Smile Politely

Omnivore-approved vegan food to eat this June

Vegan food at El Paraiso in Urbana for the Vegan Chef Challenge in Champaign, Illinois. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

I might be the worst person to write an article about vegan food. Not that I don’t see the appeal of veganism. I want to eat more vegetables and less meat. I get it, but I could never give up butter and cheese. I’m an omnivore; I eat all the foods.

It’s not everyday that our twin cities serve up a food challenge, and for the Vegan Chef Challenge (that is going on nationwide), thirteen Champaign-Urbana restaurants created special vegan dishes just for the month of June. I read all the menus, went out all across Champaign-Urbana, bought a bunch of vegan bites, and of those, these are The Ones, the challenge dishes I think all vegan readers will love, most omnivores could enjoy, and perhaps even a carnivore-seeking-novelty might want to try.

Vegan food in Champaign-Urbana
Alyssa Buckley

Veggie Plantain Burger︱El Paraiso

Though the dish is billed as a veggie plantain burger ($13.50), I’d call it a black bean dip sandwich, and it was so yummy. There was no patty per se, more like a hunk of mashed black beans, but let me tell you: it was a damn delicious hunk of mashed beans. Truthfully, I don’t love black-bean burgers; there’s something really wrong (to me) about beans pretending to be meaty, but these beans knew how to be. El Paraiso‘s fried-in-house crispy plantain buns had an audible crunch, and guacamole soaked some to a tortilla texture.

Before I even bit into it — just merely lifting the sandwich, it completely fell apart; beans squished out here and guac splat there, and all I had were two plantain crisps with some remaining filling. But I did not care because the taste was awesome. I scooped everything that fell out right back on those fried plantains like chips and — didn’t I mention already? — black bean dip. All the toppings: the tomato slices, shredded lettuce, grilled onions, bell peppers, and jalapeño made the dish complete. When I ordered, they warned that the food would take some time to cook (and it did, about fifteen minutes), but the flavors were worth the wait.

El Paraiso
126 W Main
T- F noon to 3 p.m. + 4 to 8 p.m.
Sa noon to 6 p.m.

vegan food in Champaign-Urbana
Alyssa Buckley

Vegan Combo Platter︱Kohinoor

If you like the thali lunch special at Kohinoor, you’ll recognize this metal platter immediately. Kohinoor’s vegan combo platter ($16.99) was a brand new sampler of select vegetarian dishes from the restaurant’s regular menu, made with vegan ingredients instead of the usual yogurt and cream. Starting with the curry on the left, the aloo gobi had the most delicious, tender cauliflower that I’ve ever had. That spicy curry was packed with flavor and so good; the starchy, soft potato balanced the heat well. In the center, the baigan bharta had peas and chops of caramelized onion in a garlicky eggplant purée that wasn’t spicy. The yellow dal, white rice, salad, and whole wheat roti were nice, simple additions that rounded out the meal. The chickpeas in the cana masala were good, and I loved the big veggie samosa drizzled with the restaurant’s spicy green sauce. This combo platter served all the bold Indian flavors that I craved, without any animal products, and it still was yummy.

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant & Lounge
6 E Columbia
M 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. 
W+Th 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 4:30 to 10 p.m.
Su noon to 3 p.m. + 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Martinelli's Market chickpea smashburger is one vegan food offering for the Vegan Chef Challenge 2023 in Champaign, Illinois. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Chickpea Smashburger︱Martinelli’s Market

This beautiful sandwich had everything good about a burger — minus the meat and cheese because, hello, it’s vegan. Served warm, the chickpea smashburger ($15.95) had fresh lettuce, raw red onions, and tomato slices that served an iconic burger topping taste, and the fluffy Central Illinois Bakehouse bun was lightly toasted and tasted buttery without any butter. While I usually go for beef patties, Martinelli’s Market‘s chickpea patty was pretty good, and impressively, the deep-fried hummus disc stayed together for the entirety of sandwich eating. I loved the super crisp edge of the chickpea patty and its tasty seasonings. The side pickle and roasted red pepper aioli added some tang and helped balance the dryness of chickpeas. Did I wish this burger was a beef smashburger? Oh for sure, but for vegan food? It was totally delish. This special is only available until Saturday, June 24th.

Martinelli’s Market 
500C North Market St
T-Sa 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Six fried tomatoes from Stango Cuisine are vegan food for the Vegan Chef Challenge in Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

Fried Green Tomatoes︱ Stango Cuisine

These fried green tomatoes ($8) were one of Stango Cuisine‘s vegan challenge dishes, and they were awesome. The gritty cornmeal crust crisped up in the fryer, and it tasted delicious. Fried to perfection, the tomatoes weren’t overly wet or flimsy but study slices of fresh green tomato. Seasoned with pepper and garlic, the crunchy batter stuck so well to the tomatoes, and they reminded me of onion rings a little bit. I loved the salty, oily flavors, and to me, this is the epitome of vegan food: showcasing a vegetable in a yummy way. This is an appetizer that celebrates the tomato, and I’m here for it.

If six fried tomato slices is too much, order the small ($4) which comes with just three fried ‘maters. Stop by the Zambian restaurant‘s new-ish location in Champaign for this special appetizer this month because it’s not on the regular menu.

Stango Cuisine
500 N Walnut St
T-Th 3 to 7 p.m.
F+Sa 3 to 7:45 p.m.

Even more Vegan Dishes of the Vegan Chef Challenge

I am but one lass, and alas, I did not make it to all the stops on the Vegan Chef Challenge tour around Champaign-Urbana. Since, however, I did read all the menus, here are a few highlights in case you’re hungry for a good mushroom dish or something with mock meat.

Mushroom-lovers might go for Neil St. Blues’ mushroom Creole étouffée, Silvercreek’s mushroom stack with spicy marinara, or Nando Milano’s rigatoni al funghi e tartufo, pasta in a truffle sauce with seasonal mushrooms.

A mock duck bon vivant could try Siam Terrace’s spicy lemongrass mock duck with veggies or Common Ground’s mock duck coconut curry over steamed white rice. Gluten-free, mock-meat-loving vegans should visit the Lincoln Square Mall to check out sausage rollies by RegCakes, a savory, cinnamon-roll style snack with Italian mock sausage and mock cheese with herb tomato sauce.

Food + Drink Editor / / instagram

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