Monday, September 26, 2011

Vegan Chicago: Restaurant Review of Native Foods Cafe (Wicker Park)

Vegan and non-vegan Chicagoans alike were excited for the grand opening of the first installment of the Native Foods Cafe chain in our windy city. The one my friends and I visited is the cafe in Wicker Park (replaced by what used to house Burger King - oh, the irony). There are two more restaurants open: one in the Belmont area (not far from the Chicago Diner and Pick-Me-Up Cafe) and coming soon in the Loop. At first, I was surprised to hear that not one but three were opening all within a short time frame. When I went to the Wicker Park location, I realized why this was possible. A close friend of mine has been to one of the restaurants in California and she had described to me that it was a sit-down restaurant. The locations in Chicago are cafeteria-style where one goes up to a counter to order then waiters bring your food out by the number sign given to you. This doesn't leave for the best customer service, but it does mean less of a wait staff which is the theory I have going as to why Native Foods could open so many restaurants at once. 

Chicken Wings
The first time my friends and I went, we all got different things (menu) in order to get a good array. We shared the Native chicken wings to begin. I would describe these more like chicken strips. Perhaps it is because the cafe is in the location of an old Burger King, but they reminded me a bit of those BK chicken fries (if you know what I'm talking about from commercials). They were breaded well and overall were not bad, but the title of the dish should really be changed as they weren't like wings. The ranch was tasty and complimented the chicken wings well. The buffalo sauce has a kick, be warned!

Portobello & Sausage Burger
Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger
For sandwiches, we got the portobello & sausage burger, chicken run ranch burger, and the Oklahoma bacon cheeseburger. Before I start, my only issue with the sandwiches is that you have to pay for a side (unless that sandwich is the special of the day). Most restaurants give you the side with your meal, so I found this rather odd. The side choices include a lemon-dill potato salad, garden salad, sweet potato fries, etc. My friend really enjoyed the portobello & sausage burger, although they practically gave him a salad for his topping. The sweet potato fries were delicious too. My other friend had the chicken run ranch burger. It came with the ranch that was with the chicken wings for the appetizer. Overall, it was a bit like a larger version of the chicken wings, but more appropriate as it was meant to be a patty (not wings). He had the lemon-dill potato salad as you can see in the picture (which was very good too). Lastly, I had the Oklahoma bacon cheeseburger. I really enjoyed this and was looking forward to it. The cheese is homemade by Native Foods and I really appreciate that kind of culinary forwardness in a restaurant. In the last few years, places like the Chicago Diner have been using local non-dairy cheese and seitan companies for their meals which is great that they are supporting local small businesses, but it lacks the oomph that was once so special to the restaurant. The bacon on the burger is also made by Native Foods which wasn't quite "bacony" but it gave it a more meaty texture overall. The sandwich came topped with fried pickles which were a nice added touch. The bbq sauce and ranch went well with everything, but I must admit, I was surprised that it wasn't a "burger" patty. It was thinly sliced seitan which reminded me more of a sandwich rather than a burger. Again, dish names that I think throw people off for what they are expecting. Otherwise, I really enjoyed my sandwich (which I had a garden salad with)!
Chicken Run Ranch Burger

For dessert, we all shared a cardamon rose cupcake. It was really perfume-y from the rose (rose water, I assume). But the cardamon and rose together was a pleasant taste and the frosting was really divine. Major props to their baking team on this. I was really impressed with how great of a vegan cupcake this was.

Two weeks later, I returned back to this Wicker Park Native Foods location to have another go with the friend who has been to the California locations. She was also surprised by the cafeteria-style setup. We shared the Native nachos to begin with in order to have a better taste test of this homemade cheese. It had a really sweet aftertaste which I'm not sure if that is because of the cheese or Native crema. I'm going to assume it was the crema. If you like a bit of sweetness, go for it, but if not, I would suggest asking for the crema on the side. The nachos could have been a meal in and of itself, so kudos to Native Foods for ample portions. 

For entree's, I had the Chicago dip au jus and my friend had the super Italian meatball sub. The Italian beef sandwich (I'm assuming this is what the Chicago dip au jus was trying to be) was really excellent. I would definitely get this again. Much better than the Oklahoma bacon cheeseburger I had previously by comparison. The dip was tasty and the giardinera had a great kick to it. I'm always a fan of places with homemade giardiniera (like Revolution Brewing). The seitan was sliced seitan which is what it should have been for this sandwich (unlike the cheeseburger). My friend enjoyed her Italian meatball sub, but she was lacking enough marinara sauce for all the meatballs. She really enjoyed the pumpkin seed pesto that was on it, though. She had a chocolate cupcake for dessert and that was also great just like the cupcake I had had before.

Cardamon Rose Cupcake
Native Foods has a card member discount system. If you sign up for the card, you earn points for free drinks or cupcakes, etc. Be sure to sign up! The beer and wine selection is great, but no hard alcohol which I was surprised to find. They have a wide outdoor seating arrangement, so I think a mimosa or bloody mary would be lovely for a Sunday brunch. 

Overall, I give the restaurant a 3.75/5 stars. I'm hesitant to give them a full 4 stars mostly because it wasn't what I was expecting at all. The service was okay and the food was pretty good, but not extraordinary (as I was expecting from all the hype). If you want something really special, I would still say go to the Chicago Diner instead. Of course, I would come back to Native Foods, but it wouldn't be my top contender. I would probably go if it were nearby. Honestly, I am a huge fan of Handlebar, so I would probably walk over to them first. For non-vegans, I could see how Native Foods is a bit of a stretch as I suppose one would be comparing it to "real" meat and cheese. I would take non-vegans here to try it though and support an all-vegan establishment. Congratulations to Native Foods for their expansion outside of California and into the Midwest land of meat and potatoes. I hope that many hearts and minds are changed by the power of one's food choices (and their forks) at this all vegan cafe. 

Photo Credit: Louis McGill


Anonymous said...

Hi Alexis! I will add to this that I went to the Lakeview location with a non-vegetarian friend last week, and she LOVED it. We split the nachos and portobello/sausage burger between us, and I had the lavender lemonade which was really fantastic. I liked the set-up of the Lakeview location a lot better than Wicker Park. It felt much more like a real restaurant, even though you still order at the counter.

Miss Lexy said...

Oh, that's great to hear! We'll have to try the the Lakeview location together. Any excuse for good food and another blog post. :P

Mellie said...

We have been kind of iffy of this place because it looks very big-chain. The more I hear people love it..the more I want to try it out!

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