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November 12, 2004

Get a Life 11-12-04

Ah, the family dinner is upon us. In a short two weeks, we will be knee-deep in the next Hallmark-approved holiday, and I will be making my mom's stuffing and eating my dad's, offering up glowing praise for my aunt's cranberry relish, attempting to rationalize how exactly my mother calculates food "needs," and bitching when my uncle shows up three hours later than planned, even though he only lives three hours away. To me, however, it only makes sense that these pseudo-Thanksgiving traditions are obscure. Would it really be a family gathering if it were "normal?"

If you can't make it home for turkey day or aren't that thrilled about congregating around a stuffed bird, take your taste buds to 75th Street for all the comfort and eccentricities that come along with a home-cooked meal. Soul Vegetarian East is about the last thing you would expect to find on the commercial strip near the Dan Ryan. Nestled between liquor stores and law offices, the restaurant boasts fair vegetarian and vegan fare, which is typically more Santa Barbara than South Side, but the owners have reconciled this by imparting their own soulful twist.

Walking through the front doors, the take-out line that greets you offers promises of a good meal. The look and feel of this vegetarian enclave is out of the ordinary, to say the least. The walls are lined with framed posters of Miles Davis and John Coltrane; elegant-looking chandeliers make the plastic tablecloth covers shine. The restaurant sets its own tone. It dances to the beat of a different drummer, or in this case, trumpet player.

But it's fair to say that any place which substitutes a chili-powder shaker for a saltshaker isn't particularly concerned with being conventional. Although the menu does include the falafel, tofu stir-fry, and wheat grass concoctions that herbivores have come to expect, the warm wait staff at Soul Vegetarian also serves up down-home favorites—all without the meat, of course. Diners indulge in hearty servings of flavorful collard greens and rich macaroni and cheese while nibbling on cornbread that proves fulfilling, though a little on the dry side. A favorite is the Down-South BBQ Twist sandwich. Here, the meat is replaced by seitan, a derivation of wheat protein that is made right on the premises. Even if you enjoy the real deal, you won't miss the meat in this savory sandwich glazed with thick, sweet barbeque sauce and topped with lettuce and tomato. The deep-fried cauliflower and the fries are tempting, but so are the homemade (and hard-to-come-by) sweets.

Perusing the dessert menu, another interesting aspect of the restaurant becomes more apparent: The restaurant is owned and operated by members of the African Hebrew Israelite community, hence the vegan Hebrew carob cake (which is reminiscent of a German chocolate cake). Each page of the menu evokes a sense of what a melting pot the restaurant is, and the dessert selection is not an exception. Offerings include pineapple soy ice cream, sweet potato pie, and a butterscotchy caramel cake. On a warmer day, the staff mixes up an array of healthful shakes and fruit drinks to counterbalance those deliciously crispy deep-fried veggies that you just couldn't refuse.

Visiting Soul Vegetarian feels like having a meal in someone's home, so much so that you feel bad leaving food on your plate. Through the years, the members of a diverse clientele have become welcome regulars at this distinctive restaurant that has been in business since 1982. If this family of customers and flavors has been able to coexist under one roof for over 20 years, there is no reason why you shouldn't enjoy or even cherish one holiday weekend with the characters in your family. Ultimately, everyone brings something special to the table.

Address: 205 East 75th Street

Phone: (773) 224-0104

Directions:

Via CTA: CTA bus #55 Garfield Westbound to Garfield & King. Transfer to CTA bus #3 King Drive Southbound to 75th & King. Walk a few blocks west on 75th Street. Soul Vegetarian East is on the left.

Via car: Head south on Cottage Grove Avenue. Turn right onto 75th Street. Soul Vegetarian East is on the left.