I had three big firsts a couple weeks ago – I am now no longer an eating-at-a-wholly-vegan-restaurant/eating-alone-at-a-restaurant/photographing-food-at-a-restaurant virgin! This is Big News.
(A warning – this is a lengthy post. Feel free to skip to the photo, cuz that’s where I actually start talking about things that are remotely interesting.)
I spent three and a half days in Chicago for work, and after suffering through some less-than-stellar meals with coworkers and at the customer site, I ventured to Karyn’s Cooked on my second to last night in the Windy City. It’s funny – I’ve always considered myself the type of person who’d be more than comfortable eating alone, but as I walked the three quarters of a mile from my hotel to Karyn’s, I realized that this was about to be my first such experience. It was also the first time I’d eaten at a restaurant that’s self-described as vegan – the Green Owl in Madison and the Garden Grille back in RI both feature lots of vegan options, but they mostly promote themselves as being vegetarian, not vegan. Needless to say, when I realized that Karyn’s Cooked was so close to my hotel, you can bet your pretty vegan butt I wasn’t going to pass up the opporunity to dine on gourmet vegan fare in a classy establishment.
And I needed it, too. For one, my trip was actually a big let-down. I’m a writer at my company, but I went on this trip as a “learner;” officially it was an “immersion trip” for me. But there was actually nothing in which I could immerse myself, because there was nothing for me to do. I halfheartedly tried to help one customer who was working on some documentation, but she didn’t actually need much help. Sigh.
And then there was the unfortunate food situation. On my first night in the city, I accompanied a couple of coworkers to dinner at a Chicago-style pizza joint. After learning that their marinara sauce contained cheese, I begrudgingly fell back on that most clichéd of vegan meals, the house salad. Snore. While nothing to write home about, the salad was at least decently sized and filled me up pretty well, especially since we ate a late dinner.
I lucked out the next day at lunch, when the catered meal at our customer site feature make-your-own tacos. Between the rice and the veggies, I managed to get a fairly satisfying meal, although the vegetables were kind of odd for tacos – carrots and cauliflower?! Whatevs; I’m a cauli fan! The salad, unfortunately, contained bacon, which is super lame. Boo to that.
Dinner that night had potential – I met up with some Chicago pals and we headed to Flat Top Grill, a local-ish choose-your-own-adventure style stir fry chain. It’s supposed to be very allergen and dietery restriction friendly, with a separate cooking space for people who want it. One of my friends, L., has severe nut allergies, so she and I both marked our bowl of stir fry ingredients with a white stick to indicate that we wanted our meals cooked separately. When our bowls arrived, all seemed well, and we hungrily dug in. And then I discovered something white, flaky, and horrifyingly fish-like in my bowl. Umm. Both L. and my other friend had fish, so I wasn’t sure where it came from, but when L. discovered some edamame in her stir fry, we realized that the edamame had come from my bowl of ingredients and my fish from hers. So, it became apparent that any bowls marked for separate cooking are actually cooked together – because cross-contamination couldn’t possibly be a problem between people with allergies, right?! Everyone’s allergic to the same things! …yeah. It’s a good thing I didn’t include peanut sauce in my bowl, or the night could’ve taken a turn for the dramatic. What the eff, Flat Top. Anyway, aside from the fish, my stir fry was pretty unexeptional, but I think that’s probably because I couldn’t resist the temptation to add seitan, tempeh, *and* tofu, and my flavors were just out of control. Ah well – at least the company was good.
Lunch at the customer site the next day was pizza, but luckily another coworker dislikes pizza and asked if I wanted to go elsewhere for lunch. We headed over to the French Market, which – and I quote – “[f]eatur[es] dozens of individual vendors in an authentic market environment.” I settled on a wrap called the Vegetarian, from Saigon Sisters, and it totally surpassed my admittedly low expectations – the combination of teriyaki tofu, roasted red peppers, thinly-sliced cucumbers and cilantro was ridiculously tasty.
However, the dinner I had that night at Karyn’s was even more ridiculously tasty. At the restaurant, I opted to sit right in front of the window, facing the street. I felt a little odd sitting there alone (especially when the waiter poured water for me and for the glass at the seat next to me, heh), but I wanted to people-watch. The restaurant itself felt warm and welcoming, classy yet not at all snobby. The waiters were perfectly friendly, which is always nice. When it came time to order, I perused the menu for way too long, drooling over the choices. I considered getting the raw dish, but I figured I’d save that for the next time I ate at Karen’s Raw. Eventually, I settled on a dish that is sort of out-of-character for me: the flautas. Here’s the description:
A tofu and carrot mix stuffed inside a corn tortilla and fried to perfection. Topped with a soy version of sour cream and a healthy scoop of homemade guacamole. Complimented with a bed of pico de gallo, mixed greens and refried black beans.
I’m not a huge fried food fan, and I don’t think I’ve ever had flautas before, but for some reason the thought of guacamole, pico de gallo, and crispy corn tortillas called to me. And, oh, I’m so glad it did.
Flautas, flaunting their fl...a... I got nothin'.
This was so freakin’ yummy. The flautas were not overly greasy, which I appreciated. I found the filling tasty and satisfying without being heavy, which – again – I appreciated. The soy sour cream was runny and didn’t add too much to the dish, but the guacamole… oh, the guacamole. It was perfection on my tongue, a perfect blend of velvety smoothness and small, soft bits of avocado. Between the guacamole, the pico de gallo, and the tasty green sauce, every bite was different as I mixed up the flavors. Even the refried beans were special, smoother and creamier than any refried beans I’ve had previously. I polished off this entire dish with no trouble whatsoever, which is a rarity for me – I can usually count on getting at least two meals out of any entree I order in a restaurant.
Then, I got dessert. I ordered the raw carob-mint cake, and got it to go so I could have a snack later on. I felt a little bad about getting dessert, since I’d be submitting my receipts to payroll to get reimbursed by my company (and the company, ultimately, by the customer), but then I thought about how my coworkers talk about taking customers to steakhouses and easily spending $30 a head, and I felt a whole lot less guilty.
Later that night, after working out in the exercise room on the 27th floor of my hotel (!), I broke out the cake and dug in. It looked like an enormous brownie, really, and for $6 it was a pretty good deal – I’ve seen tiny slices of raw cheesecake or the like go for much more. And, oh my gosh, this was so good. It was your standard date-nut-carob blend, but the mint and the creamy frosting took it over the edge. I’m a sucker for anything with the chocolate+mint flavor profile, what can I say. I fully intended to save some of my cake for the next day, but then… I ate it all. And I did not regret it, not one bit (although I will say that my tummy felt a little unhappy the next morning).
So, Karyn’s Cooked? Two enthusiastic thumbs way up. I’m quite happy I got to offset a rather boring on-site experience with a rather amazing gastronomical one, and I’m also happy that I have – finally! – conquered my fears and taken a food-photograph in a restaurant. Double win!