Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tempeh Reuben, The Plant Cafe, San Francisco, CA

Though the Plant Cafe is perhaps most famous in veg circles for their house-made Plant Burger, I'd heard good things about their Reuben as well. At 9 bucks, the Reuben is easy to veganize (they just leave off the cheese).

My first impression was that the sandwich was light yet creamy at the same time--like a toned down version of the hearty, messy, unapologetic reuben, rather the tempeh reuben you would serve at tea. Definitely not very messy, and the portions weren't very large, but I thought the flavor balance was good. I found the sandwich had a surprising hint of olive flavor---maybe it was the kraut or they use olive oil in the vegan Thousand Islands. The sandwich was a light caraway rye, crunchy and warm. The side salad was generous and the complementary "pickle" was actually some slices of cucumber that I assume they brine in the store, nestled atop the salad. They tasted of dill and were not bad at all. The tempeh was understated, not bland but not memorable.

B. was not impressed. He said he would give it a 2.5. He found the sandwich too dry and observed that the kraut was not evenly distributed. He also didn't like the addition of a slice of tomato, commenting that it dominated the sandwich. I didn't mind the tomato, or the lettuce, but again, the effect was a sandwich pretty different than what we've come to expect. I think we both liked the Plant Burger better.

The Plant Cafe is a pretty nice dining option for the Financial District, if you don't mind the expense. The menu is extensive, very vegetarian and vegan-friendly, and the staff are warm and cheerful. The food is consistently fresh and flavorful (and I think all organic). Next time I'll go for one of their salads or bowls, though.

The Plant Cafe
101 California Street (actually at the corner of Pine and Front)

The Cafe is only open for lunch (and is often crowded, though service is quick). There is also a Plant Cafe restaurant on the Embarcadero which is open later.

Friday, July 30, 2010

TRUEBEN: Homegrown Smoker Food Cart

The Third Annual Try Vegan Week PDX is coming up in two weeks! What better way to observe it than engaging with the varied, vegan-friendly and much-lauded Portland food cart scene? Consider it a challenge--can you not only try vegan for a week, but try a week's worth of novel food cart creations?

Homegrown Smoker would be the ideal place to start. This cart is a dream come true for the vega-loca-cartavore; most everything seems to be from scratch, including the home-smoked fake meats, the servings are ample and well-priced, and not to mention bursting with flavor and deliciousness. I had almost given up on hounding out another vegan reuben in Portland to review, but on a brief visit early this summer, a post about a reuben special at HGS caught my eye. (Twitter is good for something). HGS serves quite a variety of Southern BBQ and comfort-food type dishes, and I'd been interested in visiting for awhile. Needless to say, this announcement trumped any reluctance I had to journey over to the PSU-region of Southwest Portland.

I could hardly wait to dig in to this unique take on my favorite sandwich, served to me by the owner's own sons. It hits all the right notes---messy, juicy, good temperature and ingredient balance (especially impressive considering it was constructed in a cart), and at 7 dollars, a good deal. 7 bucks is especially a good deal when you take into account the big side (and there's a lot of choices here, no 'salad or fries' but a variety of Southern-styled goodies). By comparison, it's more food than Vita Cafe, at a few dollars less. The bread was good, and we definitely enjoyed the fact that pickles and seared, grilled mixed peppers were snuggled up to the seitan pastrami. My only complaint would be that the meat flavor was a little hidden. The Daiya cheese was creamy and welcome, but I think the HGS-meister uses a Cheddar-like flavor as opposed to the Mozzarella-like flavor--maybe if the milder light cheese was used the smoky meat flavor would come through more.

We give this a 4.5, hats off again to the price, cart-ness, and the home-made smoked gluten pastrami. And let us not forget that this is an all-vegan establishment! I hesitate to rate this the best in PDX, but taking into account the price, novelty and DIY awesomeness, it's definitely tough. I'm a little on the fence--if the flavor was kicked up a bit, the meat made a little bolder, I think I could easily tip over into rating this the best vegan reuben in Portland.

Homegrown Smoker
SW 4th and College

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Vita Cafe, Round 2

A few things seem to have changed at Vita Cafe since our first visit, right at the start of this blog. The restaurant relocated, just across the street, to a slightly more intimate but relatively similar building. The Reuben (available with vegan cheese or regular Swiss, but always with vegan protein and vegan dressing) is now available with house faux turkey, as well as with tempeh. I didn't recall the faux turkey being an option before, and was surprised to note it when perusing the Vita Cafe's menu recently. I felt compelled to return to Vita and review this iteration, especially because we found the tempeh version to be somewhat underwhelming, especially in contrast to the sandwiches we would go on to try for the blog.

The Vita reuben still comes on grilled marble rye, with kraut, vegan Thousand Islands and a vegan cheese that it neither bad nor particularly memorable. It doesn't melt much---clearly Vita has abstained from making the Daiya switch so many Portland restaurants have latched on to. I feel the Vita automatically loses points for having a fairly expensive sandwich (7.50 before veganization, a dollar extra for vegan cheese), that comes with no sides. With the Reuben, they do include some pickle slices nestled next to the sandwich, which other sandwiches there, such as the BLT, do not enjoy.

Though my memory of the tempeh reuben sampled at the Vita Cafe years ago was hazy, the version with faux turkey (basically a mild seitan that doesn't particularly resemble turkey but I guess resembles it just as well as any other sliced meat), was better. Instead of a bland hunk of tempeh you had a somewhat greasy, salty, chewy seitan layer pressed between the kraut, cheese and dressing. Again, the bread fell apart a little, which isn't entirely bad (but again caused B. to comment that he doesn't recommend a marble rye for a reuben). Though I enjoyed the sauce and cheese flavor combo, I would have recommended that this sandwich be a bit meatier (that is, add more seitan!)---both to balance the sandwich and make the price a little more worthwhile.

This version of the Vita Cafe reuben gets a 3.5, compared to the 3 we awarded the tempeh version.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Chicago Diner, Chicago, IL

Yes, finally, the time has come. I know I'm certainly not the first vegan blogger to write about the Radical Reuben at the Chicago Diner. It seems as though every vegan who visits the windy city (at least, every vegan who also happens to write online), is careful to make a stop at this famed restaurant, serving delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine since the 1980s, and almost all of them seem to know to try the Reuben.

Finally, I can get over my jealousy. (Of course, now I'm just jealous of those who live in Chicago and can visit the Diner on a regular basis). This sandwich is certainly special. It's been called the best vegan reuben in existence and even though VegNews published their recipe, replication is not easy, as Upton's seitan, the brand they purportedly use, is not available in stores.

After an evening in Hyde Park, and on our way north to Milwaukee, I had to insist we make a stop. After a 30 minute wait (not bad for what I believe was a Saturday afternoon), we got a booth and I was able to sample not only the famed Radical Reuben, but it's counterpart, specially available for the spring/summer only, the California Reuben.

The California Reuben is similar to the Radical Reuben except that the seitan is marinated and prepared to resemble 'turkey' rather than corned beef or pastrami (being from California, I had to laugh), and instead of kraut the sandwich is topped with a crunchy slaw. I was also somewhat confused when the sandwiches arrived, as with the Radical Reuben the dressing for the sandwich was on the side, whereas with the California Reuben, I suppose it's mixed into the slaw. This led to me demolishing my half of the Radical Reuben without even adding the sauce. What can I say, I was hungry and it was still incredible.

The Chicago Diner has also wisely adopted the popular Daiya cheese on their sandwiches. I am a fan of Daiya in general, but I do feel it has a slightly sweet flavor that now I notice it, can be a little distracting. Not being a big fan of fake cheeses in general, I don't claim to be an expert, but in my limited experience, I do feel Daiya is the best and approve of this choice.

I'll just get the obvious over with and reassure you that yes, the Chicago Diner Radical Reuben is just as mind-blowing as everyone says. I think I was literally speechless after my first couple bites. It is very meat-like, which means that vegans with an aversion to the texture and appearance of meat may be put off by it. But those of us with some nostalgia for this messy, hearty deli sandwich, it hits the spot. (And I am in no way a vegan that 'misses' meat or cheese--not at bit).

That said, the sandwich is very juicy, so the bread got a bit soggy. But over all, the proportions were good, the flavors were perfect, the sandwich was very filling and satisfying...and you even got a nice range of choices on sides.

In case you were wondering, the California Reuben was different -- the seitan didn't just have a different color, but tasted different, too, though it was hard to pinpoint in what way exactly--slightly more 'chickeny' perhaps. It was just as juicy and delectable as the Radical, and the slaw instead of kraut was a nice variation. If you can only choose one, I leave it up to you. You can't really go wrong with either.

All in all, it seems redundant to try to rate it. I understand why this is the best, and I certainly urge another in the area to try it out. Followed by a Temptation soy ice cream shake, no matter how full you are.

The Chicago Diner
The Radical Reuben - Seitan, onions, peppers, sauerkraut, vegan Thousand Island, cheese on marble rye. (May need to specify vegan cheese).
The California Reuben (available Spring-Summer 2010) - Roasted agave mesquite "turkey" seitan with vegan coleslaw and cheese on marble rye.
Both 10 bucks.

Served with one side.

And a pickle!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Adventures in Milwaukee

To celebrate finishing graduate school, I prolonged my journey back to the West Coast with some stops in Illinois and Wisconsin, to visit friends and family. Milwaukee was a pleasant town with a surprising number of intriguing vegan options, including at least three vegan reubens. However, we found that--perhaps in order to deal with the brunch crush familiar to many Stumptowners--various places modified or limited their menus on Saturday afternoon, making the delicious sandwich seem at first unattainable. With my good friend and native A. as back-up, we made a few rounds before finally achieving success in the evening.

With a vegan reuben not really described on the menu (denoted only by a * next to their traditional reuben advertising it could be made vegan for a $1 extra), but lauded by many on Yelp, Comet Cafe seemed to me to be the first choice. Though the menu wasn't very specific, it gave me good reason to believe that the reuben was made with Field Roast, which, while I'd tried this combination before in Seattle, made it more interesting to me than the typical tempeh reuben common about town. Unfortunately, at brunch-o-clock, Comet was our first fail. After waiting half an hour for a table, we were told that they don't serve the Reuben before 3 pm on weekends.

We had just been wandering around Riverwest, a sort of up-and-coming hipster neighborhood, and had stopped in at the Riverwest Co-op to investigate and drool over the number of tasty sounding vegan options on their small cafe and deli menu. After deciding to move on from Comet, we returned there, since we recalled a tempeh TRUEBEN listed under lunch. However, what we didn't recall with such clarity was that this place, too, only served breakfast until much later in the afternoon. With an extremely small kitchen, the cooks were firm on this. Foiled again, we settled for vegan biscuits and gravy and a take on bi-bim-bop, incorporating tofu, that was actually quite satisfying.

Somewhat disappointed but not entirely deterred, we resolved that we could get a tempeh vegan reuben at Beans and Barley, a frequently recommended, veg-friendly spot also part of a market, which was already under consideration for dinner that evening. After a local brewery tour (hey, this is a Portland-based blog after all) and various shenanigans, we showed up at Beans and Barley that evening, a little toasted. Again, there was a lengthy wait---which gave me time to scrutinize the menu. One reason Comet had been first on my list for a reuben despite the numerous folks who pointed me towards Beans and Barley was that the menu at Comet made clear that veganization was straightforward and easy. Clearly vegan-friendly, I anticipated no hurdles with this place, but asked the hostess anyway, since the tempeh reuben listed on the menu clearly included real Swiss cheese. Without batting an eye, and extremely cordial, she assured me that veganizing it would be easy -- just substitute the rye bread for white.


That stopped me in my tracks. Dear readers, you probably know that rye bread is typically vegan. You probably also share my feeling that a reuben is not a reuben if it is not on rye bread. In fact to reprise the definition of a vegan reuben, my standards only include: a vegan protein, sauerkraut, rye bread and a vegan sauce of some sort. I've even been known to accept mustard when vegan Russian or Thousand Islands is not available. But white bread? This could not stand.

Fortunately, A. is very patient and flexible (in case you are wondering, my usual dining companion, B., was busy driving all of our stuff back across the country), and we high-tailed it back to Comet again, full of anticipation.

The place was still crowded, but we avoided a wait and snagged seats at the perfectly comfortable but admittedly dim bar, where we continued to get inebriated and ordered the vegan reuben as well as the vegan gyro.

Man, that is a lot of Field Roast and I have to respect it. The bread was a light caraway rye and probably grilled coated in margarine, as it was quite crunchy and salty. Though B. was not present, he would have appreciated the presence of a pickle spear. The heap of fries was very generous. I found the sauerkraut to be a little sparse, but perhaps that was in contrast to the huge slabs of Field Roast. Despite the excessive grease and salt (or perhaps because?), it was pretty tasty. Admittedly, given the lack of light and the speed at which I wolfed it down, I didn’t notice too much about the sauce (or whether or not there was vegan cheese, which I doubt). A. however, recalls the sauce being “really good” (he also agreed there was possibly too much Field Roast, though it paired well with the rye). All in all, I was quite satisfied, and not to mention pleased that our Milwaukee vegan reuben quest had ultimately been successful. The gyro wasn't bad either, also generously proportioned, though with not quite as high a ratio of the chewy seitan to other ingredients.

Thanks to A. for the phone shot, as my camera was not coming through.

Comet Cafe
1947 N. Farwell, Milwaukee
Veganized reuben (Field Roast with kraut and Reuben sauce on a light caraway rye, fries included). $9.50.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Important news!

For one, I am back in Portland, albeit only for a few weeks. In the process of re-immersing myself in the vegan food culture (that is, acquainting myself with all these new food cart options), I have good news in that I have discovered a new vegan reuben to review, one which sounds quite unique and exciting. Just when I thought I'd exhausted the possibilities here in Stumptown! Look for that in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, you should know that the Radical Reuben at the Chicago Diner will soon be featured on TLC in an episode of Best Food Ever, a new food series narrated by John Goodman. The Radical Reuben has been praised up and down by various vegetarian and vegan outlets--about time the general public got a closer look, too. Don't miss it on Monday, May 24th--check your local listings for the air time.

Til later!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Corned Seitan Reuben

I modified this recipe:

1/2 cup pinto beans, mashed well
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp rice vinegar (didn't have any apple cider vinegar)
1 cup water combined with 2 teaspoons miso to create broth
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp liquid smoke
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp molasses (optional)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
1 1/4 cups vital wheat gluten

Mix the wet ingredients and dry ingredients in separate bowls, then add the wet to the dry, mixing well with your hands.

I used my pressure cooker to cook the seitan. The cooker I purchased in India has a metal insert, essentially two small stacking pans that fit inside the cooker, used to cook dal and rice at the same time. I thought the steel cylinder would be a good stand-in for the foil wrapping called for in the original recipe.

I kneaded the seitan dough then shaped it into a rough ball and plopped it into the cooking container (the lower of the two sections). I added a bay leaf to the steaming water. Instead of steaming for 50 minutes as the original recipe calls for, I pressure cooked it for about 45 minutes.

The unusual, um, texture you see there is the fact that my home-cooked, fork-mashed beans were not quite as well mashed as they could have been.

After cooking the seitan had expanded some, but not a ton, but was nice and firm so I pulled it out and let it sit.

We made the standard dressing of 2 parts vegan mayo, 1 part ketchup (or if like us, you don't use ketchup often enough to have it in the house, use tomato sauce), 1 part mustard, 1 part capers or minced pickle and 1 part minced onion.

B. baked this rye bread from a recipe I found online -- we just happened to have all the ingredients. Pretty good for a first attempt at baking bread (though he's become an expert bagel-baker).

After letting the seitan sit for about 20 minutes, we toasted the bread (the loaves were small, per the recipe, so a sandwich was about the size of a half sandwich), warmed up the kraut on the stove, and assembled!

Over all, I thought the recipe was pretty solid, though not too much different from other steamed seitan recipes I've tried. I like that I now have a method of cooking seitan that doesn't involve using tin foil, and look forward to experimenting to see if I can get a denser, firmer 'meat' by cooking longer. B. thought the cloves were a bit strong, so I might leave those out in the future. I've made steamed seitan before, and can't believe this is the first time I've offered a recipe. It's no Chicago Diner, but not bad, and incredibly easy. We recommend the bread, too!