Lake Side Cafe

1418 W. Howard773-262-9503

It’s not likely that Hot Doug’s will ever pitch a sausage that tastes like brussels sprouts. But at Lake Side Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant in Rogers Park, cook Jeff Winkowski is doing his best to make veggies taste like meat. Back in March he gave a class in Chicago-style cooking–without all that nasty animal flesh. He built a Reuben out of seitan, sliced to ragged thinness and dyed with beet juice to give it the ruddy color of corned beef. Then he baked a pizza stuffed with soy cheeze and seitan.

“This really looks like Italian sausage,” said Winkowski, rolling the crumbly wheat gluten between his fingers. “It really tastes like Italian sausage.”

Lake Side’s menu also includes a Chicago-style Polish made of wheat gluten and soy protein isolate, a tempeh-based sloppy joe, and fettuccine Alfredo with a wheat-based chicken substitute. (A lot of foods taste like chicken, but “chicken” isn’t one of them.) Winkowski’s wife, Malissa, bakes organic vegan pastries, many using low-gluten spelt flour. Three other cooks come up with the rotating weekly specials emphasizing organic ingredients.

Winkowski, who’s 30, has a tattoo of the city’s rat-prevention logo on his shoulder. He used to play in a hardcore/thrash band in Milwaukee. He became a vegetarian at age 17, after meeting a group of Hare Krishnas on the Washington Mall. Almost immediately he gave up the fried fish and the hot ham and rolls that were part of growing up Catholic in Milwaukee.

“I asked them, ‘Why are you vegetarians?'” he says. “The guy said, ‘I’m trying to be more conscious of God.’ I couldn’t think of any other reason to eat meat other than that I really enjoyed it. I couldn’t think of myself killing an animal just because I liked the way it tasted.”

Winkowski also became a Hare Krishna devotee–he and his wife moved to Rogers Park in 2005 in part because of the temple at Clark and Lunt. At the time he’d worked at Chicago Diner for a couple of years and was seeking to get out of the restaurant biz. Then a friend pointed out a help-wanted ad in Conscious Choice that led him to Lake Side. The restaurant, which opened in October, is attached to the Inner Metamorphosis University, a storefront school offering yoga and meditation classes inspired by the teachings of guru Bhashkar Perinchery. Its staff and its owner, Amona Buechler, are all committed to eschewing meat.

“They have a saying in the East–‘What you eat, you are,'” said Jeffrey Tippman, who runs the school with Buechler. “When a pig is slaughtered it feels fear. When you eat pork you absorb that fear and aggression on a subtle level.”

Lake Side may be affiliated with a school of meditation, but with its wall of windows, comfortable seating, and recycling bin right next to the trash can, it has a relaxing neighborhood feel that attracts customers beyond the mystic set. There are coffee and espresso drinks for the readers. Tea comes to the table in a strainer, with a treat such as a pair of malted-milk balls on the side.

Winkowski sees the irony in Chicago-style vegetarian cooking–meat’s been part of our image since the stockyards. But he wants to change the city’s dining habits. And he thinks he knows how to start. For months he’s been trying to persuade Mike Ditka to try Lake Side’s stuffed pizza, which has a nicely chewy crust but goes down lighter than the meat-and-cheese bombs at Uno and is called–what else–the Ditka. But Ditka’s been busy running his steak house, promoting arena football, and hawking his new book, In Life, First You Kick Ass.

“I plan on converting Mike to vegetarianism by July,” Winkowski says. “I’d like to get him to Rogers Park, take him to the Hare Krishna temple. That would blow his outlook on life.”

But maybe vegetarianism isn’t inconsistent with kicking ass. Winkowski, who says he used to be a “wiry skateboarder,” started lifting weights because he didn’t want to look like a weedy hippie. Now his tattooed arms strain against the sleeves of his fitted button-down shirts.

“I started working out because I wasn’t going to settle for a mediocre diet,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are satisfied eating rice and starches and reading poetry. There’s this stereotype of mellow, acoustic-guitar-playing vegetarians. I thought we were getting away from that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Edward McClelland.