Chicago, "Hog Butcher for the World," as Carl Sandburg wrote, seems like a tough spot for a vegetarian restaurant to make a go of it. This was especially so back in 1983, when most people still thought vegetarian food meant sprouts and granola. So most people didn't eat it. Chicago Diner changed everything. Combining a funky retro vibe with a progressive, meatless menu, "it was just good, you know?" says Del Nakamura.
Even so, a veggie eatery "was much more of a struggle" when owner Mickey Hornick opened Chicago Diner in 1983. "The marketplace was not familiar with the whole concept of not eating meat." Nakamura, who started eating there in 1990, "wasn't exclusively vegetarian, but I had some interest." He'd come for the veggie burgers, the tofu scrambles. Now he's the diner's marketing director and Chicago Diner, "meat free since '83," is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
The Halsted Street landmark attract a boisterous crowd. There's often a wait for a table. Perhaps it's because Chicago Diner weeded out sprouts and granola over time and replaced them with comfort classics made meatless, like pizza, nachos, and their all-time bestseller, the Radical Reuben, where homemade seasoned seitan takes the place of corned beef. Thirty years after opening its doors, Chicago Diner's clientele represents "a whole spectrum," says Nakamura, who once worked at the diner as a server. "Half the people are vegetarian, half are just flexitarians or people who are just eating less meat."
That accounts for a growing number of Americans, according to USDA statistics. "There's so many good reasons to eat less meat and people are becoming aware they don't need it. We noticed last year Monday business is noticeably busier. Maybe Meatless Monday is having an effect."
Or maybe it's because more places like Chicago Diner make meatless food that "gives you that satisfaction -- the way it looks, the feeling in the mouth, the flavor, it lets people know vegetarian food is more than salad. It's got mainstream appeal."
The large and varied menu has something for everyone, from the soul bowl for true veggie lovers to the vegan wingz for people who prefer meat alternatives that taste like meat. What Chicago Diner serves up "has a lot to do with the food we want to eat." And they listen to their clientele, too. "Allergy concerns have grown, we've responded to that." Many of Chicago Diner's items like the avocado tostadas are labeled gluten free. "Cleaner, healthier food that doesn't have the chemicals and preservatives of processed food costs more money," he says, but Nakamura believes it's worth more, too. He embraced vegetarianism "mostly because I didn't want to eat dead animals. In the grocery store, you're shielded from how the meat gets to you, the process of the slaughter. It's gross."
Although approached to open branches elsewhere across the country, Chicago Diner's only big development came last November, when it opened a second location across town in Logan Square. Chicago Diner isn't looking to get big or go home. It's already home.
It's celebrating its 30th anniversary with giveback specials and by bringing back some of the diner's greatest hits, like the meatless Philly steak. That, Nakamura believes, is the best way to turn people on to the beauty of going meatless. "I'm contributing to making the world a little better, one vegetarian reuben at a time."
Ginger Coconut Tofu With Peanut Sauce
A celebratory off-the-menu treat from Chicago Diner. Luscious with the peanut sauce recipe below, the tofu's also great with a squirt of spicy sriracha.
1 (12 oz) block extra firm tofu
1 Cup corn starch
2 ½ tsp ground ginger
½ cup vegetable or coconut oil
4 Tbs agave nectar
1 tsp dry ground mustard seed
1 tsp sea salt
¼ Cup toasted coconut
Start by draining tofu on a paper towel for about 30 mins. Meanwhile, sift or whisk together the cornstarch and ground ginger. In another mixing bowl, whisk together the agave, dry mustard, and sea salt.
When the tofu is done draining, cut into ½ in cubes. Toss the cubes in the cornstarch mixture until each piece is breaded completely.
While you're breading the tofu, heat a non-stick skillet over medium high heat, then add the oil. Let heat until you start to see the oil bubbling, then add the tofu. You want the oil to be nice and hot for ideal pan frying conditions.
Fry 4-5 minutes each side before turning with tongs until they're nice and golden on each side.
Let the tofu bites cool completely on paper towel before tossing the agave mustard dressing then the toasted coconut.
Bake at 325 for 7-10 mins and serve.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
1 cup water
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup tamari
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes
In a medium saucepan, heat oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring, for one minute or until fragrant.
Add remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer, stirring. Continue simmering and stirring until smooth, then cool to room temperature.
May be made up to 3 days ahead and kept well-covered and chilled.
If sauce is too thick after chilling, thin by adding 1 to 2 tablespoons hot water, stirring until you achieve ideal consistency.
Serves 8 to 10.