Native Foods Café, 218 S Clark.
“Think vegan, think vegetables… so basically, think deprivation.” That’s what I grew up hearing in the venison-loving area of northern Minnesota. Even though I was never a fan of venison, I also wasn’t really a fan of going vegan… but Native could almost make me think twice about that decision. Emphasis on the almost. Native takes the basic human to-do of food consumption, and turns it into an experience. And a surprising one, since you might find yourself craving that “crispy chicken” in the Twister Wrap, or one of their delectable parfaits.
The Twister Wrap is a Native Classic, consisting of what you’d expect: greens and avocado, and a couple interesting additions: cucumber salsa, chipotle sauce, and sometimes they’ll even offer to cook the chicken in some spicy buffalo sauce. Packing a surprising 375 calories and 23 grams of protein, it’s the perfect centerpiece for a filling and satisfying meal that won’t have you feeling guilty for an hour later. As a college student who has to be financially responsible, the price can be a little intimidating for “just a wrap” since it sits around $10, but it’s one of the smartest food investments to make when you’re in the mood to eat out. Since the wrap packs so much protein, it’ll keep you full for hours after the last bite. Absolutely perfect for a “late lunch” or a post-workout filler-upper meal. Not to mention the variety of flavors and textures this meal offers, too. Fresh, crunchy vegetables make up the bulk of the wrap, the “chicken” is grilled to perfect crispiness (if that’s what you’re into, if not, there’s also a grilled option), and the ratio of sauce, avocado, “chicken,” veggies, and tortilla wrap are perfect. Each flavor is present in every bite, but it’s also enough that it stays interesting for each half-smiling, satisfying chew.
Native Foods has more to offer than the entrées, though. In fact, the first thing that usually draws the non-vegan customers in is the drink selection and desserts. Maybe it’s because that seems a little more accessible, or a little less intimidating than committing $10 to a completely vegan meal. Either way, the parfaits (particularly the peanut butter and the chocolate brownie), can satisfy that pesky sweet tooth. Although they can be a little pricey for a dessert (about $5), it’s worth it to have the benefit of the vegan and gluten-free-ness that you’ll find between the layers of the creamy peanut butter and chocolate, blended and whipped to a smooth and creamy perfection. If you’re a fan of ice cream, yogurt, or pudding, this is absolutely a dessert to put on your hit list. An interesting take, too, since chocolate and peanut butter aren’t exactly the first thing you think of when you think “gluten free” or “health conscious.”
Another aspect of Native that puts it on the map is the service and atmosphere. Instead of being seated and waited on, you place your order almost immediately after entering the café (whenever you’re ready, of course), and are seated at your leisure. The food usually takes ten minutes or less (even during a rush), and the staff will bring it out to your table. While you’re waiting, there’s cards of quirky trivia on each table, which can spark conversation if you’re with friends, or to up your Trivial Pursuit game on your own. The vibrant reds, yellows, and orange in the decor also help set the atmosphere — it’s a place that you can dress up for a date, or hang out in gym clothes with your friends. There’s a rare and strange respect in Native, and it’s a nice change of pace from other places to dine at in the city.
Native is a go-to recommendation when friends come to Chicago for the first time. Even though it’s not a “Chicago classic,” it’s an experience to broaden your horizons, try something that might seem a little intimidating, and realizing that it’s not actually that different from the norm.