Heartland Cafe Gets a Heartwarming Local Upgrade

February 24, 2014 at 10:03 am

For more than three decades, Heartland Cafe has served as the heart of Rogers Park, a community hub for wholesome food morning, noon, and night. As timeworn as the cottage-like cafe may be, it’s still got a few tricks up its sleeve, as proven by its recent relaunch with a Midwestern focus under new executive chef Kim Gracen and managing partner Tom Rosenfeld, who just so happens to do double-duty as an organic farmer. Getting away from its previous incarnation, wherein much of the dishes oddly skewed Mexican, Heartland Cafe gets to the heart of Midwestern cookery with a new menu that draws upon local farms throughout the year to supply as much as possible for the restaurant. Under this inspired philosophy, Heartland Cafe has transformed from a restaurant that dictated ingredients based on haphazard menu construction to a restaurant that lets seasonal, local ingredients do the dictating.

buffalo chili
(Buffalo chili)

“Good, organic food should be available to everyone. It shouldn’t be elitist,” explains Rosenfeld, a Rogers Park resident who was all too giddy about the opportunity to come aboard as managing partner when the positioned open up to him. As a longtime fan of Heartland Cafe, Rosenfeld wanted the chance to perpetuate the restaurant’s identity as a neighborhood keystone. The vegetarian had long turned to Heartland as his go-to restaurant for food that was prepared with the customer in mind, rather than have a vegetarian dish contrived as an afterthought. It’s this customer-focused sentiment that enamored Rosenfeld about working with Heartland, and it’s an ideology he shares with Gracen, nee of Chicago Diner. For her, it’s all about the spiritual connection to food, fostering an emotional attachment between herself and the food, and parlaying that to the guests’ experience. As cliche as it sounds, Gracen is a firm believer in cooking with love and this is one place where that is in fact evident; the love for wholesome sourcing, for thoughtful cooking, and for hospitality are all paramount at the heartwarming Heartland Cafe.

(Turkey meatloaf)

That love manifests itself most importantly in the restaurant’s newfound commitment to local sourcing. Much of the core philosophies of Heartland are still the same, such as catering to vegetarians, but rejiggered through a locavore lens. The restaurant lets the ingredients mandate the menu, allowing Midwestern products to shine in all their glory year-round. Along with buffalo from South Dakota, a prominent player on the no-beef menu (the buffalo chili is a little bit of heaven), much of the provisions hale from Rosenfeld’s Earth First Farms in Berrien Center, Michigan. Throughout the year, this includes melons, apples, strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, winter squash, eggplant, cucumbers, tomatillos, and lots more. He recently planted peaches and plums, so expect to sink your teeth into some new stone fruit dishes later this year.

Barnyard sandwich
(Barnyard sandwich)

A key component in Heartland’s refocus on Midwestern cuisine and seasonality is simplicity, so as to let the pristine ingredients truly shine. “It’s the kind of food you’d have on a farm,” Rosenfeld describes, and he would know, describing Heartland’s fare as simple and approachable, with no more than five or six ingredients on a plate. Farm-fresh eggs adjoin puff pastry, spinach, and cheese in a decadent breakfast pie, locally plucked turkeys take center stage in turkey meatloaf and the gluttonous “Barnyard sandwich” striated with bacon and eggs, seasonal vegetables are baked into a gratin with Parmesan and pistachio-basil pesto, and mashed cauliflower and root vegetables masquerade convincingly as mashed potatoes. The menu still caters heavily to vegetarians and those with dietary needs, with 70% of the menu meat-free, 30% of it vegan, and 50% of it gluten-free.

There’s always been a lot of heart at Heartland Cafe, but thanks to its reconfigured focus on local, sustainable, and seasonal sourcing, the Rogers Park mainstay has never felt more heartwarming.

Heartland Cafe 7000 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago, IL (773-465-8005 and http://www.heartlandcafe.com/)