It’s a wonder the staffers at Protein Bar have time to do anything but smile for the camera amid the maelstrom of media attention the eatery has received in recent years. The man at the center of the storm is founder Matt Matros, dubbed one of Crain’s Chicago Business’s most successful 40 Under 40 in 2012. Matros spend his youth struggling with his weight, and lost his father to a heart attack before his 22nd birthday. The shock sparked a renewed hunger for life in the young executive, who went on to shed 50 pounds through exercise and healthy eating. Along the way, Matt noticed a gaping hole in the world of fast food—where were the healthy options? He decided to throw his corporate career to the wind and pour his entire life savings into opening the first Protein Bar, a welcoming haven for the health-conscious eater. Matros’ business soon flourished into eight Chicago locations, with three more in D.C. His aim was to cut out the junk that pervades fast-food chains—refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, empty calories, and unsettling cartoon characters—and replace it with lean protein, heart-healthy fiber, and satisfying flavor. The menu accomplishes just that. At breakfast, bowls are filled with oatmeal deemed some of the finest in the city by CBS Chicago. As the hours wear on, a special mix of six types of veggies builds each salad into a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Bar-ritos swap out calorie-heavy rice for quinoa and flour tortillas for hearty whole-wheat wraps. Signature blended drinks omit sugary additives for protein mixes and fruit, each named for a Chicago neighborhood, and bowls of warm, organic quinoa come topped with protein and fresh produce.
Published author and raw-food advocate Karyn Calabrese has spent decades educating people on the benefits of an uncooked but flavorful diet free of meat, fish, chicken, or dairy products. In a recent interview for the Chicago Tribune, Calabrese traced her culinary interests back to Sundays in the kitchen with her grandmother. After watching family members succumb to degenerative diseases, she was inspired to tread a different nutritional path. Calabrese has shared her vegan and vegetarian cooking techniques in numerous media, including CBS and ABC news. Four restaurants currently bear her name, vegan philosophy, and commitment to organic foods: Fresh Corner and Garden Cafe, Fresh Corner and Raw Bistro, Cooked, and On Green. The café and market offer eco-conscious shoppers a range of products, and Karyn's Inner Beauty Center provides holistic therapies such as acupuncture and individualized wellness coaching programs. The center's spa services employ natural products, some of which arrive directly from the kitchen or straight from the fields via teleportation chamber. Convenient take-home meals and a variety of events such as yoga classes and lessons in "uncooking" help patrons maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Every Friday and Saturday night, an insiders-only karaoke jam fills Dharma Garden's pastel-colored walls with music. During a recent visit by Time Out Chicago, the crowd—mostly comprised of staff members from other Thai restaurants—burst into applause as Dharma chef and owner Vilairait Junthong, AKA "Little Aunt," grabbed the mic to sing her favorite tune, Sirintra Niyakorn's "Roo Wa kao lhok," which roughly translates to "You Treat Me Wrong".
In the more than ten years since arriving in Chicago from her hometown of Prajinburi, Little Aunt has done more than just bulk up Dharma's Thai menu. Chicago Thai restaurants Sticky and Spoon Thai have called on Junthong to outfit their menus with Northern Thai specialties such as marinated beef jerky and Chinese-influenced rice soup. She's also stayed true to a no-land-animals pledge––one reason of many why Time Out Chicago has named Dharma Garden a Critics' Pick.
Beneath the dining room's spherical hanging lights, curries and stir-fried noodles stack with veggies such as baby bok choy and chinese broccoli, as well as seafood, shrimp, and imitation meats. Already boasting one of the city's largest vegetarian menus, chefs can also alter most of their other dishes to accommodate vegans and vegetarians upon request. After finishing off a deep-fried red snapper, patrons can peruse the Thai-language menu, or request a translation into other languages such as German, Latin, and Binary.
Carole Jones had been accustomed to eating a diet of rich, processed foods all her life. But when she lost her husband to cancer, she felt that if she continued to treat her body in the same way, her life too would be cut short. This inspired her to seek out new ways of living, which in turn led to her discovery of the raw-food diet. After switching her eating habits to organic, raw fruits and vegetables, she shed 50 pounds and began to feel better. She soon found a kindred spirit in Polly Gaza, a health aficionado who had also lost loved ones to cancer, and together they opened Raw to help others change the way they eat. Here, the chefs convert organic ingredients into a menu of fully uncooked dishes, eschewing processed foods and emphasizing high levels of nutrients. They whip up plates of mediterranean falafel, collard burritos, and the Sprouted Living salad alongside raw versions of comfort foods, such as garden burgers and spaghetti with meatballs. Helpings of tuna pâte smear onto bavarian sunflower bread, which guests can wash down with fresh smoothies and juices, including wheatgrass juice and Raw’s signature grapefruit spirulina. An expansive list of uncooked desserts awaits to cap off meals, offering bites of silky orange truffles, raw granola, and tiramisu.
"Everything is the way your mom used to make it." That's what the owner of Original Soul Vegetarian (formerly Soul Vegetarian East) said during her restaurant's feature on Check, Please! back in 2008. The food certainly tastes that way, but her statement leaves out the big secret to the restaurant's cuisine: they don't use meat, fats, or oils. One hundred percent of the food comes from plants?from the cornbread right down to the "ribs." The chefs also keep refined sugars, flours, and rice out of the kitchen while keeping all of their thoughts organic.
Yet for all that sacrifice when it comes to ingredients, Original Soul Vegetarian has been turning out some pretty tasty soul food and barbecue for more than 25 years. In fact, Time Out Chicago called the restaurant's BBQ Twist sandwich "as close to real barbecue pulled pork as vegetarians will get." The restaurant also made Groupon's list of the top vegetarian spots in Chicago.
Maher Chebaro styles himself a kind of cultural envoy for falafel. After running the show at several high-end restaurants in Chicago and Beirut, the gustatory evangelist opened up shop at Falafill, a decidedly accessible eatery, to broaden the fried chickpea ball's fan base. There, diners stuff artisan pitas with classic, curry, and seasonal falafel, alongside a staggering array of vegetarian sundries from the mezza bar. The buffet packs in an array of Levantine staples, such as hummus, pickled turnips, and eggplant, as well as a handful of delightful oddities. These odd offerings include wild cucumbers and taratour—the house-made tahini infused with sweet paprika and chopped parsley that the eatery calls 'the mother sauce of our kitchen." The whole process was so fun that, tucked into its positive review, Time Out Chicago couldn't resist offering up its own blueprint for building a "kind of perfect" sandwich.