Sunday, February 22, 2015

Original Soul Vegetarian

Original Soul Vegetarian
203 E. 75th Street, Chicago, IL 60619
QISA (4, 3.5, 3.5, 3.5), $6-14, Vegan

I love new, exotic, ethnic cuisine. The academic in me cherishes the aspect of learning and challenging my innate assumptions about the nature of food and flavor. The tourist in me digs the aspect of discovery and adventure, stepping outside my comfort zone (assuming the zone is still regulated by the Board of Health). And the cosmopolitan elitist in me can’t help but feel intellectually greater than I was before, having absorbed a new culture into my provincial worldview.

Original Soul Vegetarian may or may not represent ethnic food, but from the moment I parked in the neighborhood near East 75th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, I couldn’t help but feel like a tourist. I seemed to be the only Anglo-looking person within a square mile, and as I walked into Original Soul Vegetarian, I could almost hear all of my African-American friends smirking and saying, “OK, flip this around, and welcome to our world.”

But once situated in the restaurant, all was right and normal with the world. I was back amongst my own people. You know, vegetarians. The goal of Original Soul is not to be a novelty act, nor to advocate vegetarianism to a non-vegetarian populace. Rather, as their Website states, their goal is to “serve food as medicine” in the best way possible. And they apparently have been doing this for over 30 years.

Although the grounding of the restaurant is Soul food, the offerings extend way beyond traditional African-American cuisine, to include stir fry and falafel. Naturally, I didn’t get either one of these options because they were not suitably exotic to me. I mean, falafel is my standard comfort food. It’s not exotic at all.

Instead, I chose the dinner combo of the day that included Buffalo tofu “wings”, mac and cheese, kale, and green beans. To this, I added a cup of split pea soup with a piece of cornbread. The soup was a warming, chunky mix of split peas, carrots, and celery with just the right amount of saltiness. The accompanying corn bread was bland by itself but when dropped piecemeal into the soup, it made a wonderful, hearty stew. The mac and cheese, which I am assuming was vegan, was of the baked variety, making it good, solid comfort food. The tofu was breaded, fried, and smothered in plenty of Buffalo sauce. When I was first taking notes on the restaurant, I marked down that the sauce was only moderately spicy. Then I noticed the capsaicin was starting to build. And build.

I took a piece of sweet potato pie to go and attempted not to eat the entire thing all at once in the car. Although the vegan crust was slightly soggy and frankly rather uninteresting, the thick layer of sweet potato pie itself was a decadent mix of smoothness, sweetness, and spice. Totally, totally worth it. I regret nothing.

The food was definitely more about the content than the presentation, but I admired the subtle touches. For example, the kale was cooked just until barely soft, with just enough salt to enhance its natural flavor. The tofu was frozen and thawed before breading to give it the spongier texture that works best in a fried format.

The restaurant itself exuded warm comfort rather than overt style. The paintings on the wall by African-American artists, the decorative plastic chandelier, the moderately worn tables and chairs complemented the relaxed atmosphere without creating any rustic folksiness.

I would definitely recommend the restaurant, whether you are looking to reclaim the Soul food of your youth, looking to find a new and exotic dining experience, or simply looking for a good lunch spot. Don't worry if you are not a vegetarian or vegan. You will still be accepted. And I promise we won’t stare. Too much.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Oasis: The Falafel Joint

Oasis: The Falafel Joint
206 N. Linn Street, Iowa City, IA
QISA (3.5, 3, 3, 3), $4-8, Vegetarian-Friendly

I love falafel. I love everything about them: the warming spices, the pita bread encasing them, the myriad of sauces, and the nearly infinite possibility of toppings. I especially love the look on peoples' faces when I drizzle hot sauce over an already spicy blend of fried chickpeas, cumin, pepper, and magic.

Needless to say, I take my falafel very seriously. I have very, very little tolerance for falafel poorly done.

Iowa City, early January, on one of the coldest days of the year provided me a great day to eat falafel. It was also a good day to test out Iowa City’s newest falafel restaurant Oasis. If the falafel balls didn’t satisfy on a blistery, blustery cold day like this, they would never, ever satisfy.

Oasis was started in 2004 by two Israeli ex pats, friends Naftaly Stramer and Ofer Sivan, who lamented at the time, “falafel was nowhere to be found and vowed to right this wrong.” The fact that one had just left the tech industry and the other had just completed a degree in engineering certainly makes for an unlikely culinary origin story, but I fully understand their passion and drive. If I had any entrepreneurial spirit and risk tolerance, I would take over Indiana with an army of falafel stands and push for nationwide domination of the fast casual restaurant segment. But I digress.

The falafel sandwich and fries called to me; correction, they demanded my attention. I ordered the platter with no consideration for my feeble attempt at dieting. The falafel was served in standard pita with hummus and cucumber salad. The condiments bar included green cabbage salad with caraway and carrots, red cabbage salad, pepperoncinis, tahini, and green hot sauce. I selected most of the available options to decorate my sandwich. The falafel were good, solid, and serviceable. They were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and flavorful without too much heat or salt. I would definitely order them again. I would also tell my diet to take a flying leap and order the fries again, which were fresh, crispy, and cut to a medium thickness.

The owners of Oasis understand that even in a college town, they must educate an unenlightened public. Their Website contains a Cuisine Guide with pictures and descriptions of falafel, hummus, baba ganoush, madjadra, cous cous, tabouli, kebabs, baklava, and the other delicacies possibly foreign to the Iowa plains.

The restaurant is not perfect. For example, their regular coffee was bad to mediocre at best, and did nothing for my interest in the Wake Up Iowa City brand. It is possible that their Turkish coffee is a different animal altogether, but unfortunately I can’t speak to that.

However, the small restaurant has a personal feel, from its small size, to the cartoony mural on the kitchen blackboard, to the Credence Clearwater Revival music on the loudspeaker. If you are in downtown Iowa City, definitely pay them a visit. But you might suggest they clean out their coffee pot while you are there.


This is probably as good a time as any to stand on my soapbox and tell America that they are mispronouncing “hummus”. According to both and the Merriam-Webster dictionary, not to mention every Middle-Easterner I have ever met, the word is pronounced ‘hə-məs’ or ‘hu̇-məs’, but definitely not ‘huh-məs’. This is important. Get it right. It galls me that a major hummus brand in the U.S. (yes, Sabra, you know who you are) mispronounces their own product in their own television commercials. Imagine if you will, Dorito’s pronouncing the ‘l’ in tortilla chips. Go on, imagine it. Imagine a commercial with a hot male twenty-something with blond wavy hair telling you in his hip lingo about how cool you could be if only you would try their chip, how chicks would dig you, how the flavor would blow you away, how your credit rating would improve. And then he pronounces the ‘l’.

Like nails on a chalkboard. Welcome to my world.