Posts in the ‘Southern Cuisine’ 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.

Big Jones, Andersonville

Monday, March 1st, 2010

he said:

Big Jones is a “Coastal Southern Cuisine” place on Clark Street in Andersonville. We recently ate there with friends on a Friday night. Both Gal and I have had the brunch there, so we were looking forward to the dinner. I would write a bit about the brunch, but I want to go back for more. So I’m going to say I don’t remember and I need a refresher.

Anyway, the dinner. Well, for one thing, the décor doesn’t quite match the menu, in my mind. Inside is a nice, formal, modern dining room. Stylish wall sconces and matching chandeliers. (Actually, watch your head with those wall sconces if you sit in front of them. Seriously. There’s no clearance between the table and the hanging ball of head bonk.) It seems too fancy to go with my gumbo, which to me is a down home meal.

Great Gumbo

I started with crab cakes, which were alright but relied too much on veggies in the patty. Not the best starter–that would have been the gumbo.

The gumbo is wonderful. Mildly spicy sausage melds with the other flavors in a pleasing tomato broth. The rice comes on the side, so I’d take a spoonful of rice, dunk it in the gumbo and be rewarded with a varied mouthful of flavor. Keeping the rice on the side made its taste more distinct, so it was a good base to add the gumbo taste to.

It was the highlight of my meal. I ordered it as a starter, but next time I’m back I’ll order the entrée. Seriously, it was great.

Benne Crusted Chicken

The benne crusted chicken I ordered as an entrée paled in comparison. The benne seemed to be sesame seeds on the chicken, and they provided a nice crisp skin. The polenta bed in beef broth was just alright.

I enjoyed it, and would love to go back for more gumbo.

she said:

Thank God for the gumbo, because although it physically hurts me to talk smack about restaurants in my neighborhood, I feel obliged to say that I was pretty disappointed.  Going there was my choice, which makes it even worse.

The main issue was the service.  Now, I worked in the food industry for years so I’m one of those people who tips 20% even when the food arrives cold and I actually saw the server spit in it.  The night we were there, however, we watched all the tables around us receive delicious looking corn bread baskets while we sat salivating for, literally, an hour.  I mentioned it several times to the staff.  No response.  Maybe the oven shut down.  Maybe there’s a national corn shortage.  I’d have been okay had someone communicated with us, but as it was, by the time our meals actually arrived, we’d been sitting there for almost two hours with no explanation.

To make matters worse, my veggie terrine appetizer was a mound of goat cheese and my Reezy Peezy entree (a pretty version of beans and rice) was bland and sandy.  Nobody at our table was overjoyed with what they got.

HOWEVER, before you disregard Big Jones, I must tell you that brunch there is absolutely delightful.  Delicious sugared beignets, fresh dark coffee and an array of truly noteworthy brunch options.  My favorite: the eggs benedict, ham replaced by fried green tomatoes.

I must also say that they serve tasty cocktails.  To allay my hunger, I helped myself to a couple Charleston Mules, which is made with tea vodka and ginger beer.  I love anything made with ginger beer.

Summary: Check out the brunch.  Skip the dinner.  If you must dine, drink.