Fake meat often gets a bad name. If you want to eat things that taste like animal products, say some critics, why be a vegetarian at all? For others, the denouncement is purely sensual: when it comes to texture, seitan (aka "wheat meat") and its ilk just don't cut it. But we've got good news for those recovering carnivores out for a little taste of nostalgia. Here are five Chicago spots that feature fake meat without falling flat.
Revel in a reuben at Earwax Cafe
This freaky little mainstay on Milwaukee offers options for omnivores and veggies alike. Slide into a booth next to paintings depicting bright and grotesque sideshow scenes and have a look at the menu, itself a work of art. Sandwich staples include the vegetarian sloppy joe and a "chorizo" burrito (or barbecue burrito, not technically a staple). The reuben is a good choice, served with Swiss cheese, thousand island dressing and sauerkraut on rye bread. As for the seitan, it's got the texture down, even if it lacks the saltiness of true meat. Vegans might as well head straight for the dessert menu, but vegetarians are set for lunch with this one.
Get your gyros at the Chicago Diner
The Diner's menu is full of fake meat, boasting not just items like a roast "beef" and "cheddar" sandwich but also full meals like the country-fried "steak" with vegetarian gravy. In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to find something here that doesn't include faux animal product, and all items are upgradeable to vegan. The Diner can get ambitious with choices like raw nachos and a macrobiotic plate, coming together in a customizable menu that caters to the ultra-picky. This is the place to go if you hanker after vegan gyros (complete with vegan tzatziki) and a side of vegan mac 'n' cheese. The seitan is juicy and the tzatziki spot-on. Who'd expect anything less from the restaurant whose slogan is "meat-free since '83"?
Have your hot dog and eat it too at Hot Doug's
Everyone knows about this sausage lover's paradise, as evidenced by lines around the block most days of the week. But did you know this can be a vegetarian destination, too? It isnít clear whether Hot Doug's vegetarian hot dog is seitan or tofu, but either way, it's good. Really good. With mustard, tomato, pickle and other unmistakable accoutrements of a Chicago dog, it nails that feeling of something distinctively American. Doug's tries its best to make it worth the wait with fast and genuinely friendly service, so the whole experience leaves you with a good feeling in your gut.
Sink your teeth into a sloppy joe at Karyn's Cooked
Karyn's Cooked is a restaurant based around vegan comfort food. The interior palette, a soft neutral span of browns and tans, is mirrored in the artfully presented plates. But the food prides itself on not being pretentious. Lasagna is vegan here, and spaghetti and meatballs are gluten-free. The sloppy joe, complemented by a tangy sauce, convincing coleslaw and two crisp pieces of potato, is surprisingly meaty, flavorful and filling. Meanwhile, the meatball sandwich is a little like lentils, but that's hardly a reason to stay away. Karyn's seitan is specially spiced, so every option tastes different ó just as it should.
Find a fast-food fajita at Veggie Bite (Wicker Park)
Vegetarian fare doesn't always have to go the slow-food route. Veggie Bite mimics your average fast-food joint in more than one way, confronting you with a menu chock full of burgers, chicken fingers, fries and shakes for vegans on the go. Or you can venture off the beaten path with a veggie Italian "beef" or fajita. Itís not gourmet, and it's probably better enjoyed in the comfort of your own home rather than in the garish yellow-and-orange sit-down area, but it's much better than McDonald's. The fajita is standard seitan, smothered in sauce that might not befit a fajita but tastes pretty good anyway. If you're still doubtful, finish it up with a vegan shake that'll give a satisfying sugar jolt to your system.
Looking to go meat-free? Check out our directories of vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants.