Seitan with Soul

Last January, Yah’s Cuisine became the second vegan restaurant specializing in soul food to open on 75th Street. Located roughly three miles from its well-established predecessor, Soul Vegetarian East, Yah’s may be signaling the setting of a delicious South Side standard. If that be the case, consider me satisfied.

If you had a funky, alternative, yoga-practicing, holistic-remedy-dispensing grandmother from New Orleans, she might feed you something like the food served up at Yah’s. The menu consists of a rotating circuit of $10 daily specials with no separate options, placing one at the mercy of the daily special. While this is typically a risky affair, in this case it’s your funky vegan grandma in the kitchen, making a meal that emerges comforting, inexplicably smooth and animal product-free.
Friday’s daily special was a mishmash of sides foregrounding “BBQ Nuggets,” a seitan-based meat alternative glazed lightly in barbeque sauce. With a tender, meaty texture, the BBQ nuggets were a hit among my cohorts, not one of whom was vegan. Eggplant lasagna served as another locus of the meal, and the delightfully creamy, not-quite-cheesy top layer left me wondering what mysterious alchemy had been performed in the kitchen. The complements to the dishes brought us back to the realm of the familiar. A generous bowl of subtly flavorful garlic lentil stew, the “mushroom patty,” a doughy pastry stuffed with diced, marinated mushrooms that suffers only from its cafeteria-style name, and a rather ordinary vegetable kebab. The confusing array of well-prepared sides gave the meal the feeling of a Thanksgiving feast, and although barbeque and lasagna are not typical brethren, we all ate with a potluck-inspired enthusiasm. A blueberry “cheesecake,” which a friend accurately described as “weird but good,” followed the dinner. While surprisingly similar to the real thing in taste, the dry texture of the cake ultimately undermined its $5 price tag.

The not-quite-thematic state of the meal was consistent with the rest of the experience. Glasses and plastic cups alike crowded onto the table with a variety of colorful dishware. Silverware came wrapped adorably in a bit of paper towel. Consistency in the menu was similarly ambivalent, with the veggie kebab replacing grilled broccoli in our day’s special. True to its Southern roots, the service was sweet but meandering. Plates generally emerged from the kitchen one at a time in temporally unsystematic shifts, and when our group ballooned from three to seven, water was hard to come by.

Although occasionally frustrating, Yah’s easy-going approach ultimately paid off. In addition to their daily specials, the restaurant cooks up a number of other sides that can be freely substituted at no extra charge. And while the restaurant purports to close at 8pm, my group arrived ten minutes before the hour and things were just heating up. A live blues band had even crowded into the room, playing well past 8 o’clock and on into the next hour. If relaxed service is a take-it-or-leave-it condition of a Yah’s visit, the benefits still outweigh the negatives. Yah’s Cuisine provides the “comfort vegan soul food” it claims on the menu, with double the comfort.
Yah’s Cuisine, 2347 E. 75th Street. Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-8pm. All items under $10. (773) 382-1742.