The ethnic side of veganism: Chicago offers so many meatless choices, you’ll never get bored

Chap Chae from Amitabul at 6207 N Milwaukee Ave. in Jefferson Park.

By Ariel Parrella-Aureli

It’s midday and stomachs are grumbling for lunch. For those who follow a vegan diet, finding food at restaurants can be difficult, but less so in Chicago. The city boasts more than 40 vegan restaurants to choose from, including the popular Chicago Diner, Native Foods and Upton’s Breakroom, which are known for classic veggie-based grub. 

Chicago is just one city seeing a surge in veganism. In 2011, the Vegetarian Resource Blog conducted a study to find out how many U.S. adults are vegan. The result was more than 8 million, and that number is steadily growing in metropolitan cities with ample foodie possibilities. 

Ethnic food has not been left out of the vegan community, but it is not what most people think of when they think of veganism. However, ethnic vegan restaurants are blossoming and creating an alternative to the veggie burger or tofu scramble that everyone’s vegan best friend will not shut up about.

The Chronicle set out to explore four vegan cuisine purveyors that are serving the niche ethnic vegan communities. They may be under the radar for those new to Chicago or veganism but could soon become your next favorite dining spot.

Amitabul: 6207 N. Milwaukee Ave., Jefferson Park

This Korean Buddhist vegan joint is well-known in the ethnic vegan community, having been in business for 21 years. Upon entering, a small wall is covered with pictures of notable patrons including Hollywood stars and famous athletes. Among them, Robert DeNiro and Blackhawks player Jonathon Toews smile for the camera—or stare, in the case of rapper 50 Cent. The aroma of incense travels through the restaurant, which is filled with Buddhist paintings, quotes and sculptures. Calming instrumental music adds to the serenity of Amitabul, which is a Korean Buddhist term meaning “The Awakening.” 

Its remote location is part of what makes it stand out. Amitabul is a staple for fresh, local and healthy vegan meals that has customers of all demographics returning, said owner and chef Bill Choi. 

“Our food is very unique; it is something I created,” Choi said. “It is one of a kind in Chicago and people love it.”

Choi said the main proteins he cooks with are tofu, nuts, beans, grains and vegetables. The most popular items are the Amitabul Energy Nut dish—thick whole-wheat noodles steamed with flavorful veggies and various nuts—and Dr. K’s Cure-All Noodle Soup, which is a favorite of its namesake, Chicago chiropractor Linda Krinsky. The spicy noodle soup is served with veggies, seaweed and wheat or rice noodles.

Choi said he loves seeing people change their eating habits and learn to be healthier after dining at his family business. However, he added that the challenge of owning a vegan restaurant is making delicious food while educating people on veganism.

He said he sees the vegan trend growing, and people’s awareness of their eating habits shifting. He wants to save the planet, be merciful to animals and help others attain healthy lifestyles.

“Twenty-one years ago, people did not know what the meaning of vegan was, and I told everyone to give it 10 more years,” Choi said.

La Quesadilla La Reina Del Sur: 2235 N. Western Ave., Logan Square

In Logan Square, people bustle into Mexican restaurant La Quesadilla La Reina Del Sur to get their fix of burritos, tortas, tacos and chile rellenos, but these dishes are not your typical Mexican cuisine, which are usually piled with an abundance of meat. At La Quesadilla, these are all vegan and contain soy-based meat alternatives. 

The faux meats are now more embraced by the local community, but owner and manager Celia Gomez said when the business started five years ago, people would often leave La Quesadilla when they discovered it did not serve real meat.

“When we started [the restaurant], we thought it was going to be difficult for people not to eat meat,” Gomez said. “But now, people are accepting it much better, and now they look for a better option to eat.”

Gomez’s son Fernando Ruiz said he has met customers who are from around the country and is surprised that the restaurant’s reputation has traveled outside of Illinois. He also said he has seen diners enjoy their meal without knowing the restaurant is vegan, loving the taste of pseudo-meat after they find out.

“I like to think it gives a new look or option than with your basic Mexican restaurant,” Ruiz said, adding that having the vegan twist makes the business stand out.

Baba’s Village: 310A S. Canal St., West Loop

 While Chicago’s North Side is where most Indian restaurants can be found, vegans who frequent the Loop will be happy to find Indian cuisine that fits their needs. Just off the Clinton Blue Line stop, Baba’s Village serves and even delivers vegan Indian and Pakistani dishes.

Owner Malik Mohammed said the restaurant prides itself on being one of the only downtown-area Indian restaurants that uses meat substitutes. He said his chefs use soy meat in the ginger chicken and Jalerazi dishes with ample vegetables to create the right texture and protein he knows people want.

The Vegan Delight menu has been around for eight years, Mohammed added, and was introduced after customers asked for more options.

“A lot of people downtown [are] looking for the vegan menu, so we think we should provide [that],” Mohammed said, adding that they also make soy milkshakes, a popular vegan item.

He noted that veganism is not much of a particularly well-known  or practiced lifestyle in India, but it could be picking up pace now. Locally, it is important to give customers what they want, and even added that he enjoys the meatless and dairy-free alternative as a non-vegan.

 Moon Meals Catering Company: 324 N. Leavitt St., West Town 

Vegan restaurants seem to be everywhere, but in a place like the South Side of Chicago, which has considerably fewer vegan options for residents, vegan catering companies may be the best solution.

Moon Meals, an organic catering company founded in 2012, offers vegan options with organic wheat protein seitan. The items are sold in select Jewel Osco stores and all of the Whole Foods and Mariano’s in Chicago’s South Side, according to founder LaForce Baker. When the Whole Foods in Englewood opened in September 2016, Moon Meals gave out 2,000 free samples of its Fiesta Wrap.

“We want more South Side locations,” Baker said, adding that Moon Meals’ distribution is constantly growing and will soon be sold at the new Mariano’s on King Drive.

Baker said the Fiesta Wrap is one of the company’s most popular ethnic vegan dishes, along with the Powerful Kale Salad, which is gluten-free and vegan.

The challenge to owning a catering company that includes vegan options, Baker said, is delivering to customers in bad weather in a timely manner to make sure the products keep their freshness. Another is making sure people spread the word, but the company has already garnered a loyal customer base. A main attraction to the food is the quality for the price.

“We reduce the cost for people who are trying to go vegan,” Baker said, adding that freshness is important. “People are getting products [off the shelf] that came in the same day.”

Baker pointed out that everything on the Moon Meals menu is nutritionist-approved and healthy, which is the catering company’s goal.

“We focus on healthy grab-and-go, and that includes vegan, the meat options and the salad,” he said. “All of those have to be refined so it is not packed full of salt or sugar, so it’s not vegan junk food.”