Posts in the ‘African’ Category

Soul Vegetarian East, Chatham/Greater Grand Crossing

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

he said:

I’ve come a long way since I moved here about a year and a half ago, at least in terms of my vegetarian eating habits.  I credit my wife’s cooking, which is all vegetarian, with my realization that meat substitutes can be good. They can also be horrible. (I’ve had my share of mushy fake meat loaf. Not my wife’s, of course.)  So maybe it won’t come as much surprise that I’m the one who suggested that we drive to the South Side on a Friday night to Soul Vegetarian East, a vegan soul food restaurant.   The place had a reputation that preceded it, and I was eager to give it a try.

If I just focus on the food, I can say that I’m glad I did. The other stuff, well…let me just focus on the food for now.

My meal consisted of the BBQ Twist sandwich, a house specialty, BBQ protein bits, Hebrew fries and a Strawberry Heaven juice drink. The drink came from Eternity Juice Bar, which is ostensibly next door but is the same restaurant for all intents and purposes.


To translate my meal out of the unique vernacular used at Soul Vegetarian, I had a vegan BBQ pork sandwich, BBQ chicken fingers, french fries and a strawberry smoothie. I call them pork and chicken, but I’m just making guesses. Whatever they used as protein was good, but I don’t think it was trying to taste like a specific meat.

Better Twist than M. Night Shyamalan

You could probably put the BBQ Twist in front of anyone, and 9 out of 10 of them would have no idea that it wasn’t meat. It tastes like the real thing, and it does the one thing that so many faux meat dishes fail at–it gets the texture right. It was covered in sauce, but the protein was crisp with little charred bits that added so much to it. Even the lettuce garnish on the sandwich was impressive – very fresh and tasty.

If you’re going to get the BBQ Twist, don’t get the BBQ Protein Bits appetizer – they’re essentially the same thing. The only difference is that you dip the bits into the sauce, so you’re basically doing the work for the restaurant.

The Strawberry Heaven juice smoothie was great. They have a really extensive list of “juices,” and I wish that I had been more adventurous because they looked delicious. Almond Malt Shake, you better be ready next time.

Freedom fries I’ve heard of, but Hebrew?

I was a little worried with this strange nomenclature, but I shouldn’t have been–these are the best fries I’ve had in Chicago. Fresh potatoes, with a nice crisp bite to them, and only needing a little salt to round out the taste. They were awesome.

I have no idea if they were actually fried, either. On their menu, everything that you’d think was fried was described as battered. And I have no idea how they make fries in Hebrew.

Would I go back? The food was delicious, but unless I’m in the neighborhood, I’d say no. The kindest thing I can say about the service was that it was indifferent. I’ll let my wife get into more detail, but rest assured, it’s not because this is a vegetarian restaurant. I’ve learned to love when vegetarian food is done well, and outside of our kitchen, this has been the best vegetarian I’ve had in Chicago.

she said:

I hate to poop on the picnic.  My husband is very nice, but I’m gonna have to throw a little yin into the yang.  Soul Vegetarian turned our Friday night into an exercise in patience and thirst management.

Allow me to give you a timeline of our visit.  We were there for about twenty minutes before we were even acknowledged.  When we were finally seated, we waited for what felt like another twenty minutes before anyone took our order, then about an hour before anything arrived.  My entree arrived first, followed (a half hour later) by my husband’s, then (15 minutes after we’d finished our entrees) our drinks, then (15 minutes later), last but not least, our appetizer.  At one point, I considered filling up my water glass in the bathroom because my mouth was too dry to swallow my cornbread and I thought I might choke.  At another point, our waitress had been gone so long that my husband speculated that she’d quit.

If you’re preparing to give me a little lecture on slowing down the frenetic pace of my workaday existence, save your breath.  I stop and smell the roses.  I love the roses.  They smell friggin’ awesome.  This was not a slow down and relax situation.  I thought the woman at the table next to us might start crying if she didn’t get her check; she had to ask for it six times.  I’ve never seen so many guests ask to speak to the manager.  The tension in the air was so thick you could have cut it with a knife, assuming your table had utensils, which it probably would not.

All of this said, I would definitely go back.  Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment, but the food was so delicious that I’m willing to  give them another shot.  Vegetarian soul food isn’t easy to find and this was the best I’ve ever had.  Although my lentil soup was lackluster, I loved the BBQ Protein Tidbits and their delectable sauce.  I ordered the special that night, which was lasagna served with crispy fritters and perfectly cooked greens.  Despite my husband’s accolades, I would have no idea how to make vegan lasagna taste good, but theirs was incredible – creamy, flavorful and satisfying.

Also, mission matters to me and I have a lot of respect for the this place, for their dedication to serving wholesome and delicious vegan food, especially considering that they’re located in a neighborhood with an abundance of fast food chains and a lack of healthy options.  In addition, I like that they cater to a clientele unlike that of most other crunchy vegetarian places; Chatham is one of the largest middle-class black neighborhoods in Chicago.  Interestingly, Soul Vegetarian East is religiously affiliated with the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem and this is evident some of the staff’s clothes, dish names and wall art.

I actually feel guilty calling them out on their despicable service, but I have to be honest.  If you go (and I hope you do), just keep in mind that patience is a virtue, but not a virtue that you get rewarded for with something like a nice thick piece of sweet potato pie, which is how I wanted to be rewarded, but I just couldn’t wait any longer.

ps.  I never make vegetarian meatloaf.

Ethiopian Diamond, Edgewater

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

she said:

The Ethiopian Diamond and I go way back.  It was at this auditorium-sized restaurant that I had my first taste of Ethiopian food.  I was a freshman in college; it was a year of many new experiences, but we’re sticking to Ethiopian food for the purposes of this blog.  Like many things in my freshman life, the Diamond was decked out in Rasta colors.  The paint job has changed since then, but the amazing food has not.  Nor has the clientele.  I still see the same group of Ethiopian men gathered around the large TV in the back.  Usually, it’s tuned to soccer. 

You may want to skip this paragraph if you’re an Ethiopian food aficionado.  We’re about to begin our Ethiopian Food 101 lesson for readers who might be less familiar.  Still with me?  Comfortable?  Here we go… adjusting glasses, clearing throat…  Ethiopian food is characterized by the communal dining experience.  All the food is served on one large plate and is accompanied by injera, which is spongy pancake-like bread that tastes a little bit like sourdough (more on this later).  You use the injera to scoop up the food with your fingers.  The food comes in the form of a stew (or that’s what the Diamond menu compares it too, though I think it’s thicker than what most people would consider stew-consistency) called watt or alicha.  Watt is relatively spicy.  Alicha is quite mild.  Both are composed of chicken, beef, fish, lamb or vegetables.  The vegetables vary widely because vegetarian eating is a significant component of Ethiopian cuisine. 

When I visit Ethiopian Diamond, I order the Veggie Combo or the Vegetarian Taste of Ethiopia.  Doing this saves me from having to choose just one of their eleven incredible vegetarian dishes.  Here’s a little trick: if you convince your dining partner to share two Veggie Combos, you can pick six different dishes (three each).  My Guy is more easily persuaded after a glass or two of their delicious honey wine.

 Among my favorite vegetarian dishes: Yesimir Watt Spicy (spicy red lentils), Kik Alicha (yellow split peas), Gomen (collard greens) and Quosta (spinach). 

I notice that almost every dish is “simmered with onion and garlic” and most utilize ginger in some way.  Interestingly, onion, garlic and ginger are never the predominant tastes.  The magic comes from the Ethiopian spices, though they’re never specifically identified on the menu.  They have a unique flavor that you need to try for yourself.

Vegans, come hungry.  All the vegetarian dishes are free of eggs, butter, milk and honey. Gluten intolerant?  No problem.*  The injera is made of teff (it’s fermented, hence the sour taste), a grain that is generally a-okay for people with celiac disase.   Actually, teff is a rockstar grain.  It’s high in fiber and contains iron, calcium and potassium.

So, a lot of what I’ve said in this post is true for most Ethiopian restaurants.  What makes Ethiopian Diamond special is simply that their food tastes better than all the rest.  And they have a huge selection.  And their portions are large and satisfying.  In fact, I had leftovers from our last visit.  I’ve been looking forward to eating them all day.  Unfortunately, somebody picked today to clean out the refrigerator** while I was working late.  I’m not pointing fingers, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t our cats.

*This is a food blog, not a medical journal.  If you’ve got gluten issues, you should trust someone who knows more than I do about it. 

**Seriously, he’s never once cleaned out the fridge.  Not until today.  What a coinkydink.

he said:

I never thought I’d like Ethiopian food.  Don’t ask me why.  Let’s just say I grew up a picky eater. But we’ve gone to the Diamond enough that it’s one of our go-to spots. (That’s right, I called it the Diamond. It’s reached one-word status.)

I usually just go with whatever my beautiful Gal tells me I’m going to like, which means vegetarian. And even though she’s usually wrong about everything, like everything she just wrote above, she can pick out some good dishes.

High Wattage

The last time we went, this past week, I decided to try a meat dish. I had been scared off since the first time I had one of their meat dishes, the zilzil tibs. That beef dish came out stringy and dry. So I’d been staying away, which is a shame, because “zilzil” is just about the most fun word to say. Go ahead, say it…You’re smiling right now aren’t you?

Anyway, back to my point. I had the Yebeg Tibs Watt, a  spicy lamb stew. It was delicious. The meat was tender and moist, the sauce a perfect accompaniment. I loved it.

Injera turns everything into fingerfood

Before I finish this post and continue with my helpful household chores, I need to say that I love the injera. It’s the tastiest thing. And I love not using utensils. I’m going to start using it for everything I eat–spaghetti, soup, pudding… If only I had known there was some in our refrigerator, but how could I?  Gal had a half dozen leftover boxes in there.  I wasn’t about to start sniffing around.