Tucked away near the corner of Kedzie and Fullerton Avenues behind dark, marron curtains, Casa Yari (3268 W. Fullerton Ave.) is a cozy, innovative restaurant that serves Puerto Rican and Honduran cuisine with vegan, vegetarian and gluten/allergen-free options.
Casa Yari is anything but traditional. In fact Chef and Owner Yari Vargas hates the word traditional.
“For something to be traditional, it has to come from the country of origin,” Vargas said. “Everything is imported.”
This is why Casa Yari is named after the owner. “It’s my house and I cook the food how I have interpreted it,” she said. “I want customers to be exposed to healthier options.”
Casa Yari serves extremely flavorful, down to earth cuisine that feels like you’re eating in someone’s home kitchen that caters to all diets. The community voted it the Best Restaurant in Logan Square for our 2018 Best Of awards. It was also voted as having the top 20 best desserts in Chicago in 2016 and in 2017, Chicago’s Best covered the flan with a video. Vargas’ background is also as a pastry chef; making flan and bread pudding is a way of flexing that culinary muscle.
Casa Yari has over 45 different flavors of flan and 15 are vegan. Making vegan flan is quite a challenge that took two years for Vargas to perfect. There are also many meat eaters who are lactose-intolerant who can eat Casa Yari’s flan, she noted.
Chef Vargas on her Vegetarian and Vegan Inspiration
While Casa Yari has been around for just five years, Vargas immersed herself in creating vegetarian and vegan options three years ago. She has been primarily driven to vegan and vegetarian cuisine through her family. Her father suffers from coronary heart disease and her mother is lactose intolerant with high blood pressure. Both of her parents have adopted plant-based diets and have seen positive, healthier results.
“It’s definitely what you eat. My parents are a living testament of that. Your body is a temple,“ Vargas said.
When her daughter was just three years old, Vargas’ daughter decided to become a vegetarian. Vargas heard about her daughter’ frustration being relegated to the salad or potatoes. Vargas took this challenge on eagerly and learned how to make hearty and flavorful vegan and vegetarian options.
Later, she made a pact to go vegan for 30 days, which turned into five months because she wanted to understand what it really means to be vegan. This experience helped her become more creative as a chef and culinary artist.
Come here with an open mind; don’t come expecting anything specifically—just come here hungry.Yari Vargas on first-time Casa Yari diners
“A lot of chefs get mad when there is someone who is gluten-free, pescatarian, vegan, etc. I was always the one to do something for them,” she said. “There are some chefs who lack ideas and creativity. It’s called culinary arts for a reason—if you have no creativity, you have no business being in the culinary world. For me it’s been fun,” said Vargas.
She has reflected on her experience with chefs who like to stick to what they know: butter, bacon, and cheese. But everything doesn’t have to have bacon and butter for it to be delicious and that’s what Vargas wants to demonstrate to the community.
“We’re living in a time where we have to be careful what we’re eating and consuming. I want to be able to help that and not be part of that problem,” Vargas said. “One way I help is by converting meat dishes into vegan dishes and provide healthier options. I do whatever I can do to evolve the recipe—my brain doesn’t stop.”
Puerto Rican and Honduran Fusion
Vargas has been a chef for 19 years but didn’t go to culinary school. Her expertise came from her passion for cooking ever since she was a child; she would cook with and for her family often. For Vargas, food is intimately connected to family. Her culinary expertise was inspired from her Honduran and Puerto Rican background.
Honduran cuisine tends to be more seafood and plant-based whereas Puerto Rican cuisine is more pork-based. Puerto Rican cuisine can be challenging to cook vegan especially because it has changed over the years into fatty, fast food, according to Vargas.
She thinks most people are not familiar with Central American food, and she wants to expand people’s culinary experiences.
“I want to stay here to continue my family traditions and show my roots through cooking so people can see that we’re still here,” she said. “Food is one of the biggest cultures that we can maintain. It’s my duty to keep my culture alive through food.”
Healthy, Plant-Based Options from Chef Vargas
While Puerto Rican and Honduran cuisines might have different proteins, they use similar ingredients like Plantains. The Mofongo (a tight ball of mashed plantains with green beans, garlic, and other vegetables), for example, is Puerto Rican but shares many similarities with the Honduran Machuca (mashed sweet and green plantains served in a seafood coconut sauce) but each of these dishes are prepared differently from one another.
Vargas also makes meals that people have forgotten, such as the Pastelón: a Caribbean lasagna made with sweet plantains that is gluten-free and can also be made vegan and vegetarian. Every time there is a special, there is always a vegan/vegetarian option. For example, when they have their Arroz con Pollo special, there is an option with jackfruit instead of chicken. Additionally, every third week of the month, Vargas adds something new to the menu and always provides a vegan/vegetarian option.
Not only is there a commitment to offering both V options, but health is part of the package. Many of her dishes are made with healthier oils such as avocado or coconut oil. Vargas also makes her own seitan from scratch, which has taken years to perfect. She offers many vegetarian proteins such as seitan, jackfruit, eggplant, tofu, and hearts of palm.
“I go more for the texture—texture is very important with food. When you’re eating something it’s very important to make sure everything goes well together,” Vargas said.
Vargas also discovered through her restaurant that there are a lot of vegan Puerto Ricans who do not feel like they have a lot of options in the neighborhood but are able to truly feel included at her restaurant.
“Food reminds me of family; I cook for everybody, that’s who I serve. Most of my customers have become vegan because they started coming to eat with people who are vegan and they were curious so they learned how to be vegan,” she said. But, she added that she does not want to make Casa Yari exclusively vegan/vegetarian so it can truly accommodate everyone.
A Changing Community
When contemplating the gentrification that has happened in Logan Square, especially over the past five years, Vargas feels bittersweet. She is originally from the Humboldt Park/Logan Square border and now notices the neighborhood’s popularity in increasing vegan and vegetarian restaurants, partly due to the changing demographics.
“Part of me wishes that a lot of the people I grew up with were still here since they can no longer afford to live here but then part of me is okay with the progress because we have to evolve,” Vargas said.
She thinks fear of a community changing is not good, but nor is losing cultural practices like cooking. But growth is important, she acknowledged, and evolution is natural.
Part of me wishes that a lot of the people I grew up with were still here since they can no longer afford to live here but then part of me is okay with the progress because we have to evolve.”Yari Vargas, owner/chef of Casa Yari
“I want to evolve my food. I still want the seasonings and traditions. We can’t settle for less,” Vargas said. “It’s okay to want more. We just have to be careful how we do it. If you’re not willing to grow, you’ll die.”
What’s Next for Chef Vargas
Vargas collaborates with Chicago Vegan Test Kitchen and caters for Chicago universities and vegan communities during the holidays. Vargas hopes to eventually open her own catering company so she can distribute her flan (including the vegan ones) to restaurants. She also plans on writing a cookbook in the future.
With her high energy to keep growing, her dedication to the community and the ideas constantly bubbling for the future, it is evident that Vargas and Casa Yari will never become stagnant. If you haven’t been to Casa Yari, Chef Vargas has some advice for you.
“Give it a try. Come here with an open mind; don’t come expecting anything specifically—just come here hungry,” she said with a laugh.
Want to get up close and personal with the food? Read our review of my Casa Yari dining experience here.
Featured photo: Churrasco from Casa Yari. Photo: Shanti Chu