Before coming to Chicago for school, I had a list of restaurants (vegan and vegetarian friendly) that I was waiting to try. Some of them are still lingering on a Post-It note on my computer because they’re quite a hike away but the one that is always the closest and quickest to eat at is Native Foods Café. You can pretty much find Native all over the place (California, Chicago, Oregon, Colorado). It originated in Palm Springs and focuses on 100% vegan food that is appealing to everyone, even meat eaters. Their food is prepared fresh daily; from their tempeh to the desserts. They strive to create plant-based food that’s good and good for you with healthy options.
Now if you were like me a year ago, never having tried any of these weird sounding proteins like tempeh or seitan, do not fear! There is more to this menu than your average vegan meat substitutes. Their menu always features some brand new items, items for first time guests and gluten-free options. They also describe to you the proteins they use including their ingredients and where they originated from.
After the first time I visited Native Foods, I kept coming back for more (and quite often) thanks to their delicious food and how quickly they serve it to you. I originally thought it was more of a sit down restaurant but once you walk in and order with the cashier up front, within 5 to 10 minutes your food is delivered to your table. If you need it even quicker than that, they offer the option of calling ahead for pick up so it will be bagged and ready right when you walk in the door. Not bad when you know your L ride will take a good 20 minutes and us college students tend to be quite lazy.
As I finally had the opportunity last night to venture off to the Belmont location with my two friends, Kelsey and Gina, I had the hardest time choosing what I wanted. Their old menu item, the Classic Deli Reuben with house made sauerkraut and vegan thousand island dressing, was their feature of the month but I had been eyeing the appetizers and their new salad – The Amazonian Jungle Toss. Of course I had to opt for the Saigon Roll appetizer ($6.95) and the salad ($9.95).
My Amazonian Jungle Toss salad included romaine lettuce, kale, hearts of palm, a green papaya salad, Native Tempeh, cashews, coconut and a mango-lime dressing. It sounded right up my alley with the tempeh and coconut, however, when it came to my table I was a bit skeptical. I have had a few of Native’s salads before and loved every single one (I usually scarf them down in 5 minutes flat) but this one just was not visually catching my eye. After my first bite, I still was not hooked so I reached for the Saigon Roll to switch it up.
Beautifully placed on the plate, surrounding a tangy peanut sauce, the roll consisted of lemongrass tofu, pickled daikon and carrot, brown rice, cucumber, basil and cilantro wrapped in a light whole wheat tortilla. At first they were a little bit hard to handle due to the small size of the tortilla matched with the hefty amount of ingredients but the sauce was so fresh and nutty. I’m a huge fan of bite-sized rolls like these and I had to force myself to save half because I knew I’d be craving them later if I didn’t. The cabbage left around the plate added to the crunch of the roll and the sauce was sweet and fresh – not like your usual Asian peanut sauce that has a fake taste and texture to it. After I took a bite or two of the roll, I went back to my salad and after adding more dressing and mixing it up, my first initial skepticism was erased. The papaya salad reminded me exactly of zucchini noodles I make at home and the hidden quinoa made me super excited. That hidden protein is what Native Foods is all about!
As for my friends, they both had to spend the extra $3.95 to get a side of the notorious sweet potato fries. Native Foods has – by far – the best sweet potato fries in the game. We all discussed how they are the McDonalds of sweet potato fries because they’re perfectly squishy, not really crunchy and seasoned just right. Along with the fries, Kelsey ordered her usual Chicken Run Ranch Burger ($9.95) which is suggested for first time customers. The “chicken” – a soy, wheat-based protein – is battered and fried with romaine, a vegan ranch dressing, carrots and onions placed on a homemade whole grain bun. Despite not receiving much ranch on the burger, Kelsey devoured it quickly stating how it left her perfectly satisfied and not too full. Normally not what you hear after a burger and fries meal on a Friday night.
Gina decided to give the Twister Wrap ($9.95) a try and as I tasted a bite of it, it definitely is a must-try item on their menu. Fresh baby greens, avocado, grilled (or you can opt for crispy) chicken, cucumber salsa and a chipotle creme sauce wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla. Each half of the wrap was decently sized to make it a perfect meal to save as a leftover but how can one resist the whole thing in one sitting? Along with the wrap and fries, Gina purchased the Lavendar Lemonade ($2..75) which is made with unrefined organic sugar and French Lavendar. Quite fancy and extremely fresh.
Native Foods Café has proved to me that you do not need to be vegan (or even vegetarian) to enjoy a meal that is plant-based or has meat-free substitutes. They make their substitutes so similar to their dairy and meat alternatives that you don’t even miss the real thing. Since I’ve brought meat-lovers here in the past who have thoroughly enjoyed the food, I can fully stand by the fact Native Foods is a great dining option for anyone and everyone.
Not only do they offer your basic burgers, sandwiches and fries but if you’re feeling something on the lighter side or packed with more protein, they have phenomenal salads, Earth Bowls and soups. One of my favorite items that I’ve ordered in the past is the Greek Gyro Bowl ($9.95). They slice their seitan so thin that it resembles lamb gyro meet perfectly. Steamed veggies and kale sit on top of a massive amount of quinoa with enough hummus to last you through 3 meals. I always end up taking this dish home but that’s the best thing about the café – so many leftovers!
Of course you cannot forget, there’s always room for dessert! Especially when those vegan chocolate cupcakes ($2.95) and strawberry parfaits ($3.95) made with vanilla cupcake chunks are staring you right in the eye near the cash registers.
The Lakeview Chicago location of Native Foods Café is open Monday through Sunday 11am to 10pm. Located at 1023 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657. They also have Chicago locations in Wicker Park, Hyde Park, The Loop and West Loop.