogs. In other words, stop looking at our buns -- my kale is up here.