At various periods in my life, I’ve opted to go meat-free. Sometimes this temporary vegetarianism was prompted by economic concerns (as a graduate student, I couldn’t afford a lot of meat) and somewhat more rarely by ethical considerations (I got over those).
Some of the more delicious vegetarian offerings in Oak Park are served at “ethnic” restaurants that offer cuisines born of cultures where economics or religion necessitated or dictated meals without meat.
Many canonical dishes in the Italian culinary tradition are meatless. The strong vegetarian inclination of Italian cuisine is due not only to the relative cost of meat but also to the Roman Catholic tradition that observed meatless Fridays as well as a large number of other holy days when fasting was expected. Consequently, Italian chefs had to dream up a lot of largely vegetarian offerings. At restaurants such as Cucina Paradiso (814 North Blvd.), there are many inventive vegetarian preparations. My Genoese grandmother introduced me to fried polenta half a century ago, and I have enjoyed Cucina Paradiso’s crispy wedges of corn meal topped with Gorgonzola, the earthiness of the grain cakes balanced with the richness of this Italian blue cheese. Most of the pizzas and a number of pastas are prepared without meat; there really are a lot of options here for those who are trying to avoid meat.
Biodiversity is characteristic of many of the world’s great culinary traditions. If you live in a place where the land gives forth a range of good vegetables and fruits (like Asia), chances are good that the cuisines of the area will be rich and varied. In the Oak Park area, we are fortunate to have a relatively large number of Asian restaurants, particularly Thai restaurants, many of which are willing to prepare their dishes with or without animal protein. King and I Thai Restaurant (105 R N. Marion) features a vegetarian section on their menu, as does Amarind’s Thai Restaurant (6822 North).
Indian restaurants are, of course, heavily weighted toward vegetable offerings. This is due in part to the expense of meat but also to the sacredness ascribed to all living creatures in the sub continental religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism (a strict belief system based on the simple principle of “Do no harm” -- I overviewed Jain dietary practices in a 2007 WBEZ segment). At Khyber Pass (1031 Lake), there are an impressive number of dishes that are listed as vegetarian and even vegan (containing no animal products whatsoever, and that includes cheese, eggs and honey). Khyber Pass also offers one of the village's most exceptional bargain dining opportunities: weekday lunch buffets for $8.95 and dinner buffets for $14.95. If you’re young and on a limited budget, you can really get your money’s worth at this old school Indian restaurant.
Though militantly omnivorous, I often get bored with many entrées that submit to the tyranny of animal proteins, featuring big hunks of meat as the primary focus of a plate. I would have difficulty bringing myself to go without meat for extended periods of time, but it’s pleasant to sometimes take a little vacation from beef, pork and chicken and eat a meal that’s exclusively vegetable. In Oak Park, that’s not hard to do.
Do you have a favorite vegetarian meal at a local restaurant? Please tell us about it.