Going vegan at Chicago Diner and Ground Control
Can our food editor choke this food down and not hate it?
Thu Jan 17 2013
Illustration: Blair Kelly
Last week, when I visited two new vegetarian restaurants in Logan Square, I did it with one goal: to not hate them. I failed before I turned on my car. Just the idea of eating vegan put me in a bad mood. As I made my way to the new Chicago Diner (2333 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-252-3211) (by the way: Of course it’s in Logan Square), my mind revved with loathsome thoughts about the milkless, eggless, creamless, joyless brunch I hadn’t eaten yet.
It turns out the Diner serves real eggs at brunch, and I think it serves real half-and-half, too, though the little jar of it that came with my coffee tasted like acid, and the (presumably vegan) server I returned it to told me it was supposed to taste that way. Well, she can’t be blamed, right? These people never touch the stuff. But that was enough for me to stick with what they do know. Which is scrambled tofu.
The vegan pancake breakfast I ordered featured that tofu, along with vegan sausage and a vegan pancake. The tofu was colored to appear egglike (it had the appearance of being soaked in curry powder), but it did not fool me. These were not eggs. But as I ate my brunch I wondered: Would real diner eggs necessarily be better? Diner eggs are notoriously overcooked, and diner pancakes are like rubber. The vegan pancake on my plate was dense but pleasant, and the tofu at least had a nice texture. And sure, the Diner’s cinnamon roll was too sweet and overly doughy and didn’t have enough cinnamon. But that’s the same with most cinnamon rolls, vegan or not.
I considered this a breakthrough. And so I was encouraged when I sat down later that day at Ground Control (3315 W Armitage Ave, 773-772-9446) to eat tofu hot wings and tofu tacos.
“Do you want those made vegan?” the server asked.
Is there a way to make hot wings made of tofu more vegan? I didn’t choose to find out.
Ground Control didn’t make much of an effort to pass off its tofu wings as chicken. They were shaped into small rectangles, a little bigger than steak fries, and they were battered and fried and crispy. Real chicken wings are usually soggy, but then, real chicken wings also taste like chicken. I counted this as a draw.
The tacos were also neutrally affected by the tofu. The benign flavor didn’t hurt anything (the pickled onions and Baja sauce provided enough flavor), but a more flavorful, fatty animal protein wouldn’t have done any damage, either. Between bites of a mushroom po’ boy—fried portobellos, pickled onions, a very spicy mayo that may or may not have been vegan (I didn’t want to ask; that’s where all the flavor was), I struck a conciliatory tone toward my food of the day. “I’d totally eat vegan again,” I told my friend.
Then I corrected myself. “I mean, I won’t. But I totally would.”