This past spring, with two weeks to kill in between housesits in Salt Lake City, we decided to drive around the West of the U.S., visiting friends and exploring new places. We may have bit off more than we could chew with the amount of driving, but not the amount of food we consumed on this trip. No regrets, especially when it came to our vegan pilgrimage to Portland, well-known as a vegan haven, and inspiration for the hipster-favorite TV show, Portlandia. People kept telling us to go to Portland, saying that we’d love it – so go we went, and love it we did. From the lush parks to huge bookshops to amazing food, we’ll admit it, we were a little starry-eyed.
Given that we were only in Portland for four days, it would’ve been impossible for us to try every vegan restaurant (there are 33 in the city!), let alone every place that serves good vegan options. So take this not as a definitive guide but a guide to the uniquely Portland vegan eateries that you’ll probably want to try if you only have a few days here. We sought out the places that we couldn’t find in New York – which is saying something, given New York’s own array of vegan restaurants. Needless to say, we avoided vegan chains like The Veggie Grill and Loving Hut. We also didn’t include juice places (they’re everywhere) or places that were out of our budget.
Considering the Italian food we get in NYC is usually covered in a blanket of cheese or tomato sauce, finding quality vegan Italian food is no easy feat. There is one Italian restaurant in New York that has a vegan menu, though we’ve yet to try it based on reviews, price, and atmosphere. Portobello is everything a vegan trattoria should be from the adorable ambiance to the amazing and high-quality food (and affordable too)!
This food is more reminiscent of Northern Italian cuisine. You won’t find the familiar New York metropolitan area staples of dough, red sauce, and cheese, recombined and reconstructed into other things made of dough, red sauce, and cheese, originating from Southern Italy and Sicily. Expect lighter, less gut-busting fare, especially because there’s no animal dairy.
Gnocchi: Super soft, melt in your mouth, potato flour dumplings of love that required no teeth to ingest (they’re that soft). The gnocchi was generously coated in a pistachio pesto and complimented with bits of crunchy broccolini. Veren is a hardcore gnocchi fan, and this gnocchi’d his socks off.
Risotto: Creamy, tenderly cooked kernels of arborio’d astonishment. The savory punch of the mixed, sautéed mushrooms augmented the decadence of this meal.
Crème brulee: This dish was a multi-layered mystery from the crusty caramelized top to the creamy vanilla interior. How did this deliciousness even happen? We couldn’t begin to fathom. The presentation matched the taste, which is no easy task for a vegan dessert.
Cannoli: First off, Veren grew up with a cannoli crew; the leader used to mouth-palm handfuls of cannoli cream for fun. Needless to say, Veren was delighted to try these. The crispy shell was spot on, and the filling was rich and creamy albeit less dense than the real thing. For a vegan dessert, it’s a strong start for a cannoli, but didn’t blow our minds like the crème brulee.
We first came across HSV when sitting outside devouring our cheese plate at Vtopia Cheese Shop, as they’re located next to each other. As we were sitting there, a young mom hopped out of her car with her son, went inside, and returned with a packet of lunch meat for the week. Vegan lunch meat. Only in Portland.
The next day, we headed to Homegrown Smoker’s truck in the Mississippi area of Portland. Side note on food trucks in Portland – they’re a big deal. If you’re new to Portland, you’ll probably be wondering (like us) how you can track down trucks throughout the city. We wondered if we had to turn to Twitter (how food trucks announce their current locations in NYC) or if it went by word of mouth. In Portland though, the trucks are stationary and hang out in specific courtyard areas created just for them. There are many of these areas spread throughout the city, with picnic-table style seating outside. We were a little surprised that this was so popular here considering the generally rainy weather outside of the summer months, but we guess it doesn’t deter Portlanders! Enjoy this brief interlude into the wonders of food trucks and carts in Portland (just a small selection):
Aaand back to regularly scheduled programming at Homegrown Smoker.
We wanted to try everything but it simply couldn’t be done. When carefully deciding what we wanted, priority went to anything homemade. There were a few items that sounded great, like the smoked Field Roast burger, but we have had Field Roast burgers before and can get them fairly easily in select grocery or health food stores.
So we went for the sampler platter, which had barbecued “soy curls”, smoked tempeh, and house made, seitan based ham slices, with hush puppies, coleslaw, and mac and cheese. This was an appetizer meant to be shared by a group, but splitting it down the middle made quite the large lunch.
This was our first time trying “soy curls”, which made us think of Cheetos Puffs, but we’re glad to report that they tasted a million times better than they sounded. The texture is like chewy meat shreds, too chewy to be chicken, but more tender than any pork or beef. If a comparison to meat disgusts you, then just pretend we said tofu.
The sauce on the tempeh ribs was just perfectly barbecue-y, and the tempeh texture was more like a riblet slab than rib. The house made seitan ham slices definitely would hold up better in a sandwich, but a stellar effort nonetheless. The sides really helped give you a break from the smoky-savory “meat”, and held up well on their own. The hush puppies were crispy with doughy soft insides, and the coleslaw was fresh and crispy. The mac and cheese was some of the best we’ve had (and Sam never turns down an opportunity to try vegan mac and cheese)! Nothing was overly spicy, but all were bold and stood out on their own. We attribute the extra oomph to the fact that everything was homemade. Kudos to the proprietors of this fine establishment. Six months later, we’re still drooling about this meal.
Everything at Back to Eden is vegan and gluten free. To attempt such a feat is impressive, but to actually pull it off well is another thing entirely, as baking vegan or baking gluten-free are difficult enough on their own.
We went to their bakery in the Alberta neighborhood of Portland (a cute place to spend an afternoon walking around poking into quirky shops) as a precursor to our mid-afternoon meal before dinner (channeling our inner hobbitses).
The bakery has a few little tables and counter with stools.
Chocolate Chip cookie: Chewy, rich, buttery (margarine-y) and perfectly sweet, we would not mind the world of gluten free if this cookie set the standards.
Tomato kale sunflower cheese tart: The crust was buttery and flaky, with a rich, very cheesy tasting filling, with slightly crumbly texture. It almost qualified as a quiche, and that’s a compliment. We’re not sure what had to happen to make this tart exist, but contemplating this with the meta layer of gluten free, just left us in awe. It tasted that good.
An all vegan cheese shop! Yes, please. We got the cheese plate sampler, which came with way more cheese than we were expecting based on what we would’ve been served in New York. We got generous wedges of five different types of cheeses along with crackers and bread and gorged ourselves on the outdoor terrace.
The cheese came out on a stone platter with several wedges of cheese on top, each with their own distinct texture and flavor. Our favorites were the macadamia and cashew camembert, sun dried tomato brie, and cheddar. To be fair, the names are a bit misleading, as none of these really were like the respective cheeses, yet on their own merits, these were impressively textured and delicious and could hold their own in the echelons of the cheese world. This would compare to cheese from a fancy cheese shop, not your shrink wrapped “cheese” products from the supermarket.
That being said, the nuance in flavor of each cheese was impressive, leading to quite the decadent experience. The owners use a cashew base for practically all the cheeses but vary the culturing agent, leading to a variety of taste and texture in each cheese. Veritable vegan alchemy!
The cheese came accompanied by equally delicious candied walnuts and compote — some sweet to cut through the savory. The bread and crackers were a bit disappointing. Not that we expect the establishment to make everything, or provide an artisan-made bread, but the disparity in quality was noticeable. But since the cheese was so overwhelmingly delicious, we could overlook some subpar bread. Next time we come back we’ll have to try some of their delicious-looking sandwiches or mac and cheese!
Not strictly a vegan spot, but they do offer a homemade cashew milk blend which was quite delicious. Sam’s a serious coffee addict (bordering on coffee snob) and Heart Coffee consistently came up in lists of must-try coffee places. They didn’t disappoint. This was serious coffee. Definitely one of the smoothest, bold yet modest tasting brews to grace our coffee-craving taste buds.
Initially, they gave us a sample of their cashew milk in the manner of one who has the utmost confidence in their product. In return, we can say with the utmost confidence that they earned every bit of it. The only way to get fresher cashew milk would be to have the cashew tree branch reaching through your window, generously dripping its life fluid into your cupped palms. Or keep a pet cashew cow in your bedroom which you milk every morning.
Bonus points: We went to their Westside location, which had outdoor seating that was perfect for people watching and resting tired feet after a long day of exploring.
Vita Café (not all vegan)
Vita Café was the only not-all-vegan place that we ate at; we just couldn’t say no to vegan comfort food. In our experience in the past (and here), vegetarian and even non-vegetarian places do vegan food very well, because they are comparing the “real” thing (aka meat or dairy) to the substitute more directly. Also, these places are great when you’re looking for somewhere that is meat friendly to share a meal with friends. Most of Vita’s menu is vegan/vegetarian though, with many gluten free options. All meat and dairy products are eco-friendly.
Sam ordered a chicken fried tempeh steak and Veren the club sandwich. Both were excellent. The tempeh was a heavy duty slab, with a generously batter dipped, fried crisp coating, resting on top a pile of fresh cut fries (the fries originally got our attention when we walked by earlier and peered through the window), slathered in gravy. This is a gut buster, so don’t plan on making any plans after.
The club sandwich was everything we missed about a club sandwich; the three layers of bread, the tempeh bacon, and the seitan turkey with a schmear of mayo and avocado all brought a sense of belonging. The bread was toasted golden, only rivaled by the sun, and felt just as warm in our bellies.
Black Water Bar is fairly new to the vegan scene in Portland, and when we heard that there was a vegan metal bar we had to check it out. Upon entry, Veren was struck with the most unabashed incredulity, impressed by the seemingly metal appearance, yet fully vegan menu. However, with more time, we quickly realized this was a regular haunt, so if you’re not a frequenter of the scene, expect to feel like a tourist. When Veren asked to buy a t-shirt with the bar’s name and something presumably metal-looking on it, the bartender laughed directly in his face. Henceforth, Veren has been much less impressed.
We did indulge a few items from their menu, and overall, it was an admirable effort. To be honest, we were spoiled by the previous Portland forays, so pardon our vegan pretension.
Someone had claimed online that they weren’t vegan and could not believe the burger was not made of meat. This is a description apt for something like the Impossible Burger, or the Beyond Meat Burger, but not this. It was a solid burger, but there was no hiding the veggies. You can expect something better than any pan-fried previously frozen product, but definitely nothing mind blowing.
The best items were their mozzarella bites/jalapeño poppers. They were essentially the same thing, except one has jalapeño. The outside breading was crusty, and the filling was gooey and salty like mozzarella, but not nearly as stringy.
Solid fare, in a too cool for school atmosphere.
We stumbled upon this place on our way to Homegrown Smoker’s cart. Naturally, Smoothie King Veren had to have a try. Moberi first got its start on entrepreneur TV show Shark Tank, and while we don’t know if everyone will love this as much as Veren did, the bike-powered blender was quite an experience.
Normally, the employees will pedal for you, but more often than not, the customers insist. You will be surprised how much power you need to blend your smoothie. Full speed ahead, pedaling as fast as you can for sixty seconds.
Veren’s quadriceps almost ripped through his pants.
Veren wants one at home someday, so even if the power goes out, he’ll have his daily smoothie.
There were simply too many places to try them all in the few days that we were there! Places we didn’t try (among many others): The Sudra (vegan Indian), Next Level Burger (supposedly amazing burgers), The Bye and Bye (many people recommended this vegan bar but once a place has too many veggie bowls we start to lose interest – we make them at home all the time)…and surely others. Next time!!
What else did we miss? Let us know in the comments so we can be sure not to miss them next time!