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.