As a public relations major, I spend the majority of my week at Loyola’s Water Tower Campus, so my options for lunch depend on my willingness to either pack the night before or splurge on meals in the Gold Coast neighborhood. The trouble I often face is that there aren’t many affordable healthy options. I tend to opt for the hot bar at Whole Foods, but after two years, I think I’ve overdone it.
When I heard a few weeks ago that a new fast-casual restaurant was popping up in the Loop — and would resemble Chipotle but with healthier options and an Asian-inspired menu, housemade sauces and entirely vegan and gluten-free products (unless you order steak or chicken) — I knew I had to pop in for lunch.
At Brightwok Kitchen (21 E. Adams St.), a casual restaurant with a modern atmosphere and décor, the menu is comprised of salads, sides, make-your-own stir fry bowls and an array of beverages including the restaurant’s take on a Thai iced coffee ($4). Instead of using sweetened condensed milk, Brightwok uses coconut milk blended with Stumptown cold-brew poured on tap. To match the farm-like aesthetic, the coffee and other selective iced teas are poured into mason jars.
Before I placed my order, I spoke with Jeremy Klaben, Brightwok’s manager and owner, on what the best recommendations were. I decided to take his word and order a salad with local Ohio farm-raised chicken, carrots, zucchini, broccoli and kale over a bed of mixed greens ($9). My favorite part of the salad was the option to either keep the veggies raw or have them sautéed. I did a mix of both for a twist on flavors. Deciding which dressing to pick was the hardest part, but Klaben told me that between the golden cashew miso, tahini ginger and agave citrus, the tahini ginger was the right choice.
He didn’t let me down. For being the Mediterranean food obsessed chickpea I am, I love nothing more than a rich tahini dressing — filled with ground sesame seeds, lemon, garlic and a little olive oil.
To accompany my rather large salad and iced coffee, I tried a side of the “sinful banana chips” ($6) flavored with a Korean barbecue spice rub. As a banana chip junkie, I tried my hardest to resist eating the whole tin by the handful.
With wooden tables lining the side of the restaurant and smaller two-tops in the center, there was plenty of room to accompany the large lunch crowd. I luckily snagged one of the larger wooden tables to have space for the large tray my meal was delivered on.
By the time I sat down, ate my bowl of greens and sipped slowly on my Thai iced coffee, a whole hour had passed and I ended up being the last guest sitting in the restaurant. Klaben made sure I had everything I needed and asked if there was anything else I wanted to taste. Without hesitation, I promised them I’d be back for lunch again within the week. My salad was so delicious that I finished the whole thing. I might have told them more than 50 times how much I loved my order.
When you’re over Chick-Fil-A and sick of everything within a two-block radius of Water Tower Campus, I highly suggest jumping on the Red Line at the Chicago stop, getting off at Monroe and walking over to Brightwok Kitchen. Although its menu is completely peanut-, dairy- and gluten-free, the food definitely doesn’t lack flavor. The sauces are unique, the meats and tofu are local (coming from Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois) and the hospitality is nothing but genuine.
Brightwok Kitchen is open Monday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Food delivery is available on DoorDash as well. You can follow the restaurant on social media at @brightwok.