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.
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.