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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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07.06.08

Soybeans on Parole (and where to find them)

Bites: News and Miscellany


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Recently, while channel surfing, I happened upon a rerun of “Friends.” Normally a years-old episode of a show well past its prime would not have caught my eye. What brought a halt to my remote however, was the dialogue exchange between always-witty Chandler and the loony vegetarian Phoebe. The episode, in which Phoebe battles pregnancy cravings for meat, finds her moaning, “I tried to trick the baby into thinking I was eating meat by making it a soy burger, but no, I got nauseous,” Chandler quips “Yes, that’s because soy burgers suck!” Soy burgers do suck. Since the dawn of their existence, those frozen grocery store hockey pucks passed off as burgers have given the vegetarian diet a bad name.

Think the innards of your hot dog are questionable? Next time you’re choking down a soy dog, I dare you to flip that package over and give the ingredient list a scan. For too long, soybeans, masquerading under the aliases Boca, Morning Star, and Soy Dream, have been the bane of picky eaters and the laughingstock of the meat n’ potato meal. Unfortunately for our well-meaning nutritious friend, this kind of culinary ostracism has meant hard times. The past couple decades, soybeans have been doing hard time in refrigerator jail for crimes against the meat-eating palate. I am happy to report that times have finally changed.

Perhaps some solitary confinement was what soybeans really needed to clean up their act. Remember when mom would unpack those mystery boxes of garden burgers and hot dogs from the grocery bag? Remember your horror upon learning that she actually intended you to eat such baloney? (You wish it were bologna). If, on the other hand, you were spared this traumatic memory, consider yourself lucky. Sure, “garden” goods may be what the doctor ordered, but they’re no picnic. These pre-shaped little discs of veggie soy protein are so flimsy they would all but disappear into the hamburger bun if it weren’t for the unpleasant taste of cardboard permeating from them.

Chewing on a rubbery soy dog is about as tasty as eating torn tire rubber. Why did soybeans feel the need to disguise themselves in order to weasel into our diets? Didn’t they have the confidence that one day, when we were older and wiser, we would appreciate them for what they really are? Thankfully, they’ve atoned for their mistakes, and now there are plenty of places, unexpected places that don’t specialize in vegetarian cuisine, where the veggies are much more than faux meat.

Props go to Leona’s (Multiple locations), for dishing out a few mighty vegetarian dinners that’ll sweep your appetite into fully sated capacity. The late self-proclaimed sexy grandmother and Chicago dame has built herself a mini-empire of restaurants that are “old school Italian, downright American, and closet vegetarian.” Mixed into the menu alongside sausage skewers and Romano crusted chicken you’ll find a grilled Italian tofu wrap and a big fat vegan burger. I always like to see descriptors like “big” and “fat” as opposed to “puny” and “flimsy.” The burger’s whopping list of 15 ingredients are so varied and ultra-healthy, it’s as if a vegan bomb exploded in the kitchen. Red potatoes, nuts, sunflower kernels, brown rice, carrots, oatmeal, tofu, and squash are just the base for what the daytime manager at Leona’s Lakeview location, Len Toia, calls a burger so popular, it regularly outsells the rest of the burgers. One wide open mouthful of the wholesome grainy burger, topped with roasted mushrooms and a lava flow of soy cheese, was all it took to erase my veggie burger nightmares of times past.

After jostling around the city for an honest-to-goodness meatless burger, it was time to set my sights on hot dog. When it comes to ball park fare, a pinky-sized soy dog dressed up to taste like a Frankenstein meat creation does not a hot dog make. With its aim to imitate the spices rather than the meat, the vegan Italian sausage at Drew’s Eatery (2207 W. Montrose) is a dog tasty enough to please both the public and PETA. Drew Baker, owner at the relatively newbie eatery, is proud to offer a sausage that doesn’t try to trick the carnivore. “I’m very particular about the flavor and the taste. I’d like to compliment every meat option on my menu with a vegetarian option,” he says, proud to have found a product that fits the demand of sausage-loving herbivores and is as close to all-organic as humanly possible. Now that summer is in full on sunscreen mode, Drew’s dogs, pleasantly corpulent and studded with sun-dried tomato, basil, tofu, and spices, are just begging to be taken across the street to Welles Park and devoured on a picnic blanket.

OK, burgers and dogs are fine and all, but what if you’re craving a larger than life veggie feast, in a meat-market atmosphere no less? Families, couples, random groupings of beef eaters and tofu purists, thanks to Crust (2056 W. Division), your nights of squabbling over dinner choices are over. The “vegetarian swap” offered at this sprawling chic pizza joint, the first restaurant in the Midwest to be certified organic, is designed to make supper buddies out of the unlikeliest of companions. Now, members of the bacon brigade can dig into the oh-so succulent and salty Carbonara flatbread, made crispy in the wood-burning oven with a scattering of slab bacon, peas, béchamel, caramelized onion, aged parmigiano-reggiano, and a sunny side up egg crown, while their soybean brethren swap up any flatbread meat option with smoked tofu or house-marinated tempeh. For no extra charge, diners can sub thick-cut Indonesian soy cake slices for say, the wild boar sausage on the Italian sausage flatbread or the flame-cooked shrimp on the Mexicali blues. According to chef Jon DeCamp, the tempeh offering at Crust is selling like penny candy to the hungry clientele. He adds that it’s not just for the veggie crowd either, having seen curious pepperoni and sausage devotees add the stuff as a way to change it up and experiment. Bacon, watch your back, tempeh is on your tail.

A vegan sausage or two and a personal sized vegetarian flatbread (if your idea of personal is pizza the size of a small hub cap) is more than enough to eliminate any size soy craving for one day, but what about a plate of the stuff for next day’s brunch? Look no further, or tolerate the train for no longer then a ride to the heartwarming and cozy Vella Café (1912 N. Western), nestled directly under the blue line Western stop. Don’t worry about the rumbling El traffic; a bite or two of Vella’s spicy tofu scramble or tempeh sandwich will erase any distraction beyond the meal before you. Starring soy chorizo, the tofu scrambler is a hash of sorts, stirred together with poblanos, brown rice, zucchini, corn, and scallions, and complimented with sliced avocado, tortillas, and a refreshingly tart tomatillo salsa. Scooping a mound of the soy chorizo into the warm tortilla with a dollop of green salsa and some roasted veggies, it felt stunningly reminiscent of a grade-A chorizo n’ eggs breakfast I might find in Pilsen. Ask owner Sara Voden, a proud meat eater, what her favorite vegetarian item is, and she’s quick to commend the scramble. “With a kitchen full of meat-eaters, we’re always eating it because it really tastes like chorizo.” Further proof that tempeh is the next bacon comes in the form a multigrain sandwich. Stacked alongside roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, arugula, and avocado, the nutty essence of the fermented bean cake erupts on a level that freezer aisle imitation meat never could. Commuting to work on the El or zipping by along Western Ave., Vella Café stands out with some much-needed soy alternatives on a strip of street bereft of anything vegetarian (the French fries at McDonald’s across the street don’t count).

Soybeans as legitimate burgers? Check. 70% organic Italian sausage on whole wheat bun? Check. A marinated and smoke-scented tempeh flatbread pizza? Check. Scrambled tofu that I’ll be damned if it doesn’t taste like chorizo? Check.

If, after a long, hard look at the bitter reality that soy burgers suck, (spoken so eloquently by Mr. Chandler Bing) soybeans are ready to step out from the shadows of their meat-impersonation act and speak for themselves, then the afore-stated evidence above is proof of a solid case for soybean parole. They did the crime (none-too palatable “meat” substitutes), they did the time (long periods of culinary exile and mockery in the foodie world), and now, with primo “lawyers” like Drew Baker, Sara Voden, and Jon DeCamp, soy is back, and the world is its oyster- albeit a mostly organic and meat free oyster.

One Comment on "Soybeans on Parole (and where to find them)"

Rose Coppola-Conroy

Matt,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article in reference to soy burgers and Chicago restaurants. Thanks for turning me on to a new culinary website as well!

Best wishes for continued success with your culinary career.



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