Max Musto began a vegan pop-up, Herbivore, three years ago and it’s proved popular amongst vegans and omnivores who have waited hours for Musto’s dairy- and meat-free burgers, like the Big Max, that remind folks of items from their favorite fast-food chains.
Musto popped up for the month of January at Kimski while chef Won Kim remains on sabbatical. Looks like he’s made quite an impression in Bridgeport. Musto, a classically trained chef who has worked at several big-name restaurants including Spiaggia, Xoco, and Au Cheval, is taking over the Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream space next to Kimski and Maria’s Community Bar. Herbivore should open in early March at 964 W. 31st Street.
Beyond the pop-ups, Musto also ran Herbivore out of a shared kitchen in Humboldt Park, providing customers with curbside delivery in the same complex where Milly’s Pizza in the Pan got its start. Herbivore has also appeared at Lollapalooza and Vegandale.
Musto calls his menu “globally-inspired, plant-based comfort food.” Beyond the burgers, which grabbed the attention of Chicago, Musto says he’s also going to serve fresh vegan pasta. He has to, as he comes from a large Italian family, he says. Also, look for a veganized version of a pizza pocket — Chicago street food aficionados know what Musto is trying to accomplish by creating a special vegan fennel sausage.
So how did Musto become vegan? Everything changed for him in 2019 after he checked into a rehab clinic in Cancun. The chef was battling heroin addiction, which started after suffering various back and knee injuries while playing hockey, breakdancing, and skateboarding. He found himself addicted to pain pills. Restaurant life often exposes workers to substance abuse. Musto began exploring ways to fight his addiction, and with the help of his wife, a doctor, looked into ibogaine treatment. While illegal in the U.S., ibogaine is a plant-based psychedelic used to treat opioid addiction. It’s derived from a shrub found in Central Africa called Tabernanthe iboga.
The patient needs constant monitoring by medical staff looking at heart and kidney readings. Musto stayed for days in Mexico. But he says the journey was successful, and Musto says the treatment helped him reflect upon eating meat. Musto says the plant-based medication helped him see a new path, that he “wanted to be part of the solution” and “do no harm.” While still in Mexico, Musto called his wife. He says he told her that he was cured, and “that we’re now vegan.”
Herbivore focuses on omnivores, wanting to push them to limit their meat consumption. He came up with Herbivore which creates vegan burgers, pasta, and more. After a series of pop-ups at bars and restaurants, Herbivore became known for a vegan burger that will remind customers of a certain item from the Golden Arches (two patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese). Musto is also been experimenting with a burger the reminds customers of a certain West Coast chain: “The only thing we’re missing is the cruelty,” Musto says.
Musto uses Impossible Beef and some tricks he picked up while working at Au Cheval where cooks swear that griddle techniques help make their burger one of the most popular burgers in Chicago. He’s reluctant to give away his trade secret, including where he finds his vegan cheese. It’s not something readily available; restaurant owners can’t buy it at Restaurant Depot. The special sauce is also a secret.
Musto says he impressed his landlord, Ed Marszewski (Marz Community Brewing), and chef Kim at a tasting. They told him his burger wasn’t the best vegan burger, “but the best burger in Chicago. Period.”
Check back for updates as the opening date grows closer.
Herbivore, 964 W. 31st Street, planned for a March opening.