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Almost vegan in Chi-town

August 5, 2008

I’m going to kick this blog off with an unconventional post. No home-cooked meals, and no hometown fare. We’ll start right off the bat with what many consider to be the most difficult time to eat vegan: vacation.

My boyfriend Nick and I went to Chicago for the weekend for Lollapalooza (which was fantastic). To my knowledge, I ate non-vegan foods no more than a handful of times—and only once in a more-than-miniscule amount. The meals I had were wonderful. If only I’d taken pictures…I need to remember to start doing that whenever possible. Pictures would/will make this blog far more interesting. But for today, we must divert to diary format.

Friday, 8/1/2008

I ate a banana while scrambling around in the morning, and a cup of grapes on the way to the airport. No snacks on the flight—it was only an hour long. After we landed at O’Hare and picked up our rental car, we drove to the little suburb of Niles to check into our less-than-spectacular Days Inn. We embarked in search of a quick lunch, and found it at a little place called Gourmet Pita. Though it wasn’t the cleanest, prettiest, or friendliest Middle Eastern restaurant I’ve encountered, my meal did not disappoint. For just $6.25, I got a huge plate with a bed of plain rice, four pieces of falafel, and an enormous scoop each of hummus and baba ghanouj, along with a ton of pita bread. Everything was good, but most notably, it was the best baba ghanouj I’ve ever tried. I’ve never really been a fan – I’ve always thought it trembles in the shadow of my beloved hummus – but this stuff was tasty. There was so much food that – gasp – I couldn’t finish it all. That is almost unheard of.

We spent the evening at the park for the show, and much to my delight, they had multiple vegetarian/vegan booths. I got something called a “benevolent burrito” from Crescent Foods—brown rice, black beans, sweet potatoes, and homemade salsa with tomatoes, onions, and carrots, all wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla. Pretty damn awesome for concert food. I got it without cheese (or lettuce), and I picked out the cucumbers in the salsa. It could have used a little more seasoning, but I really can’t complain. I also slurped up the last few bites of Nick’s lo mein—greasy, but too good to pass up. Nick and I bought a vegan chocolate chip cookie at another booth and shared it later for dessert.

Saturday 8/2/2008

Nick and I woke up early for the hotel breakfast, and found that there wasn’t much to have woken up for. I had a piece of wheat toast with a little packet of jelly, and then brought a tiny bowl of Frosted Flakes back to the room to mix with my Fiber One and eat dry. (Are Frosted Flakes vegan? It seems like they would be but you never know. Like I’ve said, I don’t read labels religiously.) We paid a visit to the Sears Tower in the mid-morning before going to Frontera Grill for lunch.

Frontera Grill is one of two of Rick Bayless’s restaurants (the other, fancier one is Topolobampo, which was next door). I love Rick Bayless, probably mostly because I love Southwestern and Mexican flavors, and he is the most visible face of Southwestern cooking today. I’ve always wanted to visit his restaurant, and was thrilled to have the chance. The décor was colorful and friendly, and the place was busy, bustling, and vibrant. It also served me, I’m afraid, my least-vegan meal of the trip. We had some well-fried tostaditos with two salsas (a roasted tomatillo and a red chile) to start ($2.95). Since we went for brunch, there were plenty of meatless options, but they pretty much all had eggs. I decided to go for it—like I’ve said, I do love the occasional egg, and considering I only eat about one a month, I don’t sweat it. I got what I think were called sopitos ($10.95): three little corn masa patties all topped differently—one with fried plantains, one with scrambled egg, and one with chicken. I replaced the chicken with black beans, though they warned me their beans contained pork lard—I didn’t worry about it, especially since I ate less than a quarter cup. They brought my plate out (the whole thing was swimming in a yummy chipotle-black bean sauce) and they had accidentally given me two with black beans, and none with plantains. They offered to bring me plantains on the side, and I ended up with a very large plate of those. They were delicious, after I scraped off the crema. The black bean sopitos were good, although (sorry to say it, but) I liked the egg-topped one the best. I admit it. Nick insisted we order dessert (not because he wanted any, but because eating there was such a rare opportunity). So I did something I would not do elsewhere—I got a fatty, $8 dessert. A blueberry empanada—heavenly. Nick ate the raspberry ice cream it came with, and I ate the tender, jam-filled empanada and the sea of macerated blueberries and raspberries it was nestled in. Obviously, it must have contained butter. I gave myself a pass.

Have I lost readers yet? Any die-hard vegans reading this may have steam coming out of their ears after reading about that last meal, if they even read that far. I’ve already given you a bad impression of my diet, haven’t I? Don’t worry, there won’t be too many meals like that one showing up here. If you can forgive me my non-vegan transgressions, please do read on.

After being floored by Rage Against the Machine (and crushed by the crowd) back at Lolla, we went with Nick’s brother Jason and his girlfriend Tamara to a bar they like called Cleo’s. It was neat—it reminded me of Karma mixed with Velvet Dog. I had planned on getting the hummus plate (you better believe it) that Jason and Tamara had told me about, but when I discovered they had a free appetizer buffet, I didn’t bother. I ate several small pieces of their Mediterranean pita pizza, after removing most of the black olives (there were just too many) and peeling off most of the cheese (luckily there was hardly any), along with my rum and diet coke.

Sunday 8/3/2008

Nick and I actually slept in, and by the time we got up and about, it was lunchtime. Nick wanted Italian, and though we tried to look up places downtown, we ended up going right down the street to a place called Graziano’s. After bread and olive oil, I had the vegetable-and-lentil soup that came with my pasta. My entrée was brown rice pasta with marinara sauce and broccoli—rather expensive at $14.95, but good (and it did come with all that other stuff, anyway). I splurged for dessert (remember, this was a vacation!) and got the small plate of chocolate banana ravioli ($2.95). It just had two tiny pieces—bananas and chocolate wrapped in wontons and fried. The chocolate oozed out like blood when I cut them open…mmm. It would have been vegan if it didn’t come with that little scoop of vanilla gelato which, I admit, I nibbled on. I was so full after this meal that my stomach was distended for the following several hours.

All I had at the park was a bottle of diet peach Sweet Leaf tea. G. Love and Nine Inch Nails rocked hard, and back at the hotel after midnight, I was still full enough that all I felt like eating were the couple pieces of bread I had brought home from Graziano’s.

Monday 8/4/2008

We were up early to catch our flight, and I ate another bowl of dry Frosted Flakes + Fiber One in the car. Not surprisingly, our flight was delayed (2+ hours) so we had lunch at the airport. There was a Chipotle imitator there called Burrito Beach, and I got a burrito bowl with black beans, red rice, salsa, and roasted corn. I really liked it. Their beans and rice were better than Chipotle’s, but their salsa wasn’t, and it was disappointing that it didn’t come with guacamole, and that the corn cost extra. I wasn’t hungry again till we got back to Kansas City around 2pm, and then I had a Kashi honey almond flax (yeah, honey) granola bar on the car ride home. I went to work for a silly two hours, and had some Wheat Thins with peanut butter. All I had the time and energy to do at home was to make a big batch of hummus—plain this time, as opposed to my usual Indian-spiced version. I ate an apple and some Triscuits and hummus, and went to bed very early.

So I wasn’t perfect this weekend in Chi-town. I had an egg, some teensy amounts of butter, a spot of pork lard (ugh), and some residual cheese. But Chicago was very veg-friendly, and considering all I ate this weekend, I am quite happy. Stay tuned for more (mis)adventures in almost-veganism.

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