Going vegan isn’t just better for your health and the planet — it can even be better for your taste buds. Top Chicago chefs are heeding the call for more vegan options and seriously delivering. Far from leaving you feeling like you’ve made a sacrifice, these dishes are so flavorful and satisfying, you wouldn’t even guess they’re vegan.
1916 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 773-904-1414
Start your day with vegan breakfast tacos ($11) or biscuits and mushroom gravy ($12) at this West Town staple. Chef Jesse Badger highlights great local purveyors with the tacos, including Phoenix Bean for spicy marinated tofu and El Milagro for white corn tortillas. He really aims to mimic the mouthfeel of soft scrambled eggs by adding a creamy avocado purée before topping it all off with pico de gallo.
With the biscuits and gravy, vegetable fats replace butter or lard to create flaky Southern biscuits. “Sawmill gravy is usually made with sausage or cured meat, milk, and butter, but we get a similarly rich and deep flavor profile by using a combination of shiro miso, tamari shoyu, roasted mushrooms, and fresh herbs,” Badger explains. “To be honest, I think I prefer it to our traditional sausage gravy most of the time because it is a little lighter but has a deeper, more complex flavor. My family is from the South, though, so please don’t tell any of them that.”
11 E. Walton St., Chicago, 312-625-1324
You might not expect to find vegan offerings at a French brasserie, but Waldorf Astoria Chicago’s Executive Chef Greg Biggers recognizes the need to have a thoughtful vegan entree on the menu at Margeaux Brasserie. He challenged his kitchen team to present their ideas and Sous Chef Jesse Pimentel created the new quinoa en croute ($24), served with arugula, pickled cauliflower, grilled endives, and citrus. Pimentel says this dish is inspired by his recent vacation in California. “The salmon Wellington is one of the new signature dishes that everyone loves, so I played on that and wrapped the quinoa in feuille de brick instead of the buttery puff pastry.”
2829 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, 773-661-6452
Gently simmered kamut, millet, quinoa, and amaranth are topped with avocado, crispy puffed grains, seeds, and arugula salad in the ancient grains ($12) bowl at Dos Urban Cantina in Logan Square. “Ancient grains were a big part of ancient Mexico, amaranth probably being the best example, before they were conquered by the Spanish,” Chef Brian Enyart says. “We try to weave these grains back into our menu to show their importance and deliciousness.”
1335 W. Wrightwood Ave., Chicago, 773-857-5577
Papoutsakia ($16) is traditionally topped with a layer of cheese in Greece, but at Avli Taverna in Lincoln Park, Chef Louie Alexakis skips the cheese for a vegan variation inspired by the papoutsakia he remembers eating at his great-grandmother’s in Greece during Lent. This vegan entree with grilled eggplant is stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and peppers, influenced by the Ottoman region in Turkey and their traditional imam bayildi.
2770 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, 773-360-7541
There are quite a few vegan offerings at this Nepalese cafe best known for their extensive selection of chai tea, including the best-selling veggie momo dumplings ($8) stuffed with red peppers, yellow peppers, mushrooms, kale, and coconut milk. “While I was growing up in Nepal, my family regularly made momos at home from scratch and invited many friends, family, and neighbors over to enjoy,” owner Swadesh Shrestha says. “Without the convenient mixing and dough-making machines we have today, this was quite an undertaking. It was always loud, chaotic, and fun.”
302 N. Green St., Chicago, 773-645-1400
The several variations of hummus and other Middle Eastern-inspired spreads are the perfect way to start a meal at this West Loop restaurant, where the menu is very much vegetable-driven and vegan-friendly. This spring, Chef CJ Jacobson debuts a grilled green bean and sugar snap pea dip ($10.95), inspired by his travels to Tulum. “I dined at Arca and had an incredible grilled green bean dish,” he says. “It inspired me to create a grilled vegetable dip. With sorrel being my favorite herb and highly acidic, I thought it’d be a perfect base for a sauce.” He makes a sorrel green curry with cashew butter and chopped cashews on top for crunch.
51 W. Hubbard St., Chicago 312-828-0051
There’s a new vegan addition ($16.95) to the nacho lineup at this trendy River North restaurant. “Hub 51 is built around our chicken nachos,” executive partner Jerrod Melman says. “We’re famous for them! Our team wanted to create a really delicious plant-based ‘cheese’ that our vegan guests could enjoy too.” The result: crisp corn tortilla chips, piled high with guacamole, jalapenos, pico de gallo, black beans, tomato salsa, sprouts, and vegan nacho cheese made with cashews, almond milk, potatoes, poblano peppers, and a mix of spices.
51 W. Huron St. and 131 N. Clinton St., Chicago, 312-664-2729
Everything here is vegan and raw, but the selection of hearty takeaway entrees will even impress carnivores. The Gold Coast shop is small with just a few seats in the window, but there are always samples available and friendly associates happy to explain anything you might be unfamiliar with. A second location at the Chicago French Market offers the same grab and go dishes. You’ll find a sprouted wheatberry crust uncooked Chicago deep dish pizza ($14) and raw turnip shell ravioli ($14) filled with cashew cheese and topped with marinara. Ride The Wave ($15) is a bestseller, a twist on pad Thai made with kelp noodles tossed in almond butter sauce with fresh vegetables and a seaweed side salad. You can find Chicago Raw on Postmates and DoorDash and on food pick-up app Ritual.
601 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling, 847-777-6878
Chef Mychael Bonner‘s daughter recently became a vegan and challenged him to create some dishes for her. He came up with a roasted spring carrot salad ($14), with housemade almond ricotta, aged balsamic, and avocado. “I used nutritional yeast, which really makes the nut resemble a cheese-like flavor,” Bonner explains. The carrots come from Horcher’s Farm in Wheeling and Bonner helps with planting and harvesting.
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Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. Her writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley. Champagne, dark chocolate, and gelato are her biggest weaknesses. She also admires and supports CAASE in Chicago. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.