Tuesday, June 23, 2009

TRUEBEN: Tempeh Reuben at Chaos Cafe and Parlor

It's clear that I'm amped to be back in Portland, on a mini-summer vacation from graduate school, tying up loose ends so to speak -- that is, hitting those restaurants with vegan reubens I didn't have time to try. Or, in this case, reviewing the reubens that have popped up in my absence. What B. and I didn't expect, upon delving back into this task, is that some truly interesting and innovative reubens have emerged.

While the vegetarian reuben at Nearly Normal's in Corvallis was hearty but a little ho-hum, I was very impressed by Backspace -- it seemed to fill the gap left by Veganopolis' departure by providing an attractive, creative somewhat gourmet reuben but with a bit more substance. Few reubens have achieved the score of 4.5 -- none have achieved the highest possible score of 5, yet, so 4.5 is considered the pinnacle. Previously this was only occupied by the Red and Black Reuben, a sandwich which won us over with its simplicity and price (and of course, taste). After munching on Backspace's smoky, dilly, creamy tempeh reuben I felt we had met a challenger. I did not expect Chaos Cafe to raise the bar even further.

I will start off saying that in theory I love Chaos Cafe, a funky little restaurant on an otherwise fairly unattractive portion of SE Powell. They are similar to the Red and Black in that they are almost entirely vegan, and use mainly organic and local ingredients. Their menu also has a sort of hearty, healthy theme, heavy on the greens and whole grains -- as well as tempeh and tofu. Their menu strikes me as nearly perfect -- I don't think it has a single vegan entree that does not appeal to me. The only downsides are that it's a little more expensive than the Red and Black, and it could quite possible offer the slowest service in Portland (and the Red and Black has recently become a contender for that title as well).

The tempeh reuben is $8.75, and does not come with cheese -- cheese can be added for $1 and avocado can be added for $2. I don't know if they offer vegan cheese, but I wouldn't be surprised, as they have nachos on the menu that come with vegan sour cream in addition to cheese (wouldn't it be counter-intuitive to have vegan sour cream but real cheese?). The sandwich is described as grilled marinated tempeh with caramelized onions, house-made dressing, and sauerkraut on rye. Chaos immediately got points by offering a side salad or chips, like Backspace (Chaos' salad was fresher and more plentiful, I will say). Again, no pickle though.

My first thought upon biting into my half of the very pretty sandwich was, "Woah. No cheese necessary." My second was, "B. is going to love this." And my third was, "Do we have a new #1 sandwich?" The dressing was great, somehow both creamy and drippy-thin, with an oiliness that gave the sandwich an unctous moistness. The cook slathered the dressing on both pieces of bread, which worked well. The bread was a sandwich rye, not too light, and nice and crunchy, and it kept my hands clean. The onions were sweet, a great touch, and didn't overwhelm the kraut. I was also very impressed by the tempeh. Another commonality between this sandwich and the Backspace tempeh reuben was a similar treatment of the tempeh. Instead of keeping the tempeh in a slab, as we often do when we're cooking, and as other restaurants such as Vita Cafe and Nearly Normal's do as well, both Backspace and Chaos broke their tempeh into chunks. The Red and Black does something like this, too. Their tempeh filling is actually a mixture of mushrooms and tempeh. I think this might be a good way to go. Though probably slightly more work in preparation, I think the flavor gets distributed better, and it makes for a more interesting and pleasant mouth-feel when you bite in.

B. shared most of my feelings about this sandwich. He said it was a clear 4.5, tying it with our earlier #1 choice (though he also said he thought this sandwich was better than Backspace, calling into question the 4.5 rating I assigned that sandwich). Yes, it is one of the more expensive reubens we've reviewed, especially if you opted for avocado or cheese, but I'm starting to wonder if the extra price doesn't make it worth it, especially when the restaurant is committed to local and organic ingredients (and a good side salad ups the value as well). While I had virtually no criticisms of this sandwich, B. felt that perhaps the tempeh was unevenly marinated in places, as some chunks were larger and less flavorful than others. Aside from the lack of pickle on the side, this was all around a very satisfying meal. (Followed of course, by a delicious house-made vegan dessert).

Chaos Cafe and Parlor
Corner of SE Powell and 26th

Sunday, June 7, 2009

TRUEBEN: Tempeh Reuben at Backspace


Don't ask me why, but I've been downright obsessed with the tempeh reuben at Backspace for awhile now. I guess because it's been out of reach for so long. But residing in North Carolina has not prevented me from obsessively reviewing the all vegetarian menu of this computer geek oriented cafe in PDF form. Finally, on a sunny Saturday morning, B. and I managed to sit down to what is now one of my favorite reubens in town. Truthfully, this reuben almost gained #1 status is my book. Probably the only real hinderance was the pricyness, though I'll admit, the sandwich isn't perfect.

Almost, though. First of all, Backspace happily veganizes this dish (and many others) without any extra charge. Second, though there is no complimentary pickle, I greatly appreciate that there are options for sides other than corn chips (in this case, green salad or pasta salad) again, with no additional charge. True, the fee is $9 for this wonderful sandwich, and with the price of vegan cheese, this seems reasonable to me (however, some of us, i.e. B. would argue that the vegan cheese added little to the sandwich and should probably be scrapped in favor of avocado anyway).

On to the sandwich. The bread: some of the best we've had, I think. A marble rye that manages to be crispy and flavorful and not taste like it came straight from a plastic bag. The kraut, I'm almost ecstatic. Fresh and crunchy and heavy with dill. The tempeh is nothing to be scoffed at either: extremely flavorful (though maybe a tad too salty), with an assertive, delicious presence despite the fact the portion was a bit more modest than we are used to. I was a fan of the dressing. It's on the creamier side, more like a spread. B. seems to have developed a taste for the runnier dressings, and he thought this sandwich was a little dry, but I had no such complaint. The sandwich was plenty grilled, the bread even slightly charred, which gave it a smoky flavor I enjoyed. Though the cheese was a little odd, unmelted as soy 'rella frequently is, I thought it contributed to the sandwich well, though I could probably be convinced that avocado would be better.

As it is, I wholeheartedly give this a 4.5. I would be tempted to rate it higher, maybe even higher than our erstwhile favorite, the Red and Black Reuben, because of the nice green salad side and the fact that service was fairly prompt and obviously thoughtful. Though the Red and Black is more affordable, I've grown less patient lately with their lackadasical service. The Backspace reuben (also found at the Someday Lounge next door) is as gourmet and carefully prepared as Veganopolis, but definitely feels like more bang for your buck.

115 NW 5th, Old Town Portland
Tempeh reuben with house dill kraut, vegan russian dressing, on marble rye. Swiss cheese or vegan mozzarella.

P.S. Stay tuned for our next review, of a reuben which B. argues is even better, drawing into question the 4.5 point assignment! Portland vegan reuben establishments, you have officially raised the bar, giving our modest yet hearty 'lil Red and Black Reuben, the erstwhile champion, a run for its money.