It might be bizarre, but over the years in Chicago, more than one vegan who grew up in the city has told me they miss Italian beefs the most.
Pizza can’t be replicated without cheese and vegan cheese substitutes are getting better and better. For Chicago-style hot dogs, folks may fixate on the sausage and if the casing has the right snap. But there’s a reason it’s nicknamed the “salad on a bun.” The tomatoes, onions, relish, and pickles provide an essential foundation as long as the buns are free of eggs, dairy, or honey.
Finding a proper vegan French roll for an Italian beef might not pose a Herculean challenge, but making Italian beef is a labor-intensive process. Veganizing doesn’t make it easier.
Kevin Schuder loves challenges. He’s the chef and owner of Fancy Plants Kitchen and one of the city’s most talented chefs. He just happens to be vegan. Schuder’s first Chicago restaurant, a small cafe in Lakeview off Broadway and Briar, gave locals a taste of Schuder’s imagination, but the tiny kitchen had its limitations.
In 2021, Schuder expanded his Fancy Plants brand and opened a full-service restaurant in Lincoln Park with a bar near DePaul’s campus. The pandemic slowed the momentum but last month Schuder started daytime service. He serves vegan pastries, croissants, sandwiches, and coffee drinks during the day, and fine-dining vegan meals at night.
One of those sandwiches Schuder unveiled is a vegan Italian beef sandwich and it’s delightful. For fans who followed the chef’s career, they’ll trace the sandwich’s origin back to Schuder’s experiments with creating a vegan burger. Annoyed by the public’s fascination with factory-made meat substitutes from Impossible Brands and Beyond Meat, Schuder dedicated himself to building a better burger.
Two years ago the Buona chain released an Italian beef made of seitan. Now it’s Fancy Plants’ turn without the aid of a food scientist. Schuder also uses seitan, he says he employs the same method Buddhist monks have used for thousands of years — taking a ball of flour and kneading it under water to get rid of most of the starch. That just leaves the wheat’s protein. As far as the beefy flavoring? It’s yeast garam from the Noma Guide to Fermentation: “It’s using its own enzymes to create umami,” Schuder says.
It’s a wonder and one of the best sandwiches around. Schuder is keen to give locals a fun place to hang out during the day. Vegans and omnivores would be well-advised to visit Fancy Plants Kitchen in Lincoln Park.
Fancy Plants Kitchen, 1443 W. Fullerton Avenue.