Vegetarian Mexican food is something of an anomaly, right up there with flying pigs and Bat Boy. Which is why the cuisine at El Faro, Little Village’s only expressly vegetarian-oriented Mexican restaurant, is as much an experience as a meal. The experience begins upon walking through the door and absorbing the dÃ©cor, which draws its inspiration as much from the waiting room of a dentist’s office as from the typical fast food restaurant. A plethora of fake plants are situated on booth dividers and in corners, and the Pepto Bismol-pink of the walls recall the heyday of ‘80s interior design.
Rather than the standard reception of tortilla chips, El Faro changes things up a bit with curtido, a mix of pickled carrots, onions, and jalapeÃ±o peppers. Aside from the few minutes of struggle between the first taste and the arrival of the water I asked for, the curtido was pleasantly sharp and vinegary. Sensing its slow disappearance, however, our waitress brought a new starter of chips and a hearty serving of guacamole, which quickly won the approval of everyone at the table.
Unfortunately, El Faro falls into one of the main pitfalls of those who try to accommodate vegetarians–they never venture beyond soy for their meat alternatives, meaning almost every vegetarian option is just a new style of textured soy product. That said, El Faro knows what it’s doing when it breaks out the soy. The taco de soya chorizo, strongly and evenly flavored, ranks at the top of the veggie taco options, with the taco de soya pollo coming in at a close second. While the prices for the taco options are mind-blowingly cheap (under $2 a pop), keep in mind that they are also completely spare: each taco consists of the corn tortilla and seasoned soy, but nothing else.
Having never tried cactus, I settled on the nopalitos guisados for an entrÃ©e. As it turns out, I don’t like cactus. Served alongside black beans and rice, the thins slivers were peppery and slimy–vaguely reminiscent of the curtido, minus the jalapeÃ±o sting.
A friend’s torta veggie cubana was surprisingly good, and showcased fake meat as far as it can go before winning a place on thisiswhyyourefat.com, with three different soy variations, a fried egg, and mayonnaise (the dish also claims to feature beans, but we were hard-pressed to find them). Alternatively, the queso panela a la parilla is a comfortingly simple cheese sandwich, if the soy options become overwhelming.
While the menu offers up the vegetarian options as something of an equivalent to its standard meat options, no one in my group ventured into those pages, taken as we were by the many soy concoctions. Still, the beverage page garnered attention with its many jugos frescos, or fresh juices. Seduced by the Jugo de Hercules, a juice blend of five vegetables (celery being a prominent one), I drank with caution at first; the taste, intense and sugarless, was difficult to get used to. Maybe it was the placebo effect, but before long I was steadily sipping away, feeling infused with health.
The dessert options were as hit-and-miss as the entrÃ©es, with dry and cookie-like caramel empanadas that only hinted of caramel on the one hand, and “Faro cake,” a lovely joining of chocolate and custard, on the other.
While El Faro does what it can to mollify the vegetarian community, a meat-abstaining foodie would find better results at a place like Soul Vegetarian on 75th Street or the Chicago Diner in Lakeview. El Faro’s cuisine is more of an unsuspecting vegetarian’s delightful surprise upon being dragged out for Mexican by omnivorous friends, or a place to go when only Mexican-style textured soy will do.
El Faro, 3936 W. 31st St. Monday-Friday, 5am-10pm; Saturday, 5am-11pm; Sunday, 7am-10pm. All entrÃ©es under $10. (773)277-1155. elfarorestaurant.com