Tag Archives: Chicago

Meatless in Chicago

Can you travel to the land of deep-dish pizza and beef hot dogs buried under pounds of condiments, not eat meat yet still eat flavorful, inventive food? The answer is yes. Yes, you can.

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During my trip to Chicago earlier this month, I ventured out from the South Michigan Avenue/Grant Park neighborhood, took a cab ride north along Lake Michigan, and found The Chicago Diner, which this year celebrates 30 years of cooking non-meat cuisine. I have to thank tweeps on Twitter for suggesting this place, for I had never heard of it. Apparently, it’s been mentioned as a favorite among the founders of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.

I visited the Halstead Street location, aka the Mother Ship, and found the place almost packed on a rainy Thursday night. Looking like any typical diner with red vinyl seating and quirky vintage-esque signage, you would expect chunky fellas with tattoos frying chicken steak behind the grill. Staff had tattoos, but most were svelte, wiry types busily arranging blackened tofu on a plate, stacking a vegan sandwich or hustling blanched greens to tables. I tried to imagine what this place might have looked like in 1983 when badmouthing meat was not only anti-Midwestern, but anti-American. In fact, even today, despite all the buzz about meat and its impact on health, red meat still accounts for 58 percent of meat consumption in the United States; 22 percent of meat Americans eat is processed meat, like bacon and hot dogs and other pink slime concoctions. As a vegetarian about eighty-five percent of the time (I think I eat less meat than what qualifies for Mark Bittman’s term: flexitarian), I find those figures galling.

Whomever frequented Chicago Diner 30 years ago, it was enough to keep business thriving and allow the owners to open a second location. Perhaps those having dinner that night are among the minority who believe that meat doesn’t have to be a dietary staple? Maybe the owners of Chicago Diner had tapped into a need that wasn’t being met in the Windy City? I could see why, because the food was excellent and worth a 20-minute, $20 taxi ride through traffic and rain. Chicago Diner focuses on simple and delicious, serving vegetarian and vegan options of American classics like the Reuben and a “BLT” Burger.

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My colleague and I both ordered blackened tofu with mashed sweet potatoes, beans, avocado and greens (pictured above), an entree that was as savory as it was filling. And not the gross kind of filling you feel after eating a hot dog, which I haven’t done since the Washington, D.C. Kite Festival in 2002 because it made me sick to my stomach.

So Chicago Diner was a hit, and I hope to return, but how to eat meatless at the Chicago airport where every 10 yards is some food stand selling burgers, hot dogs, and greasy pepperoni pizza (which is every American airport)? Enter Rick Bayless, who by no means is a vegetarian (the guy loves his lamb), but he’s one of Chicago’s most innovative chefs pushing boundaries in Mexican cuisine. Yes, his sandwiches at the chain Tortas Fronteras in Terminal 1 at Chicago O’Hare Airport cost more than a McDonald’s patty next door, but put your suitcase down and enjoy every bite because Bayless’s takeout food is scrumptious and worth a flight delay. Most of the sandwiches feature meat, but for $9 there’s the roasted cremini and shiitake mushroom sandwich with chipotle, garlic, goat cheese, black beans and arugula. I was eating alone when I tried this, and let’s just say I wasn’t dainty about tackling this sandwich. It was a tad messy, extremely delicious, and worth the cost of four McDonald’s pink slime burgers. I wish Tortas Fronteras offered gluten-free options since I had to pick the bread off my sandwich, but, hey, gluten-free appears to be trending lately, so I have hope.

Bean and Beyond in Chicago

Long before the charismatic Rahm Emanuel ran the Windy City, Mayor Michael Bilandic, sometimes referred to “Mayor Bland,” supported passage of an ordinance that would change the face of Chicago. Called the Percent for Art Ordinance, it stipulates any city buildings and spaces undergoing renovation or new construction devote 1.33 percent of the cost to promoting original artwork on the premises. Public parks, police stations, and libraries being built or receiving a face-lift were mandated to include art in the project. The ordinance was passed in 1978, one year after Bilandic married the director of the Chicago Council on Fine Arts. The Council was later restructured and renamed the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

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During my first trip to Chicago last week, I was astounded by all the public art. Maybe that sounds silly if you don’t live in a big city, but I’m saying this after having lived in the New York City metro area for almost the past decade being surrounded by all kinds of art, from street graffiti to Monet. While in Chicago, I experienced public art in the expected places like at Grant Park and Millennium Park where the beloved “Bean” known officially as “Cloud Gate” designed by Anish Kapoor stands. Beyond the Bean, I kept bumping into art, like the “Flying Dragon” sculpture (which I thought was a fish) near a tulip garden, or the water fall over a monolith-like computerized screen showing a woman’s face. Sometimes I didn’t even know where I was walking. I just wandered and took photos. I’m sure there’s a guide out there with explanations about what I saw, but instead of planning, mapping and reading, I roamed the Grant Park-Millennium Park-South Michigan Avenue area before I had to catch a bus to a company dinner. Apparently several parks and public buildings throughout Chicago are like this…art is everywhere. Whether this is Bilandic’s legacy or he just got the ball rolling, I don’t know, but art thrives in Chicago.

This piece right along Lake Michigan is called “Flamenco Revisited.”

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Another leading lady reaching toward the sky in Chicago is “Magdalene,” a piece I was eager to see and thrilled to come across without trying. Designed by sculptor Dessa Kirk, the piece becomes entwined with its surrounding blooms as flowers crawl up her skirt. Chicago’s harsh, long winters, typical for Great Lakes communities, make for short, but hot, summers, so blooms will blossom soon.

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The “Flying Fish…um Dragon.”

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Installed in 2007, “The Bean” is popular among locals, tourists, and school groups, and attracted all three during a sunny, bright afternoon in downtown Chicago.

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The renowned Art Institute of Chicago is the largest art museum in the Midwest and among the most prestigious museums in the United States. Located on South Michigan Avenue by Millennium Park, the museum offers free admission every Thursday from 5:00 – 8:00 pm. The gift shop had this quietly moving piece that made me think of Mother’s Day. I really wanted to buy it but then recalled I was doing Chicago on a budget.

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Purplish lilies sprout from the ground not too far from the famous Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain. The fountain has been a beloved gathering spot since its dedication in 1927 and was inspired by the opulence at Versailles.

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Kids splash in the water while images of a smiling woman are projected from behind a waterfall. Nearby, tulips sunbathed.

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A hallway in the historic Hilton Chicago hotel features a painting called “Faces of Chicago.”

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Can’t tell you what this is but I can tell you it involves pipes.

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Walk between Terminals 1 and 2 at Chicago O’Hare Airport and there’s a corridor gallery featuring works by student artists who participate in the Chicago program After School Matters. People whizzed back and forth thumbing iphones while I pointed my iphone at windows, benches and glass dangling things so I could take pictures. One woman walked up and said “Isn’t this beautiful?” as if we were the only two people in the airport noticing and perhaps at that moment, we were. The kids art works made me giddy, so giddy that I donated $100 and tweeted their praises because, well, I’m a marshmallow. These two benches below were painted by kids.

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Near the student art work corridor is a mural that’s more like a mirror of Chicago. These guys need no introduction.

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CondeNast Traveler just published more about Chicago’s public art scene, which you can read about here. I’ll save these parks and pieces for the next visit.