Amitabul Restaurant Offers Vegan Fare for Health
“In Buddhism, everyone is a Buddha,” says Chef Bill Choi, owner of Amitabul Restaurant in Chicago. “I am a happy Buddha, trying to live in this moment. I try to connect to my customers through happiness.”
And happy they are. Amitabul has been serving up healthful “Buddhist Vegan Cuisine ” for more than 15 years, drawing customers from as far away as Madison, Wisconsin, to get their fill of Buddhist vegan fare. The extensive menu is filled with intriguing dishes with names such as “Buddha’s 3 Luck,” “Green and Greener Nirvana” and “Tibetan High Noon” (the latter is described as “excellent tasting noodles tumbled all over with special Asian veggies that will kick you higher of [sic ] High Noon in your inner heart” ). Choi also specializes in body-warming soups, such as “9 Ways to Nirvana Noodle” and his personal favorite, “Dr. K’s Cure All Noodle Soup”—all brimming with a variety of organic veggies, seaweeds and homemade tofu and misos.
Choi grew up in Seoul, South Korea, and was raised on a traditional, largely plant-based diet. He learned the family recipes from his mother, and developed a lifelong love of cooking as he worked to create new dishes and practice preparation techniques.
After moving to the U.S., Choi and his brother, Chef Dave, joined some of their relatives at the family-owned Jim’s Grill, a diner on Irving Park Road in Chicago. The brothers gradually introduced a mostly vegan menu and, in 1995, opened their own all-vegan restaurant on Southport Avenue in Chicago. They named it “Amitabul,” after the Korean word for “awakening.” The two became known for serving healthful foods based on their family’s recipes combined with Buddhist philosophies of cooking. A few years later, the Choi brothers moved Amitabul to its present location at 6207 North Milwaukee Avenue on Chicago’s far northwest side.
Why vegan? Choi explains that he started noticing the types of food most people ate—high-fat, animal-based meals—and realized their diet was making them sick. “Being Buddhist, we practice not eating any animal products,” he explains. “I got into running a healthy vegan restaurant to serve and educate.” He says they cook with all-natural, organic ingredients, no animal products, and lots of flavor and spice. Meals are prepared completely by hand and without food processing equipment. This extra step “puts a great amount of good energy into the food,” explains Choi. “Knowing that much energy and effort went into your food gives you a healthier and tastier meal.”
Choi says Amitabul’s specialties are “natural healing foods to live a healthy life.” Aged soy and spicy brown rice misos based on family recipes are fermented by hand, as are tofu, spicy kimchee and pickled garlic. Even the noodles are homemade. A variety of traditional Korean healing teas, including citron, ginger and date, are made fresh on the premises. Choi is also known for creating dishes not listed on the menu for guests who want something different.
Each morning, Choi prepares his sauces, chops veggies and readies the kitchen. When diners arrive, he welcomes everyone with a warm smile. He seats them at one of the many booths or tables in the small restaurant, guides them through the extensive menu, takes meal orders and watches over his guests. His main concern, he says, is “to make sure everyone is satisfied, having a good meal and is happy. Many customers are here all the time. Some view us more like their second dining room.”
Amitabul also is well-known for feeding people recovering from serious illnesses. In addition, Choi offers a monthly take-home food program that includes one to three meals per day, intended for those who want to lose weight and live healthier lives. A three-day “fiber fast” detox program is also available.
Choi says he gets great satisfaction from educating people about the benefits of a healthful vegan diet and offering fresh foods to help them live better. “Our foods have great flavors, not like many typical no-flavor [restaurant] vegetable foods,” he says. “It is not just for vegans; it is food for all people. Once they try our food and know the way it tastes, they will like vegan food. In another five years, there is going to be a big change in the way people eat and think. “
Amitabul, 6207 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago 60646. Closed Sundays and Mondays so Choi and his staff can enjoy time with their families. 773-774-0276. For more information and to see the full menu, visit AmitabulVegan.com.