Sunday, November 15, 2015

Upton's Breakroom

Upton's Breakroom
2054 West Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL 60612
QISA (3.5, 4, 3.5, 3), $5 – 9, Vegan

My first experience with seitan was about 30 years ago in my pre-vegetarian years. My mother, of blessed memory, and her close friend found a recipe for “wheat meat,” which would supposedly magically turn whole-wheat flour into a believable meat substitute that was cheaper and leaner than beef. Looking back through the lens of adult experience, I understand her thinking. She had found a way to stretch our family dollar, reduce our saturated fat load, and satisfy her inner experimental food scientist. As a biology teacher, she was always up to some scientific experimentation.

I was not in the house while she lovingly prepared the seitan (I was out that evening doing something suitably teenagery), but I did get to try the final product later that evening. I have a very clear memory of a spaghetti sauce with a substance that looked very much like ground beef but tasted like bland, chewy whole-wheat flour. I also remember chewing this rubbery substance for a good five minutes before I was finally able to swallow. It was a decade before I touched the stuff again.

As a young married, and now vegetarian, husband, I took on the lion’s share of cooking duties. I was constantly looking for new recipes with which to impress my lovely wife, and I came upon a recipe for homemade seitan, a meat substitute with different and more versatile properties than tofu, TVP, tempeh, or okara. The process involved making a dense dough of whole-wheat flour and water, rinsing and pressing the dough in multiple changes of water, and simmering the resulting grayish blob in broth. The result of my experimentation was a slightly more satisfying and slightly less rubbery meat substitute. A secondary result was a layer of dried starch water all over the kitchen that my wife discovered the next day when she came in to make a sandwich. Since that day, my wife has made me promise two things: 1) never make any desserts that contain tofu, and 2) never make seitan completely from scratch ever again. I violate either of these rules at my peril.

Nowadays, I make my own seitan with vital wheat gluten flour. This flour, which can be found at many specialty shops, is basically instant seitan. Just add water, broth, and/or spices, and simmer, boil, or steam. I am still perfecting my seitan recipe, but my family will attest that my end result is a vast improvement over my early experimentation. Sliced thin, my breaded, fried glutenschnitzel is a family favorite. Just recently, I developed my own gluten-based sausage link which is fantastic on a hot-dog bun with spicy brown mustard or veggie-chili, particularly on a hot July 4th, while you’re spitting watermelon seeds, drinking your second beer, and blowin’ s$%!@ up. Vegetarians may talk a good game about ethics, but it don’t mean we can’t get our redneck on.

This long-winded exposition is simply my way of saying that I respect anyone who masters the art of seitan. It’s a tricky beast.

Upton’s Breakroom, a tiny Chicago restaurant associated with Upton’s Naturals, has pretty well mastered the process. Although Upton’s Naturals wholesalers sells jackfruit products as well, their seitan is obviously their crowning achievement.

What is most interesting, or at least most amusing, about Upton’s Breakroom, is that the restaurant feels like the quintessential Chicago meat scene. Situated in an industrial Chicago neighborhood, the clientele is mostly men between 20 and 50. The stocky, Mediterranean-looking head chef at the grill looks straight out of central Blues Brother casting. I expected him to start yelling “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger!” (Kids, ask your parents.)

Except he didn’t. Instead, he engaged me on the ethics of veganism, discussed the recipes they use for their fake cheese sauces, and walked me through the most popular items on their menu. This is no hippie, college-town, trustafarian, liberal, save-the-world vegan lunch spot. This is a blue-collar, Chi-town, blink and you’ll miss it, comfort food, love-The-Bears-but-what’s-up-with-them-this-season vegan lunch spot.

After much perusal of the many options, I decided to order the “Chicago-style” Italian sandwich, along with a side of fried bacon mac. Nothing else seemed to speak of Chicago cuisine like an Italian hoagie and fried bacon mac. This was the only way, in my thinking, that I could truly judge the establishment. Heck, anyone can make a kale salad.

The sandwich was a glorious mess of herbed seitan, mild giardiniera peppers, celery, marinated carrot, and onion on a hoagie bun. The seitan was mildly spiced and covered in a juicy broth that immediately soaked through the bread. The flavors and textures melded perfectly creating a messy but satisfying taste of Chicago.

The fried bacon mac and cheese (cheeze?) was slightly charred at the edges, with a crusty and crunchy texture that helped sell the bits of seitan bacon. The cheeze sauce, although primarily made of nutritional yeast and tahini, did not have the bitter yeasty flavor I typically associate with vegan cheeze sauces. It honestly wasn’t until I finished my meal and was driving away did I really start to notice the yeast aftertaste. I guess you can never completely hide nutritional yeast. It’s insidious that way.

My honest impression was that the restaurant was good, very good in fact, but not fantastic. I only rated the quality a 3.5 because to compete with the fancy Chicago restaurant scene, one has to go above and beyond. And Upton simply goes above. However, I wish them well, and I definitely recommend my readers to try them out. When you go, you might even try out the kale salad. I am sure it is wonderful, and I would love to know what you think. I’ll be in the corner, hunched over my vegan bacon ranch cheeseburger.

FINAL NOTE: Upton’s Breakroom definitely falls into the Analog, Comfort Food mode, which is likely to spark a small amount of controversy in the foodie community. Hard core vegans and carnivores alike may challenge the idea of making vegan analogs of meat instead of simply exploring new avenues of vegetables, beans, and nuts. One of my meat-eating cousins mused, “If I wanted to eat a sausage, why wouldn’t I go for the real thing?” My response to this is two-fold. First, I flip this around. If there were a way to eat sausage without harming animals, why wouldn’t I go down this path? The issue is not the “purity” of the food, but rather the ethical, nutritional, and moral context of the food. Second, I claim that the “purity” of the food is a false construct unto itself. Meat sausages (as an example) are amalgams that in no way resemble their original source. In fact, most food items are processed, salted, stretched, and/or dried to no longer resemble their humble origins. Therefore, if what one tastes is primarily salt, spices, and processed protein anyway, why not do so in a vegetarian/vegan context?

As my rabbi used to say after a particularly long discourse, “The discussion is yours.”

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