Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: Chicago's Soul Vegetarian East

It's good to be back home in Maine, where people stop to let pedestrians cross the street, and nobody judges me for wearing crocs in a restaurant. Spending last week in Chicago, I realized that while I love the pace of the city, I'd rather live amongst Mainers. They're expert at keeping to themselves, and unlike city dwellers, they aren't likely to care if you have the new iPhone.

I have to write one last Chicago post, to talk about Soul Vegetarian East. Lately, I'm bored with vegetarian restaurants. If you skim my recent restaurant reviews, you'll see I've been disappointed by bland, soggy, unimaginative meals that, instead of winning converts, only confirm suspicions that vegan food is weird. Soul Veg was a pleasant surprise: instead of the same worn-out hippie fare, they serve southern-style soul food, bursting with flavor.

I'm always overwhelmed when I can order anything on the menu, so I left myself to the cook's discretion and ordered the pre-set dinner. For $11, it was a lot of food. I started out with cornbread and a sweet, smokey orange-lentil soup. Ravenous from a day of touristing, our friends ordered onion rings and fried mushroom appetizers. These were pretty standard, but I could have eaten a quart of the hot, tangy dipping sauce.

My dinner plate was piled high with corn on the cob, kale, potato salad, and barbequed seitan ribs. I loved the rich southern-style greens and juicy seasoned corn, and the potato salad was just right: creamy and cool, with crispy pickles and celery. I couldn't eat all the seitan (a little too much wheat gluten for one sitting), but I savored every drop of sauce. I haven't been able to enjoy barbeque without worrying about ingredients since I was a kid, and the experience made me giddy.

As if this weren't enough, Soul Veg also makes incredible desserts. My coconut cake was as light and delicate as angel food, with sweet, gooey, blissful frosting. I also tried lemon pie topped with whipped cream. It tasted exactly like classic lemon cream pie, with no eggs, cream, hydrogenated oil, corn syrup, or weird health food flavor. Hallelujah! How do they do it?

The restaurant is classy and welcoming, with friendly staff and walls decorated with African artwork and photos of jazz musicians. Unfortunately, while we were walking back to the car somebody intentionally sped up through a mud puddle, soaking us with filthy water. I don't have pictures of this gorgeous feast because luckily, I'd left my camera bag in the trunk. This was my first trip to Chicago and I don't know the neighborhoods, but I've read that the area near the restaurant is relatively safe; certainly the streets were clean and the houses kept up. Soul Veg is a Chicago vegan institution, and I've never heard of anyone else having an incident. If you go (and you should), just be aware of your surroundings.

Soul Vegetarian has locations in other cities, and I would go out of my way to visit any of them. It is truly the most unique, delicious vegan restaurant I've ever visited. I give it a glowing four chickpeas.


  1. We had our first Soul Veg experience in DC this spring. The food was wonderful, especially the mac and cheese! I'll definitely check them out wherever I can in future trips. I'd love to try those ribs!

    Too bad about the car speeding up. It's hard to believe people can be like that.....for what purpose?

  2. Yeah, I know. I really wanted to think that they splashed us accidentally, but they clearly went out of their way to make us feel unwelcome in the neighborhood. Too bad, because the people in Soul Veg were awesome.


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