After 30 years in fast food, moving from dishwasher to chef to manager, Christopher Oliver was inspired to open his own restaurant — a vegan one. His motivations were two: bouts with cancer and diabetes, and two years in a butcher shop.
"It was the blood and gore that pushed me into giving up meat," he says. "From that perspective, you get to see the animal cruelty of it. Many of the local farmers would converse with the owners and I'd get to hear the circumstances."
That's why so many of us turn a blind eye. We — OK, I — don't want to know because meat is so delicious.
Could an all-vegan restaurant win over a cowardly carnivore? I won't say it's my restaurant of the year, but there is plenty to like — for anyone — at Unburger Grill. Oliver says customer response has been outstanding, with great reviews.
Some dishes are designed to mimic meat, others not. Beyond Sausage, say its creators, lets you have your meat and not have it too. It's a "missing link that serves up all the mouthwatering sizzle and juicy satisfaction of pork sausage, while offering the health, environmental, and animal welfare benefits of plant protein."
I agree that it tastes like sausage, though the mouth-feel is not there. That shows you how much a sausage depends on its spicing. A vegetarian friend said, "What's missing is the gristle." She was the one, by the way, who asked for "real cheese" and was politely rebuffed.
You just have to accept going in that these plant-based foods are going to be softer than a traditional hot dog or burger. Patties made from grains, vegetables, and legumes will not offer much resistance when you bite down, nor will a soft, five-inch vegan bun.
Oliver offers six burgers and four renditions of Beyond Sausage. "Burger" is defined as anything served in a burger bun. They're all tasty and all squishy, a challenge to eat neatly.
The spicy Southwestern burger is a patty of chickpeas and zucchini, plus salsa, guacamole, and jalapeños. Mushroom Swiss loads vegan cheese and vegan mayo onto black beans and portobello, the latter making for plenty of umami. Pleasantly spiced sweet potatoes and quinoa can be had on their own or with slaw, hickory barbecue sauce, and sautéed red onions.
The Sweet Italian Beyond Sausage is traditional (with the one obvious exception), served with grilled red peppers and onions and Italian dressing. I liked it better than the Chili Cheese Dog, but then, when was the last time I had a regular chili cheese dog?
Oliver's sides are all about just being themselves. I raved about the hot Brussels sprouts and red potato hash, which combines the sprouts' bitterness with the spuds' mellowness to great advantage. Vegetarian friend: "Don't you think it's greasy?" Me: "So?"
Also excellent: roasted apple and sweet potato salad — rich and mellow. I was less taken with a crunchy Brussels sprouts-lime-cilantro slaw, so maybe I was lying about wanting some chewability in my food. Air-fried French fries pass the oiliness test and taste good too. A pumpkin coconut curry soup was disappointing — no coconut taste, not sweet — but "cream" of potato was just fine, laden with rosemary.
Salads are garden, taco (with vegan sour cream and pepper jack) and burger in a bowl. There are also nachos and chili cheese fries, in case you are totally confused about why you're in a vegan restaurant.
I'll go out on a limb and say a vegan restaurant should be sure to serve dessert because a treat is needed after all that virtue. And not carob, please. Oliver does his customers fine, with a moist, clove-y pumpkin spice cake from LJ's Classic Desserts in Oak Park; even the powdered sugar for the glaze is vegan.
You can get a gluten-free cheesecake; needless to say I did not, and found the regular (regular as in vegan) cheesecake sweet with coconut in both crust and filling. One evening, brownie and blondie were swirled into one bar; good enough for me.
Drinks are fountain sodas or bottled "GuS Grown Up Soda," advertised as less sweet, kosher, with real juice, cane sugar, and no caffeine. That sounds swell to me — wish I'd tried a grapefruit or Dry Valencia one.
Unburger's biggest business is at lunchtime, thus far. A tween companion sniffed at the soundtrack: "Vegan music," she said. Food is served in a basket, and eating utensils are too-flimsy plastic which is thrown away — in my book the opposite of food-industry virtue. We all have our choice of vices, I suppose. At least Oliver's doesn't involve killing sentient beings.
Look for Christopher Oliver working the kitchen in a green apron. He's the one looking really happy.
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