• Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023

Food For the Hungry

Because So Much Is Riding On Your Food For the Hungry

Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat makes Chicago-style vegan fun


Jun 11, 2022 #Chicagostyle, #fun, #Meat, #vegan

Originally I set out to write a guide to the best Chicago-style plant-based food across the city.

Then she came into my life: A restaurant boasting big, beautiful flavors transforming deep cuts of iconic Chicago dishes. Rooted in traditional technique, this city’s most beloved foods come not from chefs’ kitchens, but shared spaces with deeper meaning, and getting them right is vital to gaining a hungry Chicagoan’s loyalty.

But she doesn’t merely get it right. Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat is the Lizzo of vegan and vegetarian restaurants. And she deserves a spotlight all her own on this ascent to stardom.

The business crosses genres and boundaries. Founded on the South Side in the Hyde Park neighborhood, Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat recently opened its newest location on the North Side, near the border between the Gold Coast and Old Town. It’s not quite a chain, though there’s a third location in the southwest suburb of Orland Park. Nor is it fast or casual, and it’s not cheap eats.

You might be most surprised by the dish they call a pizza poof, a housemade pizza puff. Typically it’s a food service snack found at hot dog stands, the curious culinary invention of an Assyrian immigrant who used Mexican and Italian ingredients to create something uniquely Chicagoan, according to my “Chewing” podcast co-host Monica Eng.

Few chefs and restaurants make their own, though at Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, they do. A golden packet (about the size of a savory crepe in Brittany, but far weightier) with a remarkably flaky deep-fried flour tortilla crust holds gloriously seasoned vegan ground meat and spinach, bound by your choice of melted dairy or Good Planet vegan cheese. It is not inexpensive at $14, which does include a bed of fries, but worth it for the careful hand crafting and superior ingredients.

Chef, owner and founder Laricia Chandler-Baker saves vegan cuisine from itself.

“I first opened Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat because my family and I watched the documentary called ‘What the Health,’ ” she said. The film examines the link between diet and disease, and the billions of dollars at stake in the health care, pharmaceutical and food industries, according to Netflix, where it’s streaming.

Chandler-Baker and her family decided to go vegan and vegetarian for 28 days, but her son and husband especially missed Chicago-style hot dogs, pizza and sandwiches. There were meat-free versions out there, but not to their taste.

“Everything was like quinoa, mushrooms and broccoli,” she said, laughing. “So I got in the kitchen and started preparing vegan food as I prepared it when we were carnivores.”

It wasn’t just her immediate family who loved it, but extended family and friends too.

“A lot of people started saying, ‘I can’t believe it’s not meat,’ ” she added. Thus the name of the business was born, and Chandler-Baker became known as Chef Fab.

She opened the Hyde Park location in a small storefront primarily for takeout in April 2019.

“The first day, the line was two blocks long with a two-hour wait in the restaurant,” Chandler-Baker said. “It was taking an hour for people’s food to come out.”

Two years later, she opened the second, much bigger location in Orland Park, sharing the building with jerk chicken restaurant Phlavz, but with separate kitchens.

The third and newest location, where I visited, opened on Wells Street in October. Two tables outside look into a lush faux greenery wall with a neon sign glowing “Vegan Vibes.”

“You can sit down and relax,” Chef Fab said. “We have good music, good atmosphere, catch a vibe, but like almost 400 people a day still want to cram in Hyde Park.”

It’s no wonder, with the same culture of creative preservation that originally transformed butchery trimmings into transcendent taste memories.

There’s Moonie’s sweet steak, the iconic sandwich that has remained a Black South Side delicacy for more than 50 years. Inspired by the Philly cheesesteak, the defining warm sweet sauce evokes flavors somewhat reminiscent of a Sloppy Joe.

At CBINM, it’s named after a rapper in Chicago.

“He always said, ‘Fab, you need a sweet steak on the menu,” the chef said. “And I’m like, one day I’m going to do it, especially with there not being any vegan sweet steaks anywhere. I got you.”

Her sweet steak seems more in the school of Home of the Hoagy (with vibrant, liberal saucing) than Taurus Flavors, where the sandwich was invented. Regardless, Chandler-Baker captures the joyously sloppiest of nostalgic sandwich experiences, starting with marinated and seasoned Impossible ground vegan meat.

“We sizzle it with chopped onions,” she said. Again, you have your choice of vegan or dairy cheese. I prefer dairy, because vegan cheese is still the weak link in plant-based foods. The cheese melts into the mound of meat before the mixture is stuffed into a grilled hoagie roll, which is topped with giardiniera, tomatoes and sweet pickles and drizzled with sweet steak sauce.

They wrap it in foil to steam, so it all melds together.

“I see some women keep it cute and eat it with a fork,” said the chef, born and raised on the South Side, who just cuts hers in half. Personally, when there are leftovers (and I’ve never finished a whole sweet steak in one sitting), I bring in the chopsticks, and swear it’s a modern-day, deconstructed meatloaf when eaten cold.

The Philly cheesesteak egg rolls, made with crunchy Nasoya vegan wrappers, use a different vegan meat filling. The crumble is made by Sysco, the food service company that supplies many restaurants, including the beef for Au Cheval’s famous cheeseburgers.

Aromatic jalapeños, green peppers and onions lace the filling, exposed alluringly when sliced horizontally. The egg rolls are nothing like their Chicago-style Chinese American peanut butter cousins, but part of a cultural evolution that reminded me most of the meatiest egg rolls I ever encountered, once served at the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood.

The Italian beef, with cheese by default, which I accepted against my usual beef preferences, comes loaded with impressively spiced soy slices, and dipped in a beefy vegan jus. Like Buona’s beefless beef, which uses Upton’s seitan, it’s just a bit too salty.

You should probably pass on the Chicago-style hot dog, with a sadly flabby sausage, priced at nearly double Portillo’s fantastic new vegan Garden Dog.

“We use Alpha brand for hot dogs and chicken nuggets,” Chandler-Baker said. “But we use Impossible for like 80% of the menu.” It’s not just the Impossible patties, however; they prefer the ground product. “We marinate and season overnight, and the next day we prepare it with oil that we make. We make the Impossible taste totally different.”

That work makes the difference. When White Castle first came out with its Impossible sliders, I saw cooks just take the vegan meat straight out of the package. Lack of seasoning is one of the common failures with tofu or mushrooms as a substitute for meat, too.

Not so with the Chi-town’s mild sauce fried “chik’in.”

Fried hard, aggressively lemon peppered, with housemade mild sauce, the drummettes even hide a wood skewer as a faux bone inside.

“That is our only dish that I recommend people be 100% vegan to enjoy,” said the chef. “Some people who still eat chicken won’t understand the soy consistency of that ‘chicken.’ ”

I disagree. It’s not the same as Harold’s Chicago-style fried chicken, cooked to order, sometimes painfully slow. But the double crunch, and again deep understanding of seasoning, far exceeds the Beyond or Impossible nuggets.

“I am a self-taught chef,” Chandler-Baker said. She owned a boutique called Epitome for 10 years. (A berry shake at CBINM is named for the store she still owned when she opened the first restaurant location.) “I do have some professional chef friends, and I was basically their apprentice.”

What she lacked in restaurant experience, she made up for with an empathy through food and the struggle to change and connect with one’s identity, which can become emotional.

“Our food is meant to bring you back to a moment you remember, a time or place when you weren’t vegan,” she said. “We have a vegan fish sandwich on the menu, and one of our customers came in crying. She was like, ‘This fish sandwich reminds me of my grandmother. She would order a fish fillet and we would sit down to eat together.’ ”

Her fish sandwich does taste so much like those found at chicken and fish shops across the city, and the Filet-O-Fish, that after a bite, I checked not once, but twice.

“Veganism doesn’t have to be boring and bland,” said the chef. “No seasoning, no flavor, no fun.”

To borrow the title of what’s poised to be the song of the summer — sung by perhaps the most sensational vegan of our time, Lizzo — it’s about damn time.

1143 N. Wells St.


Eat. Watch. Do.

Eat. Watch. Do.


What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life … now.


Open: Daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Prices: $8.75 (Epitome berry shake), $14.95 (Chi-town’s mild sauce fried chik’in), $17.40 Moonie’s sweet steak

Noise: Conversation-friendly

Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible with restroom on single level

Tribune rating: Two stars, very good

Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.


By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *