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Product Reviews

Upton's Breakroom ready-to-eat products

Product Review:
Upton's Breakroom grab & go products
by John and Justice Beske

One morning last week, the always energetic Nicole Sopko dashed over to our house between her four jobs: the owner/director of both the Maha Dharma Yoga Center in Chicago, and the Yoga Trek Center in nearby Oak Park, as well as the sturdy right arm of her business and life partner, Dan Staackmann, the creator of the amazing line of seitan-based products, Upton's Naturals, and their cozy new vegan cafe, Upton's Breakroom.

During her short, breathless time with us, she handed us a large box containing, among other things, the whole new line of ready-to-eat Upton’s products. Upton’s has been a mainstay of the ready-to-eat section of our local Whole Foods Market for years, and on more than a few occasions I have grabbed a Jerk Wrap or Chicken Salad Sandwich as a quick meal between errands.

This is something altogether new, though. They have rolled out a well-conceived line of nine products, some familiar and some quite innovative under the banner of their stylish and friendly Ukrainian Village café Upton’s Breakroom. They have tidied up all the packaging with their stylish Wild Wild West meets modern industrial graphics, keeping the tops all neat and tidy and relegating all the details to a large sticker that doubles as a package seal in the back.

“Oh, by the way,” Nicole called as she sprinted off to her next task, “This all will stay fresh for about five days. Have fun!”

Nine Upton’s meals in five days, when Marla is gluten-intolerant (apologies to all of our gluten-free friends, but there is not a lot for you here), and I’m trying to shed off a few extra winter pounds before beach season. I called for backup in the form of our 11-year-old vegan-from-birth son, Justice. There was a lot to do. It was time to get snackin’.

The Leftover

I had to begin with one of the most original and fun sandwiches I’ve ever seen in made into a carryout product. The Leftover is like going to the refrigerator on the day after Thanksgiving, pulling out the best parts of yesterday’s vegan feast and piling them all into a soft Ciabatta roll.  Yes, there’s turkey style seitan, stuffing, gravy and even some cranberry sauce to liven it up a bit. It all fits together perfectly, and genuinely tastes like a Thanksgiving meal in a bun.

Before I dug into the Buffalo Bowl, I had to do a little research. I’ve been vegan since before the whole Buffalo wings craze took off, so I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to eat them. They come with a small container of dairy-free Ranch dressing, but also with some small carrots and celery pieces, which taste great with the creamy dressing. The seitan wings themselves, which fortunately don’t try to look too much like an actual chicken wing, are small, but remarkably dense and meaty, spiced with a bright cayenne flavor that packed a little more of a punch than I expected. Apparently, they are meant to be dipped in the ranch dressing as well. I tried them both ways, but I really loved how the heat of the cayenne played of the cool creaminess of the dressing. The bowl also comes with some wonderful mashed potatoes that contain bits of the potato skin and bits of onions. This completely filled me up for lunch.

The BBQ Bowl features the popular soul food trifecta of mac & cheese, cooked greens and barbequed seitan (I’m guessing that the non-vegan soul food world uses barbequed beef or pork, but I’ve never been there). Compared to Chicago’s best-known vegan soul food (like Original Soul Vegetarian or Soul Vegan) this is a bit more subtle but still a very delicious experience. The generously proportioned seitan is cooked and seasoned perfectly – the high end of the cayenne spice is still lingering on my tongue as I write (about 15 minutes after I finished lunch). The mac & cheese is a bit more prim, a bit less sloppy/cheesy than I’m used to, with the emphasis more on the seasoned al dente noodles, but still quite delicious. The greens, in this case kale, were cooked to that optimum point where they have that additional flavor that cooking brings but they still retained much of their natural crunchiness. They were seasoned minimally, mostly with caramelized onions, and while at first I was missing some of the savory edge of a lot of cooked greens, by the time I was halfway through I had developed a real fondness for the interplay of flavors between the greens, seitan and mac & cheese, and I was a little wistful when it was all gone.

The Aurora sandwich brings back memories of spicy cotto salami from my German-influenced Minnesota youth (I have to admit, I really enjoyed eating various forms of sausage as a kid, and they were among the few tastes I ever felt cravings for after I quit eating animals). Housed in a rich tomato-ey focaccia roll, these smoky, peppery slices of seitan remind me of foods I haven’t eaten in many decades – except that these are tricked up with olives and chipotle peppers for a rich 21st Century taste experience.

The BBQ Slaw is a full-bodied pile of Upton’s Seitan in a tangy peppery BBQ sauce and tempered (just a tiny bit) with a creamy and crunchy cole slaw. Like a lot of their other sandwiches, the taste of chiles comes to the forefront, which, for me, add more depth and zing to the sandwich, though I could imagine that people who shun spicy food may have a problem with this one.

The Slider is apparently a wink at the famous (some would say notorious) little mini hamburger from White Castle. I’ve only eaten at White Castle once in my life, many years ago when I still ate meat. I was in the middle of a bender with a bunch of college buddies and probably not in much shape to eat. I don’t even remember what I ordered, but I only had one bite before one of my friends squeezed the patty of his chicken sandwich, which turned it into a puddle of grease and a blob of pus-like goo. So needless to say, I am not generally attracted to food that emulates White Castle. Fortunately, the Upton’s Slider bears little resemblance except for the name and the undersized bun. Yes, it is a square hamburger patty (seitan-based, like most of their food), but it’s a lot larger and thicker than the little tiny patty with the holes drilled in it. The Upton’s Slider has a rich onion-ey taste with a bit of a tang from a slice of pickle. (I remember almost nothing of the taste of whatever I ate that long ago fateful night except that it left a disgusting coating on the roof of my mouth).

Justice, who has never eaten meat, and so has no frame of reference for comparison like the Slider, was simply impressed with how substantial it is for the size. “It was a lot smaller than the other sandwiches, but it filled me up just as much.” He was also impressed with the tanginess of the flavor, though he found it to be different than his usual fare, but was unable to pinpoint just how it was different.

Justice’s (narrow) favorite of the Upton’s line is the Bacon Mac. Justice is a mac & cheese aficionado. He once rated the vegan mac & cheese of every restaurant we’ve eaten at in Chicago (you’d be surprised how many places you can buy vegan mac & cheese here). Justice rates this equal to the mac & cheese at the Chicago Diner, which is his favorite of the bunch, so this is pretty high praise indeed: “I particularly like the addition of the seitan bacon, which gives it an extra chewiness and adds a lot of rich flavor.”

Justice is also quite fond of the Dippers, which are several breaded seitan pieces that we suspect are based on Chicken McNuggets, though neither of us has ever tasted the original. “I like the chewiness surrounded by the crunchiness,” he said. They are served with two small sauce containers: one of BBQ sauce and one of ranch dressing. The BBQ sauce was a bit spicy for his young palate, but the ranch dressing gave the Dippers an extra creamy tanginess and added to the fun and flavor of the experience.

He also very much enjoyed the Chicken Salad sandwich, with surprisingly meat-like chunks of seitan chicken in a creamy sauce punctuated with bits of celery and cranberries, all served up in a tasty pretzel roll (okay, he let me have a bite). “The pretzel roll was awesome”, he said.

All in all, this line takes Upton’s to a whole new level. Everything fits together and looks great. They’re using awesome artisan breads, innovative sauces and ingredients, clever pairings, and, of course the incredible Upton’s seitan at the center of it all.

The above products are, unfortunately for most people but lucky for us, only available in the upper Midwestern US at this moment, though they are working on an expansion.

Of course, Upton’s Naturals five varieties of seitan (traditional, chorizo, Italian, ground and bacon) can be found at finer natural foods stores and supermarkets across North America (and online through VeganEssentials). Marla brought a mac and cheese with their Italian seitan in it to our Chicago Vegan Family Network potluck and it was a big hit. For a complete listings and better food photography visit UptonsNaturals.com. Please support this vegan owned and operated business.

Justice and John with a couple of sliders from Upton's Breakroom

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