We decided to travel to Chicago because we thought our usual NYC could use a change up and because I'd never been. We were in for such a treat.
The architecture in Chicago is unreal and we did a few guided tours to really soak it in, which is a little out of character for us as we tend to shy away from anything "touristy". In this case it was a great idea though because we gleaned much more information from the expert guides than we may have otherwise and it inspired us to "look up" a lot more as we wandered the city.
Chicago hotels are really pricey but I managed to find a quaint little 8-room hotel called The Ruby Room that's attached to a spa, right on Division Street. Not knowing Chicago, I didn't really know if it was located in a good part of Division Street or not, but given Mark's fondness of Jason Molina and our shared love of the song Division St. Girl, it was too serendipitous to pass up. Lucky for us it was in a great part of Wicker Park so there were restaurants, coffee shops and hip little bars all around us. And as with all of our travel, we had a lot of eating that we were looking forward to.
We arrived mid-afternoon and after checking into our room we set off to explore. After putting in some good foot work we were ready for a drink and a snack. We settled on Big Star, a super busy taco bar that was full of a young, hip crowd. Unable to score a table, we grabbed a spot at the bar and enjoyed a few margaritas (the best we'd had outside of our own!). We also tried 2 of their vegetarian taco options, veganized. One was piled high with spicy, stewed mushroos and was garnished with freshly chopped swiss chard. The other (not pictured) was a soy chorizo and potato taco that was a bit too spicy and somehow also a little bit bland for my liking. Never the less the people watching was great and we decided it was worth coming back to if another sunny afternoon presented itself. We returned our last night in town for another round of sunny margaritas (We couldn't resist!) and to try the carrot mole tacos. They were very yummy although the mole flavour was pretty undistinguishable, and I requested some shredded green cabbage to liven it up.
After that first stop at Big Star we window shopped our way to Native Foods, a west coast chain that's expanded quite a bit it appears. This was our first time ever dining there and I was really looking forward to seeing if it met the hype I've heard from others. It's very casual counter service set up and after much indecision we finally decided to try the nachos and the reuben. The nachos arrived first, and although they looked great, they were a real let down - luke warm, if not cold, with 2 big scoops of cashew cheese that was just too sweet for nachos. Meh. We picked at them a bit until our sandwich arrived. The reuben on the other hand was really delicious and we happily gobbled it up. Had there been no other vegan restaurants in Chicago we would have for sure gone back again to Native Foods, but given our other options we decided that we didn't really want to return.
Being the good little food-obsessed vegans we are, we planned our first full day so that we'd be in the neighbourhood of Upton's Breakroom around lunch time. Unfortunately for us it was pouring rain that day, but we trekked on by foot anyways in search of seitan.
The Breakroom is literally that - the factory processing operation happens next door and so there were several employees buzzing around at various times we were there. There are only 8 seats, but from what we saw, a lot of their customers come in for take out so it must work for them. Our first time there (because it was SO good we had to return on our last day!), Mark had the Italian Sandwich which wasn't the prettiest thing as it was just filled with a ton of thinly sliced seitan and pickled cauliflower and carrots, but he assured me that it was delicious. I went with the employee meal of the day which was a Buffalo Seitan Ranch Salad, and It. Was. Amazing. We topped things off with a giant cookie for Mark and a cone of soft serve for me, because I cannot ever pass up vegan soft serve!
On our return trip we made a point to arriving in time for the brunch menu and Mark went with the Club Sandwich, while I opted for the Breakfast Sandwich that was stuffed with tofu and hollandaise, seitan bacon, tomatoes and spinach, all on an English muffin. It was again, a winner, as was the Club. More soft serve (this time with cookie "sprinkles", which were just broken pieces of a giant cookie that the staff so awesomely adorned my cone with!) and another cookie for the road and we were on our way.
We also enjoyed some great snacking on our little private fire escape balcony with treats we picked up along our travels. My favourite of all though was a wheel of Treeline cheese that we gobbled up with fresh bread and cherries. Some locally brewed kobucha that I found on tap at a local shop was pretty great too.
Planned for the end of our first full day was a book talk and Q&A at Read It and Eat. We fought through tornado-worthy rains to get there (That's the honest truth - tornado sirens were ringing while we were en route!) and as it turned out we were the only crazy ones getting drenched. Well - us and all of the wild Blackhawks fans that were on their way to watch game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final! So although the winds were against a great turnout for the event, we really loved getting to shop around in such a beautiful little space, and I found some friends up on the shelves too. We left with dinner recommendations for what was a great taco joint, aptly named Taco Joint, and a pile of books (wrapped in plastic) tucked under our arms.
The 16th was Mark's birthday (the reason for our trip!) and so we filled the day with lots of fun, including many delicious coffees and vegan scones, walking around the Pilsen neighbourhood trying to find decent vegan tacos, a boat tour along the river to see some of the architecture from another angle, a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and dinner at The Chicago diner.
In the name of celebration we gorged ourselves on a ton of heavy, diner food! We started with the Buffalo Seitan Wings (not pictured) and the Pizza Puffs which were a feature menu item. More of a pizza pocket than a tiny, cute little "puff" but still totally delicious. The wings were spicy, deep fried and to die for. After that we shared another Reuben (I think Cadry's love of them must have rubbed off on me or something.) with a side of Mac 'n Cheese because we needed more carbs. Hah. Although my dark, horrible photo does it no justice, this may be the Reuben to beat in terms of Reuben races folks. It was awesome sauce.
Have you noticed the reoccurring them in all of our meals? Holy moly, Chicago is a seitan and taco town! It's not that I didn't love it, but man alive, did I want a big 'ol salad by the end of our trip. For our final night out we enjoyed a meal of small plates at Mana. Everything had a bit of an Asian fusion vibe going on, including fancy pants sake cocktails and it was really nice. About 1/2 of the menu is vegan and the other half vegetarian, but there were plenty of choices. I put my camera away so that we could just enjoy the food and each other so I have no photos to share, but we enjoyed a cucumber and seaweed salad, followed by pan-fried gyoza (my favourite dish of the meal!) and spicy thai green curry sweet potatoes and rice noodles. If that hadn't filled me up I totally was ready to order some of the collards next! But, we were stuffed and so enjoyed the summer night and wandered around the neighbourhood again one last time.
Chicago welcomed us with open arms and made us feel like we were old friends. I think we'll be back.