“I always thought ‘Oh, I could never be vegan. I love cheese!’ ” laughs Mun Wong, owner of Alice and Friends Vegan Kitchen, the low-fi, Michelin-adored eatery in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.
Alice & Friends was originally founded in 2001 by Alice Lee. Known by many for the same nourishing, Asian-inspired dishes that are served today, Alice & Friends was esteemed by Chicago vegans in the early aughts. Throughout the years, the uptown restaurant underwent a few changes but kept one faithful customer cum owner: Mun Wong.
Mun always loved the restaurant’s über-healthy comfort food. Around the time her enthusiasm for the vegan diet piqued, Alice Lee announced that she was selling. In her 70s at the time, she was hoping to pass Alice & Friends to the next generation of plant-based trailblazers. The timing was perfect. Although Mun had no previous restaurant experience, she bought Alice & Friends, and armed with a faithful, talented team, has continued to nourish and cultivate a vibrant following since 2015.
Mun kept the original name, Alice & Friends, because of its long history and positive memory within the community. She also liked the association with Alice in Wonderland.
“I always wanted to have a place . . . whether a restaurant, a grocery-store, or supermarket, where I wouldn’t have to check the ingredients. I didn’t want to worry about quality or cross-contamination. To me, knowing the ingredients are 100% vegan is a wonderland for me, and I can just indulge.”
Like the Lewis Carroll adventure story, Mun’s Alice has a devoted following.
I want the restaurant to be a wonderland for vegans or customers who want to become vegan. People always think that this diet is like eating a dull, very boring, salad. We want to change that perception.
Mun has been a vegan for the last three years and a vegetarian for 10 years prior. She grew up eating traditional Burmese food prepared by her mother. After a friend lent her a DVD about the effect of factory farming and animal agriculture, she changed her diet. Her parents thought she would be missing vital nutrients—which wasn’t the case—but what Mun did miss was her mother’s special, Burmese noodle salad.
“I suppose I ought to eat or drink something or other; but the great question is ‘What?’” — Alice in Wonderland, from Chapter 4
Eventually, the time came to remedy the situation. Using mock meats imported from Taiwan, Mun and the team went to work “veganizing” her mom’s original recipe. They substituted the animal-based ingredients for plant-based ones. The restaurant also recreated another popular Malaysian dish, Laksa, by substituting the seafood component with vegan shrimp.
“We can veganize the food that we want to eat. One day, we hope we can veganize the world!”
The team of chefs at Alice & Friends is incredibly diverse. They hail from all corners of the world, from Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the United States. Like a microcosm of the macrocosm, the “Friends” part of Alice & Friends is “kind of like this world, very diverse. It should be this way.” The menu takes inspiration from this diversity as well as from their loyal fans. Recently, a customer suggested the restaurant add vegan Crab Rangoon to the menu. So, they did. Their approach to food is this: “It’s not like we can’t live without meat. Everything can be veganized.”
Mun enjoys making delicious food accessible for vegans, herself included. Today, her favorite dish at the restaurant is the Dol Sot Bi Bim Bab, or Korean rice bowl. Here’s the description: smoked tofu, mung bean sprouts, spinach, zucchini, carrot, sliced mushroom, brown rice in a hot stone bowl, served with house soy sauce or gochujang.
“This world, this restaurant has a lot of diversity. We have a cook from Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, Malaysia. We have a local American cook as well. It’s a very diverse team. I think it’s kind of like this world. It’s very diverse. It should be this way.”
Meet Mun Wong and celebrity chef Ruby on February 23, 2019, from 1 – 2:30 PM. Mun will give a talk about her adventures with Alice & Friends while Ruby demonstrates how to make the restaurant’s famous Chow Mein and Burmese Noodle Salad (to be held at the Science of Spirituality International Meditation Center in Lisle, IL). Tastings will be served. RSVP here.
– Kait Forsythe for the Veggie Fest Team!