Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Help for the shy vegan

For some, the hardest thing about trying to be vegan is not giving up certain foods per se, but the hassle of having to inquire about the ingredients in a dish when eating out. B. reminded me of this last night as we were chatting about his attempts to eat vegan at fast food chains, which make up the bulk of the lunch options near his work. I personally find it a luxury to dine at all-vegan joints in Portland, because I greatly dislike having to pick a server's brain about what's in their bread or salad dressing, or wonder if they really know what they are talking about, or care. I even had an experience at a restaurant in Portland where I ordered something clearly marked the "Vegan Scramble" but at the end, after sending the server back many times with questions, I still wasn't sure if that had been real butter on my toast or not. Many of us have heard unpleasant tales of people being assured a dish is vegan and then discovering evidence to the contrary.

I think new vegans may be even more reluctant and self-conscious about bugging the help about what's in their food. To help them avoid this, I thought it would be nice to compile a list of recommended restaurants in Portland where vegans can dine worry-free, without feeling like a pest.

Since this is intended for new vegans, I think this list should favor restaurants that are perhaps less adventurous -- some new vegans may like meat or cheese analogs, but some may find it a sorry substitute, or still haven't established comfortable relationships with tofu, nutritional yeast and rubbery, otherworldly-looking seitan from Taiwan.

I started making this list then realized it was getting too long -- lucky Portlanders! So instead I decided to divide it into categories. These categories reflect my limited knowledge. I'm sure there are great Middle-Eastern and Indian restaurants in towns that cater to vegans, but I don't know too much about them. As always, you can check out local resources Stumptown Vegans and VeganFabulous in the right hand link sidebar -- they also have reviews of most of the places on this list. Of course there are numerous vegan dining guides online, but I think it's nice to hear some first hand anecdotes. These restaurants are either all-vegan or make it easy to veganize.

Mexican

Los Gorditos is, of course, the king of vegan Mexican food in Portland. I had the greatest of luck to visit them for the first time when they were having a Cinco de Mayo celebration with free food, so I was able to sample a variety of items. Their tofu is delicious, and doesn't really taste like tofu. God, everything is delicious. They use Soyrizo in a variety of dishes, but despite the fact that Soyrizo is a pricey fake meat, you don't feel the burn on your wallet (only in your mouth!). It's a good place whether you want to go the fake meat route or just get some traditional beans and rice -- at taco truck prices (did I mention it's a taco truck?). They also have vegetarian and meat options, but I think I heard that Sundays are all vegan. They are located at 50th and SE Division, and keep pretty good hours, though we were disappointed to try them twice on a Saturday, only to arrive too early, before they opened at 11:30, and then too late, around 7 pm. Honorable mention goes to Ole Ole, with various locations around town, because their veggie burrito is dirt cheap and vegan if you leave off the cheese and guacamole. And it's like three meals. Cha Cha Cha also has a decent vegetable burrito. If you are super worried about cross contamination, I would probably stick with Los Gorditos. They are super nice and obviously conscientious of their vegan patrons.

Soup, Salad and Sandwich

Most of these places go above and beyond this category, but I had to find some way to organize. The Red and Black Cafe has a 100% vegan menu, reasonable prices and big portions. Basically, you can't go wrong. And it seems virtually everything, from their tofu cilantro sour cream to their peanut sauce and the mushroom tempeh on their reuben, is made in house (with love), which scores them huge points. I have to admit I've never tried the food at Backspace, but I love the atmosphere -- Korean PC Bang meets art gallery meets hip coffee shop in Old Town. It seems to be overflowing with vegan friendliness and fake-meaty sandwich options, including the upscale and ever-popular Field Roast. Proper Eats and Veganopolis are obvious contenders, and I mention Grand Central Baking not because they have vegan options on the menu as is, but because an ingredient list behind the counter makes it easy to inquire about all their breads. Though a few contain honey, many of their breads are vegan.

Pub Grub

The Bye and Bye, a bar at 10th and NE Alberta, is an obvious first choice with their tasty all vegan menu. I tried the Weeping Tiger Sandwich once and was not disappointed, though I didn't find it as spicy as warned. The meatballs seem to have a legion of fans, though I've heard mixed reviews. This is probably the only bar in Portland you can go to and be assured that all the booze you are drinking is vegan, without having to ask. Hungry Tiger, Too, at SE 12th and Ash has a helpful and informative menu, which allows you to veganize some standard greasy bar fare, including mac and cheese! Dots Cafe has a vegan section on their menu, and Plan B also advertises a few vegan options, including a tasty chili. They have some of the better fries I think I've had, too. Sort of a new comer to the bunch, Edge of Belmont at SE 34th and Morrison is worth mentioning for their happy hour alone. The vegan/vegetarian portion on their menu needs a little help because it doesn't clearly specify which is which, but the fried tofu sticks are awesome, the staff are helpful, and I learned that they use a simple beer batter on their onion rings, which are delicious and super cheap, along with a few other food items, before 6:30 on weekdays. I mention the LaurelThirst Pub almost hesitantly -- B. and I love their house-made spicy veggie burger (which is vegan) and they do have vegan pancakes and a scramble option. I like their food a lot, the only reason I hesitate is that to truly veganize an entire meal you sometimes have to sub (for example, a cup of veggie beans instead of their garlic toast) and they have a policy of charging extra for any substitutions. I feel this alone makes them a little vegan unfriendly, even though they have some tasty vegan menu items. But a good place for a new vegan, none the less.

Breakfast and Baked Goods

The list of options in this category is ridiculously large. As long as you are okay with tofu scramble, it's pretty easy to get a vegan breakfast in Portland --- most menus list the scramble components, so you can easily omit cheese without further inquiry. Stuff like toast gets more complicated. Which is why Sweet Pea Baking and Veganopolis are awesome options to have, as they are %100 vegan. Both have breakfast buffets, Sweet Pea with an all-you-can-eat extravaganza for $10 on Sundays, Veganopolis on the other days of the week, but pay by the pound. Jam on Hawthorne gets special mention for having vegan oatmeal chai pancakes, and being a favorite breakfast destination for many vegans in town -- they are also open early if you want to go before work. Juniors also has clearly vegan options. I'm not even going to start on all the vegan baked goods in Portland. If you really want to know, join us for our Vegan Baked Goods Ride as part of Pedalpalooza, on June 24th. I think Sweet Pea takes the cake (sorry) for best vegan bakery in town simply because they have a spacious coffee shop/retail area and an incredible variety. Black Sheep Bakery is a close second -- though I heard a rumor that they moved from their SE coffee shop with bike-thru window to a location in NE, though this has yet to be reflected on their website. Good chances your favorite coffee shop already stocks some kind of local vegan baked good, and New Seasons and Whole Foods carry many as well. Of course, there's always Voo Doo Donuts.

Asian

It may seem like Asian food should be a no-brainer -- just get tofu, right? Unfortunately, while typically free of dairy, many Asian cuisines incorporate fish sauce even into apparently "vegetarian" dishes. If you really want to be on the safe side, you can visit places like VegeThai on Hawthorne (I've never been there, but they claim to be 100% vegetarian) or the Chinese restaurant on upper Division, Bay Leaf. I was a little underwhelmed by Bay Leaf the one time I went -- definitely tasty and high-quality but kind of expensive with small portions. Vegetarian House in Chinatown is another restaurant that guarantees vegetarian purity. Pho Green Papaya, an off-shoot of the somewhat fancier Green Papaya downtown, has a vegan section on their menu and while their vegan pho lacks the depth of flavor of other variations I have had, it definitely hits the spot at times, and their portions are generous. There are also two 100% vegetarian Vietnamese restaurants in town -- Nhut Quang on NE 82nd and Couch, and Van Hanh near 82nd and SE Division. I think it's amazing and awesome they exist, but I would reserve these for the more adventurous new vegans due both to their far-out locations and less classy atmospheres, and the fact that many menu items utilize wheat-meat.

Pizza

Some people think you can simply order a pizza without cheese and it will be vegan. While this is true of many pizza places, you can't assume it across the board. Luckily, again we have an abundance of vegan options. I think Bella Faccia is our favorite so far, though Pizza A Go Go has the luxury of delivery if you live in inner NE or N. Portland. Hammy's, which I haven't had a chance to try yet, also caters to the vegan crowd, and delivers, though only in inner SE until after midnight, when they expand across the Metro area. Dove Vivi is my favorite for a more upscale, non-New York style slice. Their crunchy cornmeal deep dish with homemade tofu ricotta is a much appreciated labor of love. And of course we can't forget Hot Lips, where you can get an ample, chewy focaccia-like slice topped with an always-delicious rotating seasonal selection of veggies (you can also order a pie for delivery). I want to advise Hot Lips: You know what would really hit the spot after a vegan slice? A vegan cookie. Too often I find myself eying your cookies by the register and feeling neglected. I hear A Beautiful Pizza rocks the soy cheese but my instinct is not to offer a recent vegan fake cheese unless they are really craving it. Truthfully, with few exceptions, I think most fake meat or fake cheese is best eaten by those who have forgotten what the originals taste like.

Miscellaneous

There are a few restaurants that need to be mentioned but don't quite fit a category. Both the Vita Cafe on NE Alberta and Papa G's Organic Vegan Deli on SE Division open relatively early and offer breakfast, such as biscuits and gravy, but have much more to offer a vegan. Both have some tasty comfort food, like Chicken Fried Tempeh at Vita or mushroom stroganoff at Papa G's, and both can be a little pricey, but a great deal if you get the right thing. Papa G's is 100% vegan while Vita offers both vegetarian and meat dishes. Blossoming Lotus on NW Davis is the only place in town to get a vegan icy dessert that doesn't come in a carton -- and their soft serve is addictive. They are also famous for their raw menu. It's a great destination whether you are craving a hearty chili and corn bread or raw fudge.

Whew, that was long! And there are many more. But this proves there are a variety of options in Portland that make being vegan easy, even if you aren't willing to interrogate your waitress.

1 comment:

sandra said...

I want to share a great place where I always shop for organic and gluten free products. WholeAndNatural.com. They have lots of great stuff.