Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An honorary TRUEBEN?

Dots Cafe, a restaurant/kitschy little hipster dive on SE 26th and Clinton, is almost as well known for its food as its black velvet paintings and shockingly dim interior. Often raved about is the "Gentle Ben," a traditional reuben that subs a Gardenburger for the meat. Like the Rachel's Reuben at Goose Hollow, the popularity of this vegetarian sandwich put Dots high on my list of places to visit for this blog.

I had a plan. Dots is also famous for their spicy tofu sauce, most commonly employed in the dipping of fries or veggies, or on their vegan falafel sandwich, the Vegan Vavoom. I would omit the cheese, sub this tofu sauce for the Thousand Islands. Just maybe it could result in a great vegan reuben. However, inquiries revealed that the Gardenburger used by Dots is not of the vegan variety (I think egg whites make this the case). Sure, I guess I could have tried to swap the patty out for something else, maybe the marinated tofu that is available as a side on their menu. But truthfully, I'm already having a love affair with a certain sandwich at Dots. This sandwich is vegan already, is juicy and delectable, and comes on grilled dark rye. It's practically a reuben, right?

I present to you, the Vegan Deluxe!

Yes, I am in love with this simple sandwich, which is hummus, enveloping a slice of tomato, sauteed spinach and mushrooms, on a nice dark rye bread. At $6.50, it's one of the cheaper items on the Dots menu, and one of three or four expressedly vegan options.

I like to think of it as a healthier doppelganger to the TRUEBEN; mushrooms for protein, sumptuous hummus instead of cheese or sauce, and hearty, vitamin-rich spinach instead of pickled cabbage. But I realized I definitely needed a second opinion. B. missed the toothsome texture tempeh or tofu might have given it. Granted, he had just polished off the Vegan Vavoom when I entreated him to take a bite. He said the flavor was good, though he did find it a bit watery with a "spinachy" aftertaste.

But I suspect one reason this sandwich scores so high with me is actually because it defies expectation. Hummus, spinach, mushrooms, tomato...The fillings seem sort of like the makings of a messy disaster. But somehow the bread is still nice and crunchy, the spinach is moist but not runny, and I think the slice of tomato lends a firmness that pulls it all together. Dots typically serves herbed cream cheese and a few crudites and pickles as a garnish, but with the Deluxe you get the tofu dipping sauce for dunking your carrot, celery stick and cucumber slice. Truthfully, I haven't been that impressed with the sauce, and I don't know if it would have been a good sub for Thousand Islands after all. It has a sort of chalky tofu taste and isn't really spicy.

I admit, despite being on grilled rye, and an easy vegan option, I can't really argue that this sandwich is a certifiable TRUEBEN. But it is a sandwich worth mentioning. In fact, I love this sandwich so much I submitted it to the neighborhood rag, the Southeast Examiner, for their Favorite Dish column. Inevitably perhaps, my interview with the newspaper regarding the sandwich ended up covering the fact that I'm vegan, obsessed with reubens, have a low carbon foot print, among other things my neighbors never needed to know about me. I haven't seen the blurb yet but I think it hits your doorstep (if you live in SE PDX) early next month.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Kelp is the cabbage of the sea...

Halfway through my tempeh shiitake and kelp with Oregon mustard rice ball, I realized, "If you had a Portland Vegan Reuben wrapped in rice and nori, this would be it..."

This was my second encounter with Todbott's Triangles, the first time was at at the People's Farmer's Market a week or so ago, where I had the dulse, soy sauce and sweet sesame rice ball. While biking home this afternoon, I recalled that he also sets up at the Eastbank Farmers Market, at SE 20th and Taylor, and just had to make a stop.

Actually, my first real encounter with these lovely rice triangles was a couple months ago, during Lent. I happened to be killing time at the Alberta St. Co-Op and noticed them in the cooler case. I was immediately very excited, as they reminded me of a delicious convenience store snack I used to have in South Korea, where I lived for a year. I was dismayed, though not surprised, to see they contained sugar, a common ingredient in sushi rice, and also the crucial ingredient I had given up for that span of days. A few weeks ago, I found myself in the Alberta St. Co-Op again (yes, I know you think I'm probably an incredible hippie, but I actually don't spend that much time in Co-Ops, I swear), and I looked for the balls, but they were out. So my last couple opportunities to try these savory treats have seemed very fortuitous indeed.

I didn't have my camera, so I couldn't take a picture of this delicious salty, vinegary sushi-Reuben, but really, it has tempeh, mushrooms, and mustard, with kelp standing in for sauerkraut, wrapped up in a tangy starch. If this isn't a rice-ball Reuben, what is? I guess the umeboshi plum rice ball could be a contender, with its pickled contents and onion, if it didn't have honey. I didn't see this tempeh-shitake-mustard-kelp concoction at the People's Farmers Market, so maybe it's an Eastbank special, along with the wild salmon one he was selling today.

Did I mention it was only $2? See Stumptown Vegans for a thorough review.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Other news

I think the broiling hot weather here in Portland this weekend has pushed a toasty, gooey sandwich like a reuben far from my mind. But have no fear -- we'll be back in earnest in the coming weeks. One reason for this is sheer necessity. I am leaving Portland for Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to begin graduate school in early August. I didn't really have this possibility in mind when I began this blog, but now it gives me a bit of a deadline. With a little over two months to go, I think B. and I will have a chance to review every TRUEBEN in Portland, as well as test a few more recipes and veganize a few more non-vegan reubens. But that might mean more frequent posts than usual, so check back often!

Also, if you haven't already, mark your calendars for Try Vegan Week which is June 7 - 14th. I'll be helping out with the vegan happy hour at the Bye and Bye, and actually, I'm hoping to morph it into a vegan food pub crawl. Luckily, this event coincides with Pedalpalooza, which means it becomes the embodiment of everyone's favorite Portland stereotype, the vegan cyclist who partakes in other unhealthy activities, like drinking and smoking (though, for my comfort and yours, most of the places on the route are smoke-free indoors). A portion of the happy hour will take place at the Bye and Bye, but you can opt to jump on your bike (or feet, or bus...) and join us at other vegan-friendly bars before and afterward. Speaking of Try Vegan Week, if you missed it at VegFest last weekend, Papa G's is still selling Temptation soy ice cream as a fundraiser for the event. I highly recommend getting two scoops of the vanilla in a glass and adding a bottle of Virgil's Root Beer from Papa G's drink cooler, as I did earlier this afternoon. Yeah! I've been brainstorming other ways to get involved with the week of vegan outreach, and hope to post some interesting, perhaps non-reuben related yet vegan-themed material to the blog during that stretch.

I also helped arrange another vegan event -- this one doesn't fall during Try Vegan Week, but will be part of Pedalpalooza: the Vegan Baked Goods Ride. If you are free that afternoon, you should check it out! We've put a fair amount of work into scouting good locations all around Portland to stop and sample vegan baked goods. We'll be hitting places that actually bake their own goods there, like Laughing Planet and of course, Sweetpea, as well as coffee shops that provide options from the numerous vegan bakeries in town. Since I won't be able to actually go on the ride, I've been going out of my way to sample many of the vegan baked goods to be had in town on my own. After all, I've only got a couple months left...

Update: I thought I was going to have to miss my own ride, but it turns out the client had to reschedule, so I'll be here for the Vegan Baked Goods Ride on June 24th after all!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

TRUEBEN: Tempeh Reuben at Proper Eats

From the menu: $7.50. Marinated baked tempeh, Dave's Killer Bread, caramelized onions, local kraut, vegan sauce, with a side salad.

I was nearly as excited to try the reuben at Proper Eats in St. John's as I was to revisit the Red and Black reuben last month. If the Red and Black's wasn't the best, in my mind this was probably the reuben to top it. Part of what influenced this was that I'd read somewhere that the reuben at Proper Eats incorporated some kind of pesto aioli, which, though it's far from traditional, seems kind of exciting. Ultimately, I thought the tempeh reuben at Proper Eats had a lot in common with the Red and Black, with a bit of unique spin which I appreciated, but which wasn't quite enough to make it rise to the top.

Like the Red and Black and Veganopolis, Proper Eats feels like a luxury because everything is vegan (though there was one dairy item on the Proper Eats menu...they let you add Tillamook cheese to their burrito for an extra charge). Proper Eats also has raw entrees, which appear similar but not identical to those offered at Blossoming Lotus in Northwest Portland. I'd like to go back some day and try a Mexican-inspired dish -- they had raw fajitas as well as some great sounding nachos and burritos. They did also have a few specials on the board that looked tempting, but were significantly more expensive than the standard menu items. I appreciated the fact they had four good microbrews on tap. If you do go, check their website or call to see if it's some kind of event night, especially if you are going with a large group. I've heard it can be kind of awkward to arrive on Mondays, when they show movies, and they also have a set up for live music. If that's not your thing, checking in advance is probably a good idea. All and all, I found the restaurant, a spacious room in back (the front of the place is a grocery and deli), mellow and peaceful, despite the fact that it was "parade day" in St. John's.

As for the sandwich, it arrived with a small, yet picturesque salad that seemed to include field greens, beets, black sesame seeds and even tiny squares of nori. They have various delicious sounding dressings on the menu; we were served the maple balsamic, which was pretty good. The sandwich was somewhat warm, the bread obviously toasted, but it seemed like at least one of the ingredients, probably the kraut, had come straight from the fridge, so the sandwich was a little inconsistent temperature wise. I didn't find it incredibly off-putting, but B. said he would have preferred the entire sandwich be a room temperature rather than have cold pockets.

The sauce was very similar to the Red and Black's, great flavor and pretty authentic tasting according to my hazy memories. The consistency was a bit runnier, making it more dressing-like, which was good in my book. The slice of tempeh was very mildly seasoned -- more flavorful than the Vita Cafe's, but barely detectable. Otherwise it was good, even a little juicy. And being mildly seasoned meant it wasn't too salty, and it didn't dominate the sandwich. The caramelized onions were a nice touch, but sort of stole the show from the kraut. The kraut almost seemed like a seasoning rather than a component of the sandwich. It added a tartness but was pretty hidden in the onions. This was also a complaint of B.'s. He felt all you could really taste was the onions, tempeh and sauce, and he would have liked a greater variety of flavors. Like past sandwiches, we yearned for more sauerkraut. If and when we return to Proper Eats, we'll probably take the opportunity to try one of their other intriguing menu items, but I would recommend the tempeh reuben to fans of reubens -- it's worth trying at least once, I think.

4 out of 5
Proper Eats

A little hippie gem in North Portland. Somewhat lackadasical service, but our food came fast. Good beer, almost %100 vegan menu. Do your grocery shopping in the front room. Tempeh reuben, $7.50, comes with small side salad.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Veganization: Rachel's Reuben at the Goose Hollow Inn

Perhaps this should be obvious: "the Goose," as this tavern in SW Portland, nestled unassumingly behind PGE Park and the Goose Hollow Max stop, is affectionately referred to, is not really the best place to go if you are vegan and hungry. Go instead for friendly service, a comfy, warm atmosphere with charming wooden table-tops etched with numerous initials, reasonably priced beer on draught, and the significance of the place in local history.

Even though I knew it was a long shot, I wanted to try to veganize the reuben here not just because it's a nice place to hang out for the aforementioned reasons, but because they already have a vegetarian reuben, the "Rachel's Reuben" on the menu. The Rachel's Reuben is sauteed veggies, mostly mushrooms, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Bud's own Reuben sauce, which is so highly prized you can get it with any sandwich as an extra, on a dark rye bread. This is typically served with carrot sticks, potato salad and a pickle, as well as local Beaver brand yellow mustard and horseradish.

Our middle-aged waitress proudly informed me that the Reuben sauce was indeed concocted using real mayonnaise -- which was no surprise. I had expected to rely on the mustard and horseradish that I knew would be brought to the table when my order arrived. I ordered the Rachel's Reuben, no cheese, no sauce, and requested to replace the potato salad with extra carrot sticks, as I figured the salad couldn't possibly be vegan. To her credit, the waitress took my substitutions warmly without batting an eye, though ultimately there was a miscommunication and I was brought simply extra carrots, and still potato salad. But I still feel grateful that they were so willing to substitute and there was no upcharge for the extra carrot sticks. By the way, there is something superb about those carrot sticks -- inexplicably juicy jullienned carrots, and they were very generous with them. If you do order this, just be very clear you want no potato salad at all. They were more than willing to accommodate.

The Goose was packed on this sunny Sunday afternoon. They have fairly ample deck seating as well as numerous booths and tables inside. I was hoping to get deck seating so I could get some nicely lit pictures, but it wasn't in the cards. The food took awhile, which I think isn't standard, but a risk you take with any place that serves toasted or grilled sandwiches. The sandwiches, and I think their pizzas, too, are run through a big version of one of those conveyor belt toaster ovens you may have seen in your college cafeteria. B. ordered the regular Rachel's Reuben, no substitutions or omissions. He probably anticipated the pattern that seems to be forming after all, that veganizing a vegetarian reuben rarely results in something better, at least flavor and composition wise, than what the cook originally intended. Though I should note that, if it seemed relevant, he would have rated the cheesy, saucy, non-vegan reuben lower than vegan reubens we've tried.

It wasn't that the sandwich was bad, or a big let down, it just wasn't really worth the effort. I added mustard and horseradish, but I'm not sure it made any improvement. A fancier mustard, like dijion or stone-ground, would have helped. My sandwich was warm and toasty and easy to eat. It was probably one of the healthier reubens I've had, simply because it was essentially a sauerkraut and veggie sandwich on rye. (B. dispatched the potato salad I had tried to leave off). The sauteed mixture consisted of green onions, mushrooms and green pepper. I wasn't sure how I felt about such a variety of veggies. The sandwich also included a slice of tomato, thinly sliced red onion and green lettuce leaf. The sauerkraut was fine, not very memorable. There was a strange off-taste, maybe the kind of thing you only notice when a sandwich has been stripped of its more flavorful components. I felt it may have been the toaster, like maybe the old school contraption is gas-flame and some of that aroma is imparted to the bread.

Somewhat sadly, I give this sandwich a 2 out of 5. Though I'll say again, the service was great and as a vegan who frequently finds herself trying to tweak menu items, I really appreciate places that let you switch things up or substitute items without giving you attitude or charging you extra (or both). I highly recommend the Goose if you are looking for a cozy, relaxed place to hole up with a pint. But if you're vegan, I wouldn't go for the sandwiches. Though considering the kindness of the ladies there, I would feel no trepidation trying to veganize anything on the menu -- maybe one of their pizzas, without cheese? And according to the menu on their website, they do have one item that is vegan as is -- a sort of vegan chili called "cowboy beans" with salsa and soy protein.

Bud Clark's Goose Hollow Inn Pub

1927 SW Jefferson
Rachel's Reuben, omit the cheese and Reuben sauce, and potato salad side (no fries or chips here, sorry). Also comes with carrot sticks and pickle spear. Waitress that reminds you of your favorite aunt will bring you extra carrot sticks upon request and apologize when your food takes awhile. $7.50.