One of the most confounding things about Chicago has been the lack of vegan-friendly options downtown and in the Loop. Yes, there was a sushi place couple of options, a Corner Bakery that would do in a pinch, but with so many people working in and visiting downtown, there were really not too many options up until a couple of years ago. Now there is a Native Foods in the South Loop, Freshii locations throughout downtown, as well as vegan-friendly fast casual chains like Noodles and Company, Chipotle, and Q’doba. There is also now the small local chain of Protein Bar locations throughout downtown. My son and I took the Green line to State Street on Sunday and I was excited to see a Protein Bar right there when we got off the train. I’d heard about Protein Bar for a while and was eager to try it. My son was more interested in getting to the Lego store than trying a burrito, but he humored me.
With a health-conscious menu emphasizing protein and produce, Protein Bar offers quick, nutritious meals for people who care about quality but don’t have a lot of time. The location we were at, the newest one at 10 W. State, was a clean, comfortable, modern space with fairly ample seating (though I imagine seating might still be hard to come by on a weekday lunch hour) and a friendly, helpful staff. Diners order and pick up at the counter.
Vegans have a lot of options here from breakfast Quinoa Bowls and Oatmeal Bowls, Protein Bar-Ritos (burritos), Signature Salads, lunchtime Quinoa Bowls and Signature Drinks. Items are well-marked on the menu as to what is vegan and what could be made vegan upon request; further, nutritional information is also included. I like that the options are more complex and thoughtful than the standard fast food fare one would pick up at most other chains, including the ever-elusive breakfast: the Almond Berry breakfast Quinoa Bowl is warm organic quinoa with soy or almond milk, agave nectar, spices, almonds and fresh, seasonal berries for $4.49. Oatmeal Bowls include the Pancake in a Bowl, which is steel-cut oats with vanilla protein, milk of choice, agave nectar, spices and fresh fruit for $3.99.
Protein Bar-Ritos are divided into grilled and chilled categories. Of the grilled options, vegans can order the Chili Bar-Rito, with veggie chili, quinoa, vegan cheese (Daiya, I believe), and their “Super Six Salad Mix” (romaine, spinach, kale, broccoli, carrots and purple cabbage) for $7.29. Also grilled is the BBQ style, with marinated tofu, quinoa, onions, house-made BBQ sauce and salad mix for $7.29. There is also the Vegan Original, which is marinated tofu, house-seasoned black beans, quinoa, cheese and cilantro for $6.89. Of the chilled Bar-Ritos, there is the Greek Town, which is marinated tofu, house-made hummus, kalamata olives, cucumbers, vegan Greek dressing and their specialty salad mix for $7.29. The Green City Vegan, with marinated tofu, kale, pepitas, chickpeas and Creamy Chia dressing with their salad mix for $6.89 looks intriguing. At 28 grams of protein, this is no lightweight.
There are a variety of salads, all served with their Super Six Salad Mix, which can easily accommodate vegans and the gluten intolerant. The Buffalo with tofu, quinoa and vegan Buffalo sauce (hold the blue cheese) sounds great at $9.49. The Memphis with tofu, quinoa, vegan cheese, onions and agave BBQ sauce at $9.49 also sounds like a good bet as does the Superfood vegan with tofu, kale, chickpeas and Creamy Chia dressing for $7.49. Quinoa Bowls include Black Bean, which comes with dairy-free cheddar, for $5.49 and Vegan Quinoa Chili, which is their chili with shredded cheese and onions for $6.29.
I ordered my son the Vegan Original Bar-Rito, which was a generous whole grain tortilla and filled all the good stuff described above. He could only eat about half of it – remember that his mind was on Legos and it was very big – but he loved it. I had some of the “insides” (I can’t eat wheat) and it tasted great: savory, wholesome, full flavored. It is a hearty lunch without being heavy for not a lot of expense. I had the Vegan Quinoa Chili, which was really well-seasoned and tasty with tender red beans, perfect for a light lunch on a chilly day. There are also a variety of hot sauces one can use to kick up the heat.
We were not in the mood for drinks, but if we had been, there were lots of vegan protein powder-enriched drinks available: some options are the Fruit Loop’d, with vanilla protein, almond or soy milk, blueberries and bananas for $3.69 for 12 ounces, and the Sears Sucker, with vanilla protein powder, vegan milk, soy yogurt, raspberries and bananas for $4.19. The Wrigley Peeled, with chocolate soy protein, vegan milk, peanut butter, banana and agave nectar for $4.39 sounds decadent. They also have supplemental “boosts” and “super boosts” one can add to drinks and well as a variety of fresh juice blends.
It’s nice to be able to walk into a fast casual place restaurant downtown and see the word “vegan” all over the menu. The meals are not afterthoughts but well put together, with an emphasis on healthfulness, freshness, high quality ingredients and great flavor. Most items not designed vegan can be made so without any sacrifice of taste or ingredients. The food is inexpensive, quick, and, best of all, well done. I recommend Protein Bar for anyone downtown: whether you are an office worker or a sightseer, there are a lot of delicious, affordable and healthy options for a quick meal here.