Ever heard of jackfruit? The massive, spiny-shelled fruit that packs a nutritional wallop—and distinctly musky aroma—only just came to U.S. shores. Chicago’s own Upton’s Naturals seitan factory launched the first seasoned, ready-to-eat version here last spring. Now it’s giving jackfruit the pulled pork treatment at its adjacent vegan café, Upton’s Breakroom (2054 W. Grand Ave., West Town, 312-666-7838).
Longtime vegans Dan Staackmann and Nicole Sopko opened the eight-seat Upton’s Breakroom three years ago to feed the underserved vegan-to-go crowd. They offer clever plant-based sandwiches and comfort dishes like seitan bacon mac and cheese. Now they’re looking to take jackfruit mainstream.
“We’ve tried for many years to figure out a way to get [jackfruit] here,” says Staackmann, who founded Upton’s Naturals 10 years ago.
A tropical fruit, jackfruit does grow in parts of Florida, though most farmers here wait till it’s mature to harvest. Upton’s partnered with a factory in Thailand that cooks, packages, and ships the immature fruit to Upton’s.
“When it’s young it has a very neutral flavor and texture similar to pulled pork or shredded poultry,” Staackmann says. “It’s been used as a meat alternative for thousands of years in India and Southeast Asia. We took that and added western flavors to it.”
Said western-leaning dishes include a BBQ jackfruit sandwich with slaw and al pastor (chipotle and pineapple marinated) jackfruit nachos and tacos.
The café doubles as a focus group for the manufacturing side, which also churns out bricks of seitan for nationwide distribution.
“We test things with customers to see how they are received and liked before going into a big [product] launch,” Staackmann says. Jackfruit al pastor is one such example that could eventually be manufactured, “but for right now, it’s just in the café,” he adds.