Being and Seeming at Native Foods Cafe

"Oh, do you serve only fake meat?"

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By David Hammond

"'Oh, do you serve only fake meat?'"

 "We get that question all the time," said Aaron Buss, General Manager at Native Foods Café, which has multiple locations in Chicagoland and, you'll be unsurprised to learn, the West Coast.

That common question is understandable. Native Foods in River Forest has menu items like Native Chicken Wings that contain no bird meat and Scorpion Burger that contains no cow…or scorpion.

As I mentioned to Buss, I have a philosophical/aesthetic objection to vegetables and grains masquerading as meat. I like to eat vegetables and grains, but I appreciate them for what they are; it seems they need not aspire to be that which they are not. Still, I understand that using meat-like names helps clarify taste and texture to those unfamiliar with seitan and tempeh, and when you call something "bacon," even if it's made of tofu, diners will at least have some idea of what kind of tastes they can expect.

We were invited by Native Foods to have Sunday lunch at the River Forest location of this vegan restaurant – that's right, vegan, what Bourdain called the "Hezbollah-like splinter-faction" of vegetarianism" (but that was a long time ago, and now Hezbollah seems so much less threatening than, say, Isis or Boko Haram…and we've all become a little more accepting of our vegan brothers and sisters). It was with only a slight bit of trepidation that I accepted.

There is, indeed, simulated meat on the menu, but to take the Native Chicken Wings as an example, it's safe to say that many will be surprised by how good they are. These "wings" don't look like wings of any known creature: they're basically lengths of textured tofu, fried and served with hot and ranch sauces. If you didn't know it was tofu, you might conclude that the chicken was a little, um, mushy. But taken as what they are – battered and deep-fried tofu logs – they're really tasty. I don't mean "tasty for tofu," I mean tasty for any food.

The butternut polenta bites were beautiful little pucks of corn meal mounted with a micro-pile of squash, caramelized onions, arugula and toasted pumpkin seeds. This dish looks gorgeous, and it's the kind of Native Foods menu item that I could see going well with one of the wines they serve here.

The presence of beer and wine behind the front counter is a coded marketing message that this place is more than a quick-service restaurant. It's not fine dining, but it's different than, say, Mickey's or Five Guys down the street. Whereas liquor sales account for over 50% and maybe up to 75% of the sales for places that serve alcohol and food, at Native Foods, Buss told us, the beer and wine sales account for maybe 5% of sales. Like I said, booze here is more a message than a solid revenue generator, and that's cool: if I came to Native Foods for dinner, I'd likely order a local craft beer to accompany my butternut polenta bites.

The Native Fries, both white and sweet potato versions, are, Buss assured us, "made with real potatoes," which is not as obvious as it might seem. So many of the foods here are versions of other things: bacon, cheeseburgers, sausage, meatballs are all plant-based, containing not a bit of animal protein. At some point, you start to wonder if what you're eating is actually made of the thing you'd just assume it was made of. What things appear to be and what they really are prove not to be always synonymous.

The fries were excellent, and even the sweet potato ones were crispy, which is not always possible with this kind of tuber.

I instagrammed a picture of the "bacon," with the caption "Vegan bacon. I had seconds."

One friend tweeted back "Did you lose a bet?" and another asked "On purpose?"

That response is pretty much what I expected.

There is something unnerving about food that claims to be something it isn't. It seems, in a way, almost disrespectful of the food when it's presented as a simulation of another food. But I get it. How else are they going to convey the flavor of this chewy strip of tofu with smoke flavoring except to call it bacon? 

Overall, we enjoyed our lunch at Native Foods. With several more weeks of Lent to go, those who make the appropriate food sacrifices of going meatless will be glad to know that they can keep the faith at Native Foods while eating some pretty good stuff. It's not be really be as much of a sacrifice as it might seem.

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