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Growing presence and knowledge of vegan food at restaurant convention

The NRA Show (that’s Restaurants, not Rifles) was May 16-19 in Chicago at McCormick Place. To say it is the largest food show in the U.S. would be an understatement.

There are so many vendors at this convention that you could probably find everything you need to open a restaurant in a single visit — from cleaning supplies, to-go bags, knives and chef wear to front-of-house technology, uniforms, plates and stemware.

Not to mention the food.

The food is something you have to experience to believe. Rookies get sick before noon. Why? You can taste anything and everything. Gelato? Hummus? Cheesecake? Burgers? Brats? Waffles? Soup? Steak? Fish? Literally, if you can imagine it, there is probably a sample on the show floor somewhere. Add in copious amounts of espresso, specialty teas, ginger beverages and wine tastings…well, you get the idea.

I’ve been going to this show for years — but the last three as a vegan. I am excited to say that this year there was not only a stronger vegan presence, but that the knowledge base of non-vegan food vendors is really expanding.

There were many strictly vegan companies represented, but there were also many non-vegan vendors who had vegan items and were able to direct you to them and discuss the details of the product. I was impressed. 

There were falafel, hummus and olives to be tasted, which is pretty standard vegan fair. But I saw a huge variety in vegan pre-made soups (no distributor on earth is going to make prepackaged bulk vegan soup unless there is a demand for it) that were very good. Two that stood out were the lemon chickpea soup and the sweet potato black bean chili. Yum. 

It’s always fun to see the latest and greatest in faux products such as mock meats and cheeses. The product base has gotten broader and remarkably accurate in taste and texture.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Daiya cheesecake (frozen food section at limited retailers). It was creamy and didn’t have the odd, lingering back-taste you can sometimes get from too much “mock.”

There was a very cool trend that I was excited to see and taste: nitrogen infused cold coffee. They literally infuse the coffee with nitrogen and it develops a creamier texture and lighter color that had me questioning the staff to make sure there wasn’t dairy involved. I am now officially a huge fan of nitro coffee.

Many of the side dishes were very clearly labeled vegan. It is exciting to see them recognizing it as a food choice independent and different from vegetarian.

There were condiments, chips, big brands, little brands. It was a great day. Enjoy Life, Gardein, Daiya, Hail Merry, the list goes on and their offerings are diverse and delicious.

For me, the biggest win was finding the same vegan ice cream they carry at Babe’s in Milwaukee. Holy. Moly. I cannot describe in words how creamy and rich the butter pecan is, which is shockingly soy based. Or my swooning over the carrot and mango sorbet. Yes, carrots and mango. It was so good that when we wrapped up our day, we made sure to walk past that booth and enjoy another bowl on our way out.

For more tips and tales of dining vegan in Michiana (and beyond) from Crystal Hallwood and her fellow meatless maven Rama Ganesan, subscribe to the Vegan at the Bend email newsletter.

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