Portland’s dining scene may have earned fame for fish sauce chicken wings and foie gras bon bons, but it is becoming equally known for its adoration of jackfruit bacon and smoked soy curls. A further explosion of vegetable-focused eateries in the past year has considerably changed the landscape.
Since January 2017, Portland welcomed a vegan-dedicated doughnut shop (Doe Donuts), a vegan tiki bar (No Bones Beach Club), a spot specializing in vegan plates eaten by Japanese buddhist monks (Ichiza Kitchen and Teahouse), a guilty pleasure pizzeria (Virtuous Pie), and a vegan take on Israeli food (Aviv). And Portland eateries already served plant-based versions of many cuisines, including vegan sushi or barbecue, Thai, Chinese, Indian, and South American foods.
Could Portland’s plant-based dining scene be leading the nation in its sheer scope of bold vegan flavors? Here are three reasons why Portland’s vegetable-happy food scene is rising to its highest point yet.
Veggies Are Finally Getting Fine-Dining Attention
Big-name chef and restaurateur John Gorham recently described vegan counter Farm Spirit as “one of the only places in Portland worthy of a Michelin Star.” Chef Aaron Adams opened Farm Spirit in 2015, limiting each meal to 14 guests for more of an “intimate dinner party experience.” The rotating menu consists of hyper-local ingredients sourced from less than 105 miles away, with two exceptions: sugar and certain spices.
Farm Spirit takes a minimalist approach when it comes to the menu, as Adams prefers to things simple yet creative. He focuses on just one or two ingredients at a time, and accentuates those flavors. This could include slowly cooking a carrot with alliums, charring it, and then serving it with a side of fruit to balance the sweet and savory components.
“We look at this approach as an opportunity because it forces us to create tastes and textures that are new,” says Adams. “We are not mired [in] making comparisons to this vegan version or that. Each dish it its own thing, so it creates a unique dining experience.”
Meatless Barbecue: No Longer An Oxymoron
Portland has a reputation for massive brunch crowds, yet the lines for popular vegan barbecue joint Homegrown Smoker can be just as crazy. The restaurant serves up a huge selection of smoked faux meat sandwiches, smoked tempeh ribs, and the famous Macnocheeto burrito, an impressive medley of smoked soy curls and vegan mac and cheese. Now a brick and mortar, the business started as a humble food cart serving vegan barbecue sandwiches.
“As far as I know,” says owner Jeff Ridabock, “we were the first all-vegan barbecue in the world and that was 2009. I haven’t had anyone challenge me on that claim.”
Ridabock says the idea for Homegrown Smoker was born after he became vegan yet still found himself craving barbecue. To create that barbecue flavor, he uses traditional techniques and methods when roasting, including real smoke. As a result, vegan barbecue is not attracting only herbivores: Ridabock notes that many of his customers aren’t vegan, but rather are seeking healthier food options.
“Our mission is to bring people healthier dining choices, and this includes omnivores. If the omnivores come and enjoy it, that’s a big win,” he says. “Moreover, Portland is a very welcoming city. If you come in with a good business idea, the community is open to letting it grow.”
Vegan Chefs Are Not Alone Here
Portland is constantly ranked as one of the most vegan-friendly cities. Beyond a talented cohort of vegan chefs, the city harbors numerous chefs who aren’t exclusively vegan but are creating refined vegetable dishes.
One such example is chef Joshua McFadden’s Mediterranean-inspired Tusk, which goes through so much produce it has been dubbed by local farmers as a “vegetable farmer’s black hole”.
“People definitely look at Portland as a vegan destination and see it as a place where one can explore the whole gamut of what’s available,” says Garrett Jones, who co-owns the long-time vegan and gluten-free Back to Eden Bakery with John Blomgren. In 2017 the bakery added a cafe space with expanded menu items such as pizza, a tofu egg sandwich, and vegetable hash. “I’d say there are more vegan menus in Portland than anywhere else,” Jones adds.
The vegan dabbling extends right through to some primo hotel restaurants, not typically considered hubs for meat-free dining. Pan Asian restaurant Departure, atop the swanky Nines Hotel, includes a plant-based section in its menu, and chef Gregory Gourdet also hosts an annual vegan dinner. Gourdet may be known for his time on the relatively vegan-unfriendly Top Chef, yet his wok-fried Brussels sprouts have been named one of the city’s top vegan dishes.
Portland’s status as a vegan hub benefits greatly from the fact that, it’s not only plant-based eateries putting forward such offerings, but a collective of curious and creative chefs who are placing a lot of attention on flavorful vegetable-forward dishes. With vegan dishes (and diets) having successfully crossed over into the broader consciousness, it seems the trend will only continue to move forward.
Courtesy of talented chefs like Aaron Adams, vegan food is moving beyond copycat versions of meat dishes, and this should certainly serve as an example of what Portland‘s food scene is doing right. Portland’s veggie-focused menus don’t just capitalize on flavorful vegetable medleys — they make dining in the city a whole lot more accessible.