I wanted to share some thoughts about the Chicago Vegan Food & Drink Festival. As you probably recall, we hit the Phoenix fest pretty much by accident when in town for the half-marathon. Then we got out to Portland for their second annual fest and last weekend, with a lot of anticipation, it was off to Chicago for their festival.
After arriving and getting settled on Friday we met up with my younger son, who lives in Chicago, at The Chicago Diner for dinner. We went to the Halsted location. Parking was a nightmare. The food was good, but, I have to admit, I had a better faux Philly earlier in the week when Rick and I were doing taste tests on some of our recipes. A Philly with a faux cheese sauce just isn’t up to snuff, in my book. Throw some of that faux provolone in the skillet and let the whole thing turn into a cheezy, gooey mass, that’s the way to do it! The Cuban was interesting, but I’m not sure I loved the fried yucca chips as an exchange for ham nor the peperoncini in exchange for a good pickle. Maybe I’m just being too picky? We also sampled the quinoa chili and, while interesting, it was the jalepeño corn fritter that got the most attention. And don’t even get me started on the Mac & Teeze™. I think my thoughts about faux Mac and Cheese are pretty well known. Suffice to say it went uneaten. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I didn’t like The Chicago Diner or that I wouldn’t go back. I did like it and I would definitely go there when in Chicago, but it has become clear to me that the Midwest palate for plant-based eating is a bit different than the East or West Coasts. We have such a deeply ingrained meat and potatoes culture that getting people to consider going plant-based means you have to offer a palatable pathway to get them started. The Chicago Diner has been doing that for years; I just think it can be a little bit better.
The Chicago Vegan Food & Drink Festival was held in Grant Park. From the outset, the Chicago Festival had a very different vibe than the Phoenix or Portland Fests. The ticket price was much cheaper, which was a bonus, but there was nothing inexpensive after that. Whereas the Phoenix and Portland festivals had lots of things you could taste for free (including the amazing kombucha area in Portland), everything at the Chicago festival had a price and they were pretty steep. I admit that some of my issues with the Chicago festival had to do with the location and the vagaries of the weather, but it was a very hot, sunny day in Chicago and the festival was totally devoid of any shade, except around the extreme margins of the park, which took you well out of the festival itself. With 4 sides of tents and food trucks selling food and drinks, it would have greatly benefited from a large shaded area in the center. Also, the distribution of trash and recycling containers seemed random, almost guaranteeing that you’d walk around for some time with a handful of trash looking for a container. The tickets promised free drink tickets, but it turns out that was an 8 ounce cup of one of 5 local beers, which was totally inadequate for the heat of the day. Logistics aside, however, the overwhelming vibe of the Chicago Festival was one of commerce, which was a sharp contrast to Phoenix and Portland which had a very strong community feel. Portland was more like “we’re doing this cool things, come try them and hang out with us” and Chicago was “we have this food, come buy it”.
Speaking of food, we tried the Doomies faux Big Mac that has gotten so much attention. At a whopping $15, it should. Clearly designed to feed more than one, we fortunately had 5 people assembled to take on the burger. I would agree with the consensus that it was fresher and tastier than a real Big Mac, but the faux beef patties were far too large and the whole thing would benefit from a scaling back of the process. We also tried an alternate “bacon cheeseburger” and I have to say it was not as well done as I’d like. First, let’s talk about faux bacon (fācon, if you will). It’s mostly a giant nope. The only fake bacon that I’ve had that is reasonable is Claryn’s recipe for Vegan Bacon Bits on HellYeahItsVegan.com which is the best way to use up TVP that I’ve ever found. Artificial as hell, this recipe totally recreates Betty Crocker’s Bac-Os. Everything else I’ve tried has been a sad effort. Like with Mac & Cheese earlier, if the faux alternatives are awful, just quit. I get that people miss bacon, but time to move on. Faux cheese is a different story. There are some pretty decent alternatives out there, I’d recommend a trial of Chou brand to anyone who hasn’t tried it. I’ve also had some almond based ricotta that was amazing and I’ve made a salsa con queso that is very decent. So why would you use a terrible faux cheese on your bacon cheeseburger at a vegan fest? No good answer for that.
On the positive side, we had two pretty fabulous desserts. One was a slice of cashew cream based key lime pie that won rave reviews. The other was an oatmeal cream cookie (two giant oatmeal cookies with vanilla “cream” between them) that was decidedly delicious, but probably had more calories than any 4 people should have in a day. Fortunately, we still had plenty of people to share it with. The sun and the heat conspired against us all; we found ourselves with waning appetites. Personally, I was disappointed that kombucha was no where to be found. I’ve developed quite a liking for that odd beverage since Portland.
One of the nice things about the festival was to meet some of my son’s friends. So here’s a shout out to Hector and Zach, both of whom seem to read my musings. I didn’t get a lot of time to talk to Hector, but I appreciated Zach’s input on the restaurant concept. Look for a post in the very near future on eggs to try to answer your question!
Driving back, we found the best kept secret in Wisconsin vegan dining. If you’re traveling I-90/I-94 take a quick detour through Wisconsin Dells (I know, right?) and stop at The Cheeze Factory restaurant. The entire menu of this delightful little spot is vegan friendly plant-based. Honestly, it was the best dining we had on the trip and I highly recommend the place.