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One writer's view of Chicago versus California food

In the Midwest, you need a bib to the deep dish pizza and hot dogs with 'the works.' In Marin County, it's vegan soul food and other organic edibles.

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Of course, vegetarianism, or its less strict off shoot pescatarianism (in which eating fish is allowed) lends itself to the whole concept of neat dining. A medley of steamed vegetables or a piece of broiled fish rarely threatens to leave its mark on clothing.

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Yet even ordering a simple piece of fish can cause problems in ecologically aware California. Recently I had dinner with a friend who just returned from a trip to Southeast Asia, sponsored by an organization, Seacology, which monitors threatened fish species. Thus, trying to order dinner with my friend became an exercise in "No." As in, "Is it OK to have the tuna?" "No." "The Chilean sea bass?" "No." "The salmon?" "Definitely not." After five minutes of denial, I was ready, as another friend at the table suggested, to "kill off the species" – any species.

No such worries about endangered fish arise at Marin County's Café Gratitude. This vegan restaurant – one of four in the Bay area – not only serves extremely "neat" food, it believes "our food and people are an expression of our aliveness."

This means that not only are all the dishes made with raw ingredients, each is given a name that reflects the affirmative philosophy of the restaurant. A pecan porridge for breakfast becomes "I Am Bright-Eyed." A marinara pizza is "I Am Passionate." Even a slice of onion sunflower bread receives a designation rarely found on a loaf of Pepperidge Farm, "I Am Fun."

This Deepak Chopra-like menu comes as no surprise to personal trainer Chris Kahn, who has lived in California all his life. "We're easy on people who want to reinvent both themselves and the food they create," he says.

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This is not to say you can't find any of those "old-fashioned" meals in northern California that make Chicago the messy food capital of America. The kind of meal that offers no assurances as to the provenance of the ingredients and contains few of the government's recommended daily nutrients. Mexican food is still, for the most part, authentic.

Once you get past the untraditional burritos, like the curried Punjabi version served at Avatar's in Marin County's Mill Valley, you can still find classic burritos stuffed with juicy strips of carne asada, squishy pinto beans, ripe avocado, sour cream, salsa, and enough hot sauce to stain your eco-organic linen dashiki.

That's the exception, though. More prevalent is the kind of fare you find at the Marin Farmer's Market on Sunday morning, which includes hemp ice cream (surprisingly, it tastes worse than it sounds) or something called vegan soul food – a cuisine as unlikely to be found in Chicago as a mayor not named Daley.

But there is some light at the end of the tofu tunnel. Tyler Florence, celebrity chef and star of the Food Network's "Tyler's Ultimate," recently moved from New York to Marin County. A native of South Carolina, where, like Chicago, they serve their barbecue with bibs and towels, he has brought hope to local lovers of messy cuisine.

Mr. Florence recently won a sandwich contest on the "The Oprah Winfrey Show" by assembling a dish that would make drippy food lovers lick their fingers: pulled pork on a buttered Parker House roll with caramelized onion cranberry jam and melted talleggio cheese.

Start tying on those bibs, Marin.

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