Native Foods Cafe: Evolution

Native Foods Cafe has been a mainstay in the Chicago vegan cuisine scene for almost a decade which is why it’s high time they shook things up a bit! And I’m not talking about straying from their animal rights ways. On the contrary. This national vegan food chain is edging towards a new menu, one that focuses on whole foods, or what they’ve coined as “plantiful.”

Native Foods has been one of my favorite haunts since they started springing up locations around the city. Their Soul Bowl, sweet potato fries, and Chicken Run Ranch sandwich kept me coming again and again and again. The cruelty free ingredients, tasty flavor combos, and casual atmosphere made this my go-to spot for a taste bud tapping, filling meal. Something that Native Foods Cafe has in common with most of Chicago’s other vegan food nooks is a heavy reliance on faux meats. But that’s all about to change.

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Rather than focusing their menu on highly processed meat substitutes or deep fried concoctions, Native Foods is laying the groundwork to serve healthier, more holistic fair. That doesn’t mean that they’re going raw or shirking some of their most popular items. On the contrary. They’re respecting the following for their cult classics but also rounding out their offerings to provide a greater variety of heartier veggie-based dishes. The fare is simpler. More roasting,blending, and steaming, less highly processed over-seasoned “meats” and mystery “cheeses.” The focus is to offer a truly plantiful spread, one that showcases the natural and robust flavors of the veggies, roots, fruits, and fungi. It’s about focusing on foods that celebrate a plant based diet rather than working so hard to replicate the taste of (sorry I have to say it!) flesh. A welcome evolution indeed!

As someone who can’t fill up on smoothies or leafy greens alone, the news of Native Food’s menu evolution is warmly welcomed. I love the idea of having the option of satiating my hunger healthfully with something beyond a salad. The new menu items are just as inventive as to be expected of the restaurant chain. We noshed on the new Buddha Bowl, which is filled with roasted veggies, avocado, brown rice, shiitake crisps, and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds. We filled up on warm and steamy arancini balls, the ultimate comfort food on a cool autumn evening. On a second visit I scooped up the new barbecue sandwich, made with jackfruit in place of processed burger patty, and followed that with zucchini patties, which to my surprise, also came with a small (and delish) little side salad.

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The menu is not the only thing Native Foods is tweaking. The Wicker Park location, the national incubator for the chain, has also rolled out new decor, more grab and go items, and will soon be debuting biodegradable take out gear. The cleaner, more sophisticated space sways away from the family friendly diner feel of old in lieu of a sleek, minimalist approach that leans on industrial farmhouse chic. The Wicker Park storefront does a good job of balancing their more mature look while still retaining the warmth of their sister locations by providing casual cafe style seating towards the front and peppering tables and displays with living succulent centerpieces. I’m eager to see how the Wicker Park NFC’s transformation informs the other three Chicago locations.

Call me impressed. The new items offer just as much, if not more, of the eclectic flavor heavy elements that make Native Foods such a popular and burgeoning vegan business all across the country. As the new menu continues to be rolled out at the Wicker Park location (it will go national as the spring draws near) I’ll be at the head of the line eager to try more of their tasty concoctions. And as timing should have it – they just sent me a $10 reward to use on my birthday this Saturday. Nice! Buddha bowl here I come!

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