Who said being a vegetarian means you have to settle for less flavorful fare? Wining and dining as a vegetarian can be just as exciting and dynamic as the culinary adventures that meat-eaters are afforded. Fantastic vegetarian cuisine may take more effort to find, but it’s out there and it’s worth the search. This Wednesday marks my 8th month as a veggie-lovah, and Chicago has been an accommodating host to this lifestyle change. I feel fortunate to live in a city that has restaurants as diverse and colorful as its inhabitants; from Ethiopian to Italian, there is a flavor match for my every mood (and yours, too). As a tribute to this fantastic city and a reminder that being vegetarian doesn’t have to be boring, here’s my list of Chicago’s most fabulous vegetarian options:
* Best Vegetarian Burger: DMK Burger Bar
When DMK first popped up two blocks down the street from us, I was convinced that it was some sort of dance club. A brick building clad with the letters “DMK” glowing in their red fluorescent glory and windows mysteriously tinted to the point that you’d have to get nose-pressed-to-glass close to catch a glimpse of the swanky interior. In a way, I was right; DMK is a club of sorts. Not a club in the traditional sense, but a culinary club for comfort-seeking foodies. A few weeks into its opening, DMK was threatening to take over Kuma’s reign as best burger in Chicago. My first four (yes, four) experiences with DMK were in my pre-vegetarian days, and each was a wondrous food adventure. These experiences were fantastic enough to make revisiting DMK as a vegetarian risky business. As burgers are notoriously carnivorous treats, would I fall off the veggie wagon by subjecting myself to this scenario?
Fortunately, DMK doesn’t just do vegetarian burgers, they excel at them. Their Veggie & Grain burger is awesome, but their Crispy Portobello is un-freakin’-believable. Any of DMK’s 14 burgers can be remixed to include the crispy portobello as a substitute to their grass-fed beef. I recommend the #10: crispy portobello with smoked swiss, tomato, arugula, and dijonnaise atop one of their homemade flour-dusted buns. Something about the smoked swiss enhances the meatiness of the crispy portobello to the point where you’ll be double-checking to make sure your server didn’t make some sort of mistake. Take time to pinch yourself and realize that, yes, dining as a vegetarian can really be this good.
* Best Vegetarian Italian: Terragusto
Terragusto is a dream for pasta-loving foodies. There are currently two, and soon to be three, BYO locations in Chicago; however, their Lakeview spot is notorious for being the best. With a menu that changes every month and is based upon sustainable, locally-farmed ingredients, you’ll feel simultaneously entertained and conscientious. My recommendations for their March menu include the Sformato (savory spinach custard with verde dolce gorgonzola and toasted pinenuts), Gnocchi (Roman-style semolina gnocchi tossed with a rich mushroom ragu, brussel sprout leaves, and pecorino sardo), and the dark chocolate tartlette with burnt caramel and soft cream. My family has made it a tradition to visit Terragusto the Sunday after Thanksgiving each year. My favorite off their November menu is the Capellacci, or “pope’s hats,” stuffed with roasted fall squashes and parmigiano in a brown butter-sage sauce with amaretti crumbles.
Best Vegetarian Brunch: Southport Grocery
Two of my friends, Lauren and Meg, introduced Southport Grocery to me a few summers back. Initially confused by the name, I was pleasantly surprised to find cute café tables nestled between the racks of gourmet spices, locally-created hot sauces, and decadent baked goods. Given its popularity, the likelihood of waiting an hour or more for a table during the brunch rush is high; however, you’ll find the food well worth the wait. Nourish yourself with their Hash (browns, red onion, mushrooms, peppers, white cheddar topped with scrambled eggs and chive sour cream) and elate yourself with their raved-about gooey Bread Pudding Pancakes with Vanilla Custard Sauce. The Hash will satisfy your savory morning cravings and the Bread Pudding Pancakes will leave your knees buckled.
Best Vegan/Vegetarian Diner: Chicago Diner
The name may not make you a believer, but the menu will. This is a diner entirely devoted to pleasing the palates of vegans and vegetarians. From the Radical Reuben to the Philly “Steak,” Chicago Diner has made it their job to veganize the seemingly un-veganizable. Indulge in their black bean burger, mac ‘n’ cheese and chocolate chip cookie dough shake (all vegan), and you will become a believer in the power of meatless and dairy-less dishes.
Best Vegetarian Mexican: Frontera Grill
Really, did this one come as a surprise to anyone who knows me? Probably not. Frontera was my favorite pre-vegetarian Mexican spot and its reputation has maintained itself in my vegetable-loving days as well. The menu is always changing, but you can always count on several vegetarian entrees worthy of a Michelin star or two at any given time. This is definitely a place to let your server take charge and keep your taste buds open to experiencing the many possibilities. So, relinquish ordering power and relish in the bright and spicy flavors of some of Chicago’s most unique vegetarian Mexican cuisine.