Taste of Chicago: A Non-Meat Eater’s Guide to Carnivore Nirvana

The Taste is upon us once again. After avoiding it like a bad cold for almost a decade, reports that a bunch of new restaurants were joining the stale old lineup of Robinson’s Ribs, Billy Goat and Eli’s Cheesecake piqued my curiosity. Dare I venture back into the belly of the beast?

After reading the Tribune and Sun Times write-ups Wednesday, my enthusiasm turned to dismay. If there was any doubt that Chicago remains the animal-fat loving, artery clogging capital of America, the second week in July puts that to rest.

Bacon-wrapped chicken, bacon on a stick, bacon mac ‘n cheese, sausage, pulled pork, steak sandwiches, pierogis, more sausage, steak and pork. For the more adventurous, there’s sautéed goat meat, smoked alligator sausage, braised oxtail poutine, fried octopus fritters, rattlesnake and rabbit sausage.

Cripes.

Of the restaurants and food trucks listed as “new” on the Taste website, I counted at least ten that are heavily meat-centric. Only two—nana and Demera Ethiopian—while not entirely meat-free, emphasize veggie items.

What’s a pescatarian (like me), vegetarian, or vegan to do? Or just someone who wants or needs to avoid red meat for health reasons? Even a cursory glance at the Taste vendor lineup reveals precious little for us, outside of the sweets booths.

Vegetarian specialty restaurants have proliferated in recent years in Chicago, like in other American cities. Even meat-based restaurants are offering more meatless menu options, recognizing this is a market that can’t be ignored. But by and large, you wouldn’t know this from the Taste offerings.

Fortunately, there are alternatives if you can find them, although mostly ignored by a press that presumes everyone’s into meat. But you have to dig through the Taste website. There is a page called “Humana Healthier Choices,” which lists lower-calorie, sodium and fat options at the different vendors, but about half of these are meat-based items. Still, it at least directs you to where some of the vegetarian options are without your having to peruse all the vendors’ menu listings.

From the Web page: “The Humana Healthier Choices food items will be identified with a new logo for 2016 – a green “H” with a circular arrow around it – that can be found on the menu boards at participating restaurant booths. The Humana Healthier Choices list will be handed out at the Humana tent, located on Columbus Drive between Jackson Boulevard and the Buckingham Fountain.”

I was also happy to see that the Taste has included several vegan chefs in their cooking demonstrations.

While it’s a start, to be sure, it still seems like so much window dressing. The Taste could do better at featuring vendors that cater to customers with plant-based diets. The purpose of the Taste, I assume, is to publicize Chicago’s range of dining options and drive business to Chicago restaurants. In fact, it bills itself on its website as “showcasing the diversity of Chicago's dining community.” In keeping with that, it would have been nice if some of those new restaurants were vegetarian and not yet more pulled pork and steak burritos. Is this the image the city wants to promote?

I fully understand that the Taste never has been about healthy eating. Nor does it need to be. The dessert vendors are among the highlights. I’m just saying it would be nice if the Taste reflected Chicagoans’, and Americans’ in general, increasingly diverse and conscientious dietary tastes. An event that calls itself the “taste” of Chicago should be the taste of ALL Chicago, including veggie Chicago. And I’m not talking about the deep dish cheese pizza option at Malnatis or Connie’s.

Some argue there is already a separate Veg Fest for the veggie lovers – but you have to kind of go out of your way to find it, and it caters to a niche market. Some say that most vegetarians won’t want to go to the meat-crazy Taste anyway, so there is no demand for it. I reject this, mainly because you don’t have to be a vegetarian by any means to appreciate good vegetarian or vegan cooking. For instance, some of the dishes at places like Native Foods are so delicious a meat eater would never know the difference, or care if they did know. It would expose these kinds of restaurants and foods to a wider audience that wouldn’t ordinarily seek them out.

I’m not assigning blame; I have no way of knowing if Taste organizers reached out to some of these restaurants but they weren’t interested. If that’s indeed the case, then in my opinion they are keeping their product confined to a niche audience, which maybe is what they prefer.

Anyway, without further ado, I put together a quick rundown of some of the limited meat alternatives for those non-carnivores and quasi-carnivores willing to brave the Taste:

  • Star of Siam (pad thai - I think you can get this meatless)
  • Beat Kitchen (vegan burger)
  • Farmers Fridge (avocado toast)
  • Taco in a Bag (“Reverse Coney” veggie taco)
  • Dia de Los Tamales (vegetarian and vegan tamales)
  • Iyanza (greens & plantains)
  • Demera Ethiopian
  • nana (avocado fries, cauliflower salad)
  • DonerMen food truck (Taste of Doner box)
  • Fat Shallot (grilled cheese, truffle fries)
  • Kasia’s Deli (veggie crepes)

Some of these vendors are not at the Taste every day; check on the website.

I will soon venture over there, wish me luck.

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