Sunday, July 20, 2008

TRUEBEN: Papa G's Vegan Organic Deli

Papa G's opened several months ago, a few blocks east of Seven Corners. I lived nearby at the time, had just begun this blog, and was very excited about a new vegan dining option as well as the potential for a new reuben. It's a deli, right? And a reuben is a traditional deli standby.

I investigated Papa G's immediately after it finally opened, with somewhat sparse offerings, and sadly dismissed it as an unlikely reuben source. The centerpiece seemed to be their salad bar and hot, by the pound options like mashed potatoes and gravy and quinoa pilaf. Little besides their signature chewy, seasoned tofus graced the refrigerated deli case. I've returned a few times since, enjoying many of their offerings, but feeling a little bittersweet -- if only there were a reuben!

Since then, Papa G's has come into its own, expanding their offerings and instituting specials that make their per-pound options more attractive. A few weeks ago I was there enjoying the bowl special and a root beer float I'd made by combining a few scoops of their Temptation soy cream and a Virgil's root beer, when the word "reuben," like an ethereal whisper snagged my ear. I looked over to the deli case, where some employees were chatting, and was surprised to see that for who knows how long, Papa G's has indeed sold tempeh reubens. The plastic-wrapped sandwiches, almost indistinguishable from the tempeh burgers they rest beside, sit in the long, lower refrigerated case to the right of the hot offerings and cash register, above a variety of chilled salads and desserts I'd never paid much attention to.

B. and I opted to split one, supplementing our lunch with a few other dishes, and finding a seat at one of Papa G's outdoor tables.

Here it is after being unwrapped and warmed up. (Papa G's is sort of cafeteria style, you grab your own silverware and bus your own table, but the cashier/server was kind enough to bring it out to us after warming, which he recommended.)

It's sort of an unassuming sandwich, obviously not on rye but on some sort of savory bun that was a bit crispy around the edges and contained flecks of vegetable or seasoning, but of what my tastebuds couldn't detect. I took a closer look at the insides.

That appears to be a baby dill pickle sliced length-wise and a smattering of their house-made dill sauerkraut. Slicing it in half revealed a more interesting sandwich. The tempeh patty, which I assume is found on their tempeh burger as well, appeared to have seasonings mixed in. The tempeh was cushioned by a creamy layer of dressing. In fact, biting into it, my first thought was, "Wow, this is cheesy and creamy-tasting." If I didn't know Papa G's was 100% vegan, I might have been suspicious. The dressing softened the bun and I actually enjoyed the texture. B. wasn't positive warming up the sandwich had been a good idea, and wished we could compare.

As I expected, I was disappointed by the tiny amount of kraut. Is there a cabbage shortage in this town I'm not aware of? I didn't mind the pickles, but B. thought they were a strange touch. We both noticed a cheesy flavor, at first I thought it was the bread, B. thought maybe it was the tempeh itself, but I'm thinking it was probably the sauce, or a hard-to-see layer of cheesy spread next to the sauce.

I think B. was disappointed by this sandwich, not because it wasn't tasty, but because it didn't seem much like a reuben. The sauce lacked something "reubeny," obviously the bread wasn't rye, and there wasn't much kraut at all. Though I enjoyed the sandwich, I had to agree. It basically seemed like they took a tempeh burger and put some kraut, and maybe a different sauce, on it. I did like that creamy, cheesy taste, even though it wasn't really even reminiscent of a reuben.

I think B. was leaning even lower, but I give this sandwich a 3 out of 5. It's a TRUEBEN, it has some unique flavors and textures going on, everything is made on the premises, and hey, I thought it tasted good. It might be better with more kraut, a tangier sauce maybe in addition to whatever was making it cheesy, and the pickle on the side. All in all, I'm still glad Papa G's delivered on my expectations -- grab one sometime if you are passing through SE and need some quick wholesome vegan grub to go.

Papa G's Vegan Organic Deli
23rd and SE Division

$5.99 gets you a little burger-like tempeh reuben with the pickle on the inside. There are plenty of by the pound options to supplement your meal. Yes, it's pricey, but it's vegan, organic and pretty healthy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Veganization: Reuben at Belmont Station Bier Cafe

If you don't know Belmont Station by now, it's definitely worth a visit, though the most obvious reason to go is beer, not food. This beer store on SE 45th and Stark (formerly located next to the Horse Brass over on Belmont, hence the name) has basically any beer you could want, in the bottle. With their new location, they added a cafe that serves a few hearty sandwiches as well as pub staples such as pita and hummus, and some choice beers on tap. You essentially have the option of drinking any beer on location, though I would probably stick to the draught microbrews or whatever the special is, as the "corking" fee for opening any bottle makes it much more expensive, understandably, than drinking it at home.

I enjoy the convenience of Belmont Station for one-stop beer shopping, especially recently, when I wanted to make a gift of several local microbrew 22s but didn't have the time to visit various individual breweries in town. But I never would have considered the Bier Cafe as a location for this blog, except that I found out, very much by accident, that they have a reuben on the menu that you can order with tempeh. So B. and I tried out a couple sandwiches before stocking up on the aforementioned bottles of beer.

The Belmont Station vegan reuben is a pretty simple sandwich, and this sandwich is actually two steps away from what was originally intended. First you swap the meat on the regular reuben out for tempeh, an option which used to be stated on the menu. I couldn't find it this time, but the guy working was more than happy to make it happen. Then of course you have to omit the dressing and cheese. You're left with a tempeh sandwich with sauerkraut on rye. The bartender/server/cook threw me for a loop by offering to put any assortment of veggies on my vegan reuben, I guess to make up for the austerity of the sandwich. I asked for mustard, and when pressed, allowed him to add roasted red pepper, though it threatened to mess with the equation. What resulted was still simple, but a surprisingly enjoyable sandwich.

For $8 I ended up with a panini-grilled tempeh sandwich with sauerkraut, juicy roasted red pepper, stoneground mustard with a couple pickle spears and some Beer Chips on the side. (Warning to strict vegans: Beer Chips come with all sandwiches at Belmont Station, but I checked one of the bags they sell inside and the chips have both honey and simply 'sugar' as ingredients, so if you don't eat honey or worry about bonechar refined sugar, you might want to skip these.)

I liked the crispiness the panini press lent the sandwich, and it was toasty hot when it arrived. The tempeh, though not marinated or seasoned, appeared to have been sliced crosswise, resulting in a number of smaller pieces that perhaps gave the sandwich a more even flavor. B. was not a fan of the pickle, but I didn't mind it, and over all I was surprised at how satisfying this sandwich was, both in flavor and hunger satisfaction. I wouldn't go out of my way to order it again, but for a simple sandwich, not weighed down with dressing, it was pretty good. The roasted red pepper was unusual, but a nice deviation from the standard mushroom or onion you would normally slap on a reuben. A little veganaise might have brought out the flavor a bit more strongly.

I would give this sandwich a 2.5 out of 5, and kudos to our host who went out of his way to make my sandwich more interesting, even though that wasn't the point. It was extremely edible, and I liked the panini-press effect, but still not anything I would return for, I think. The beer, of course, is the real reason to visit. I had an interesting dark IPA brewed in Gresham, and the lager that was the $3 a pint special wasn't bad at all.

Belmont Station does have some other tasty looking vegetarian sandwiches that could be veganized pretty easily, and they have nice outdoor tables that aren't in too high demand, if you find yourself on upper Stark on a summer afternoon.

So I'm actually writing from Cincinnati, though we visited Belmont Station much earlier this month. I doubt I'll find a tempeh reuben here to write about, even if I had the time (I'm flying out tomorrow before dinner), but B. and I did drive down the Oregon and California coast this past week, and there was a little restaurant we ended up having breakfast at that I feel the need to write about that. In the interest of increasing the vegan pit-stop canon and all that.

If you are ever in Crescent City, CA, looking for a decent vegan breakfast, by all means stop at the Good Harvest Cafe. I don't know the exact address, but it's on the thoroughfare if you are passing through town, on a weird little intersection with a Home Depot behind it. They don't have soy milk lattes or anything, and I don't think anything is straight vegan, but I had a little dish called Tofu Rancheros that I fell in love with. As you might guess, it's basically huevos rancheros with a few little portions of tofu in place of the eggs -- so tofu, black beans, red sauce on a tortilla, with toast (order it dry) and some great potatoes on the side to boot. It usually comes with sour cream and cheese, but I asked for some of their housemade salsa instead, which they subbed happily, and it was delicious. The smaller portion, for 7.95 (versus a 'large' for a buck more), was the perfect amount of food. The only thing that could have made it better was some Stumptown coffee and homemade jam instead of the Knott's stuff. So take that for what it's worth, if you ever find yourself driving south along the water, and you run out of trail mix.